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Thursday 15 November 2018

Meet the duo behind Dublin's latest pop-up dining experience

pop dinner
pop dinner

Running a pop-up restaurant is probably not for the easily deterred. "I was fit to stop after the last one," admits Etienne Pittion, one half of the crew behind Dublin's latest series of pop-up dining experiences, Centime Markett.

At their third and most recent event in a city-centre café, Etienne and his partner in pop-ups, Mark Kelly, discovered at the very last minute that the plancha grill they were about to cook on was about 12 hours away from being hot enough. The answer? Pass us over that sandwich maker.

"There's 40 people downstairs waiting for their starters," Etienne recalls. "And I'm there cracking quail eggs into shots glasses so I don't break them and pouring these shots glasses of quail egg onto a pannini machine to fry them."

The starters got served, and the rest of the meal too, and the whole thing went down a treat. But it did raise the 'why do this?' question.

Even without last-minute curveballs, the sheer hours of organisational input don't easily balance against what you can realistically charge the average pop-up punter.

rest
rest

The €50 per head for Centime Markett's North Great George's Treat dinner this coming Saturday only goes so far when you take into account venue hire, waiters' wages and food costs.

Etienne has spent weeks devising what will be a four-course harvest feast, which kicks off with a negroni cocktail on arrival, and fine-tuning dishes such as Crowes pork fillet, cooked sous vide with orange zest, star anise and garlic and rolled in powdered charcoal-burnt onion to add colour and texture.

He has drafted in the experience of chef Billy Scurry to tease out how to deliver these dishes to over 50 people in a makeshift kitchen which was recently used as a filming location for Penny Dreadful.

"It's a lot of work for very little return over just four hours," Etienne agrees. So, why do they do it?

"Primarily, we just love making food and running nights. I've wanted to cook all my life, and I've never had the opportunity."

Indeed, that last pop-up was "the first time ever in my life that I've cooked a hot service in a professional kitchen," he says, still looking slightly shell-shocked at the thought.

Despite neither being professional cooks, Mark points out that what they do have is a shared background "in being organised and in logistics, from having travelled or toured with the music industry".

He reckons those skills are crucial to the longevity of the pop-up project. "A lot of pop-ups haven't gone beyond the second one," he says. "They've had one or two and disappeared."

Mark has a point. Whether the work involved has put people off or paid off, pop-ups by their nature tend to come and go. John Wyer and Sandy Sabek's The Supper Club Project became Forest Avenue restaurant. Dates for Ciaran Sweeney and Mark Moriarty's Culinary Counter have been rare ever since Moriarty was crowned the world title of S Pellegrino Best Young Chef.

Cúán Greene and Harry Colley of Dublin Pop Up are so busy with corporate bookings that they "literally don't have the space" in their calendar to do a pop-up. Mark says that himself and Etienne, on the other hand, are "already planning for three or four down the line".

The pair first met 20 years ago while working backstage at a gig for Dublin band, Blink. Etienne went on to travel the world with bands like the Stone Roses, before married life brought him back to Ireland where he became a buyer for Hugo Boss and sold made-to-measure suits in Brown Thomas.

Mark also worked as a fashion buyer (his own father was a tailor and his mother a window dresser for Woolworths) before falling into DJing by way of 'Elvis loves Eggs', a brunch club he ran with Dubliner Aidan Kelly. "It was one of the first in town to do that kind of thing: offer a brunch menu and cocktails with a turntable in the corner."

Since then, restaurants and music have remained common themes in his working life. ("It's that famous thing of, 'Oh, you're in a band, so what restaurant do you work in?'" he jokes).

Fast forward a couple of decades and Mark and Etienne found themselves swapping war stories from the music, fashion and food industries over a glass of wine in Ukiyo, where Mark is daytime restaurant manager as well as a regular DJ by night.

They discovered not only a mutual love of good food, but a shared conviction that Irish produce is "some of the best in the world". That commitment to sourcing seasonally and locally is now central to what Centime Markett do.

They are enjoying building up relationships with "brilliant suppliers" like Crowes of Tipperary, Kish Fish of Smithfield and Garden of Eden herb growers in Wicklow. "They are so fresh compared to herbs flown in from Israel or Italy."

And having spent his childhood holidays eating just-picked produce straight out of his French grandparents market garden, Etienne learnt at an early age the difference that freshness makes to flavour.

Sourcing locally can have its challenges, including the expense. "But the more Irish people buy Irish produce," Etienne believes, "the more it incentivises the growers. And the more they grow, the cheaper it becomes."

As for their own long-term plans, Mark and Etienne are happy to see what Centime Markett evolves into. But for the next few months at least, they plan to host a pop-up every four weeks.

Follow Mark and Etienne on Twitter at @centimemarkett to keep updated on where they'll pop up next

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