Big Things Poppin’: Pop Up Restaurants Hit Wilmington
Port City Pop-ups delivers an untraditional dining experience in an extraordinary way.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mark Steelman
An eager crowd is crammed outside of Dixie Grill on the evening of November 5. It is the fourth meal in a series of pop-up dinners by celebrated local chef Jeffrey Porter, and excitement is high. Everyone knows they are in the presence of something special.
Chefs are typically found in a single, stationary kitchen, but Porter isn’t your typical food dude. He’s taking the Wilmington grub game by storm and spreading his culinary flair all over town.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, pop-ups are ticketed, one-time dining events in unexpected locations. The menus tend to have a noteworthy theme, and patrons often get a personal interaction with the chef. These meals are geared toward experimental diners who crave trendy, innovative eating experiences.
But it’s not all unicorns and rainbow chard. These feasts are no easy feat — and Porter assures me that if cooking didn’t bring him such joy, this would just be a lot of hard work.
“Trust me. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it,” he declares with a wholehearted chuckle.
For him, the adrenaline rush is where it’s at, and when staff members bail out and more customers walk in, that’s the moment of truth. “They don’t teach you how to deal with that,” he reminds me. Mix a packed house with a sold-out event and season it with a pinch of kitchen chaos — and you’ve got the recipe for Porter’s passion project.
Porter describes his unique venture as being chef driven and patron fueled. He strives to bring his loyal following exceptional, over-the-top dishes, and he’s propelled by the notion that eating should be an exciting encounter.
Tonight’s pop-up is not his first at “the Dixie,” as locals call it; since the restaurant shuts down for dinner, it’s an ideal spot for an evening pop-up event.
Thanks to a longtime friendship with Dixie Grill owner Brian Mayberry, who took over the nostalgic eatery almost 15 years ago, Porter is well accustomed to the diner’s equipment. He also occasionally lends a hand in the kitchen, making the Dixie a convenient and familiar space to pop into at any time.
Port City Pop-ups began as a vehicle for supporting and exhibiting up-and-coming players in the food world, like Porter’s buddy Will Bystrzycki from Highlands Country Club, who is partnering on this November dinner.
The beauty of pop-ups is that they allow talented chefs like Bystrzycki the opportunity to expose their ingenuity and style without the cost and commitment of buying their own brick and mortar space. The two chefs split the menu down the middle, and Porter was able to showcase Bystrzycki’s talent while also getting him out of his comfort zone. The event sold out. Mission accomplished.
To get an understanding of Porter, let’s throw it back to the early days. After graduating from The New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont (television personality Alton Brown’s alma mater), Porter gained hands-on training under other professionals. His impressive resume includes a stint with local entertainment industry go-to Cinema Catering, where he mastered the art of cooking in bulk. He worked his way up to executive chef at Wrightsville Beach staple Bluewater, and was eventually plunked into various other kitchens. This bounce-around made him realize that he was simply being inserted where a chef was needed, which led to the realization that he would always be following someone else’s rules.
He found that working in regimented kitchens made him lose his sense of creativity, and thus began the search for another filter to feed his community.
Food television jumpstarted Porter’s outside-of-the-kitchen idea for elaborate ticketed dinners. He was watching a program featuring a New Yorker on a mission to launch a two-top, pop-up project when a spark was lit. Porter grabbed his spatula and took a leap of faith. As someone who loves an outrageous challenge, he found out that the high-intensity build up and eruption of these one-time events was right up his alley.
Although working in the Port City has been an influential part of his career, he sharpened his artistic abilities in the mountains of North Carolina. At Highlands Country Club, under the tutelage of Certified Executive Chef Bryant Withers (whose title is not easy to attain), Porter has honed in on his culinary skills. He gets to play with different products that he says, “you just can’t get away with in Wilmington.” Livers, veal cheek, venison racks, to name a few. Although at the private club he’s taken a step back to sous chef, he’s absorbed more in his field than ever before. “I’ve added bigger tools to my already full toolbox,” he says.
At Highlands, he’s also been exposed to simplified Southern cooking methods like a mind-blowing brined and Texas Pete-bathed fried chicken. As a result of Withers’ Le Cordon Bleu certification and the French influence of the club’s menu, Porter has been through his very own version of Julie & Julia.
As far as flavor profiles for his ongoing pop-ups, Porter allows local ingredients to be the star. He sources produce, seafood and meat from farms spanning the state. This time of year he’s a sucker for chilly-season items like oysters and root veggies. One of his favorite fall dishes at the November Dixie pop-up is a spring roll stuffed with julienned sweet potato and smoked, pulled turkey.
As for what lies ahead, Porter is a man with a plan. He’s already locked in Burnt Mill Creek in Wilmington for an upcoming dinner. There will be a three-piece jazz band called Keith Butler trio and a food truck with an Asian-fusion flare. On his list of future foodie partner hopefuls is local celebrity kitchen wizard Chef Keith Rhodes of Catch Seafood. His metaphorical wheels are spinning for a Port City Pop-Up food truck as well.
With a successful business sprouting endless possibilities and a rejuvenated spirit in the kitchen, Porter is unstoppable. He hopes to grow the crowd — table for 800, anyone? — and elevate himself to new heights. Keep your eyes open, Wilmington, because with a soul full of ambition and his fans rooting him on, who knows where this courageous chef will pop up next?
You can find more information at portcitypop-ups.com. If you’re anxiously anticipating the next event, snag your tickets as soon as possible; each one unfailingly guarantees a full house.
Port City Pop-Ups keeps its meals exciting by constantly changing the menu and venue.
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