The saloon doors swing open, and Emily Pichette steps into the small kitchen of the Foundry in Northampton. A wave of sound follows her from the dining room: murmuring, laughter, and clinking glasses. “Are we ready for the first course?” she asks.
The staff turns to Brendan Walker, who stands in front of a large metal refrigerator, his arms folded loosely in front of him. Walker, 26, glances around the kitchen through his thick frame glasses, scanning for anything he has missed.
Behind his head, tacked to the fridge, is a print-out of tonight’s five-course menu. It might as well be a cartoon thought bubble, detailing each item on Walker’s mental checklist. The kitchen can’t send out the first course until the following four courses are mid-preparation, set to complete in the right order over the next three hours.
“I think so,” he says. He turns to his fellow chef, Walker Widner, 35, who stands with his hands on his hips. “Aren’t we?”
“Yeah, man,” says Widner, nodding. “We’re ready.”
“All right,” says Walker. “Let’s go.”
Widner and Walker push through the doors and step out into the dining room. They are met with applause from their 24 guests, each of whom paid $110 to be here tonight. It’s 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 9. Dinner by the Hush and Proper is about to begin.
Walker’s idea for a pop-up dinner service is defined, in many ways, by what it is not. The group, which he founded in the spring, is not a restaurant. They have no phone number, no regular hours, and no place of business. They serve dinner once every two months or so, each time in a different location. When they do throw a dinner, entry is by invitation only. There is no check, and no tipping — patrons pay in advance.
But the group also strives not to be too exclusive. Although partaking in these meals costs much more than a normal dinner out, Walker says he sets the price of admission simply to cover food and alcohol costs, with little money left over.
“I don’t intend to make a killing off of this,” Walker told me back in March, in advance of the Hush and Proper’s first dinner. “I’m not trying to quit my job. This is just a fun thing to do.”
Walker grew up in Belchertown, then moved to Boston, where he worked in kitchens that are part of the city’s fine dining scene. He kept that passion for restaurant work when he returned to Western Mass (he is now a line cook at 30Boltwood Restaurant at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst).
But something was missing. Walker has spent the past few months finding collaborators and teasing out the idea of a pop-up dinner group, which affords him creative control and the chance to make new friends, write new menus, and think up new recipes. His name for the company combines a hush-hush attitude toward publicity with a term used among kitchen staff as the highest compliment (as in: “that’s a proper meatball”).
He hesitates even to call this a business venture. “This is what we do for fun, and we’re starting a community around it,” he says. “We’re not going for white-glove service. I don’t want a table of high-rolling guys who have money to burn. I just want people to hear about us, or see us on Facebook, and get in touch. I want to be accessible.”
Partly, the mission is to showcase the efforts of local farmers and growers. It is partly to bring some creative new food to the area. But Walker also sees this as a chance to offer Valley food lovers a unique night out — “a more comfortable experience,” he said, “where you’re really taken care of. It’s like you’re coming to our home, and we’re taking care of you.”
That sounds simple — except, of course, it’s not. This dinner at the Foundry is the Hush and Proper’s third, and each venue has thrown a few curveballs at Walker and his team. Since they are nomadic, they bring the kitchen with them, like culinary backpackers. This emphasis on portability got them through their kick-off dinner at the Eastworks building in Easthampton in March, followed by dinner at Sutter Meats in Northampton in late May.
At the Foundry, for the first time, the group is presented with an actual restaurant kitchen. That’s where Walker and Widner are milling around, wearing matching black Hush and Proper T-shirts, when I meet them during dinner prep.
“Well, this is cute back here,” I say.
Walker smiles grimly. “It’s tiny.”
“We’ll make it work,” says Widner, extending his hand to shake mine. “I’m excited. It’s going to be really great.” He turns back to the counter, where he is setting up a little MSR Isopro camping stove. They have this to cook with, plus the Foundry’s induction burner and a small oven that can hold half sheet pans. That’s it.
It’s not exactly a high-powered set-up, considering what’s on the menu. The first course is sliced local heirloom tomatoes with fresh-made butter and bread from Small Oven Bakery in Easthampton. The second course is raw fluke with lemon and lime zest, served with yellow watermelon, chili oil, ginger vinaigrette, and edible flower petals.
Next comes pork from Hilltown Grazers farm in Williamsburg, served as a roulade with cornbread, Swedish brown beans, and a nectarine barbecue sauce. The fourth course is pheasant served with succotash, grilled peaches, and a thick, creamy corn emulsion. For dessert: coffee rum ice cream with an absinthe creme anglaise.
If cooking for a crowd constitutes a sport, it’s probably juggling. And as guests start to arrive, settling in at a long wooden table to enjoy the introductory gin cocktail, the punchy energy backstage is palpable. Walker, Widner, and their colleague Sarah Klein are slicing bread, cutting peaches, cubing watermelon, counting hunks of cornbread, heating beans, and prepping pheasant while teammates Scott Latham and Chris Hart organize the serving station and bar area alongside servers Molly Dorson and Natasha Kislyuk.
Widner looks for a blender to prep the corn emulsion. There is only a two-cup food processor that looks like it came out of a dorm room. “What is this?” Widner mutters, plugging it in. “It’s like Barbie’s first blender.”
Walker passes by Emily Pichette, who is headed to the bar to help coordinate the serving of tonight’s drinks, each one paired to a course. They smile at each other. One week from today, they will be married.
As he squeezes past me, he presses his hand to my hip. “You’re going to be touched a lot tonight,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Kitchen culture is manic, close-contact, and unapologetically crass, with much affectionate name-calling and teasing.
Walker examines the legs, thighs, and breasts of pheasant, which are headed for the oven. “Are there still a couple of feathers on those?”
“Yeah,” says Klein.
“Well,” says Walker, “at least they’ll know it’s fresh.” He and Widner bought the birds live from Fullflight Game Farm in Bernardston, then plucked, gutted and broke them down themselves. Some of the feathers are decorating the dining table out front.
A few minutes later, upon further examination of the Foundry’s kitchen, Walker says, “Woah, look!” He holds up a blow torch. “I cannot believe they have this.” With a half-minute of free time, they decide to try a brulee on the peach slices. Walker sprinkles raw sugar on the shining flesh of the fruit, then fires up the torch. With the jet of blue flame, he gives the peach a top layer of crispy burnt sugar. “Excellent. That’ll work,” he says.
Widner lights the campstove and opens Tupperware containers of pre-made elements, like the brown beans and the succotash, while Walker figures out the logistics of the bus bins, which will arrive full-up at the industrial dishwasher at five busy points in the evening.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives. Walker and Widner send out the first course, then walk out to say hello. The boulder starts rolling down the hill. There’s no going back.
When the applause dies down, they thank the guests for coming. “We found almost everything you’re eating tonight within 15 miles of here,” says Widner. “Everything’s tasting really good, so we’re glad you’re here to enjoy it.”
Tonight’s beers, Walker explains, were selected by Foundry owners Sally Noble and Sonny Han, and the menu has been designed around the drinks, rather than the other way round. The first beer is a slightly-sour “gose” imported from Leipzig, Germany. Han explains this to the table as Walker and Widner head back to the kitchen to prep the fluke.
Widner begins slicing watermelon radishes, which are brightly colored with streaks of red and green. He hands me a shaving to taste. “It’s a really beautiful, peppery radish,” he says. “A little sweet, too. It’s raw seafood, so we wanted to give them a little texture with it.”
The fish is paired with Flor Z, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale brewed in Chelsea. That beer comes in corked bottles, which means the ensuing chatter from the guests is punctuated by loud, celebratory pops.
Once the second course goes out, Walker finally tastes the pre-dinner cocktail and takes a deep breath. Then he meets Widner, Klein, and the others outside for a smoke.
In the back alleyway, they agree that things are running smoothly. “The pacing’s right on par,” Walker says, scuffing his sneaker on the pavement and taking a drag. “You’ve got to learn each space, but we’re all comfortable working together at this point.”
Walker and Widner have worked together at 30Boltwood for a year and a half, and Widner has been cooking with Klein for nearly a decade. Even so, this is Widner’s first dinner with the Hush and Proper.
I ask him how it’s going. He says he’s having a blast. “I mean, it’s kind of like cooking out of a closet,” he says. “Given that, I think we’re doing pretty well.”
Back inside, Widner’s attitude changes. He frowns at the portions of roasted pheasant, which are spread in a pan and seasoned with thyme. “It’s kind of bland, isn’t it?” he says to Walker. “Let’s get that cutting board and spread the meat out. We’ll salt it and throw it back in the oven. Probably should have braised all of it, honestly.”
Walker tries a bite and agrees. “We’ll finishing-salt all these, and that will get us there. I think this is delicious.”
“I’m nervous about it,” says Widner, shaking his head. “Should have braised it.”
“It’s a pop-up, baby,” says Walker. “We’ll get there.”
Pichette sticks her head in, checking on the prep for the pork roulade. “Should we start pouring beers yet?”
“Yeah, fuck it,” Walker says. “How do we want to plate that? A swoosh of barbecue, then beans down the swoosh, then belly and corn bread decorating around the beans?”
“Yep,” replies Widner. “Start layin’ it down.” He turns to me, holding two extra slices of spiralled pork in front of his eyes, like meat goggles. “Hey, take a photo of this for the paper.”
“Dude, they’re never going to run that,” says Walker. Then he turns to me, holding up a hunk of pork dipped in nectarine barbecue sauce. He has placed a large brown bean and a green pickled cucamelon on top. “Try this,” he tells me. “Put the whole thing in your mouth. That’s the whole plate, right there.”
The pork arrives on the communal table paired with a smoky German lager. The pheasant is served alongside a saison beer brewed in Portland, Maine. Guests also receive small glasses of something more unusual: tomato water, made by pulsing tomatoes and marinating them with pureed raw garlic, shallots, herbs, and salt, then draining the liquid through cheesecloth and chilling it. It’s surprisingly delicious.
By the time the pheasant course is cleared, the two dozen diners look very well fed.
Deepall Maheshwari and Ben Church live right around the corner. Maheshwari tells me that when she moved to Northampton from Brooklyn last year, she searched Valley event calendars for all things food-related. She signed up to attend tonight’s dinner through Facebook.
Pop-up dinners like this are much more common in the city, she says. “They utilize spaces that you don’t always think of as dinner spaces, and they allow chefs to really showcase what they love.”
“We’re being exposed to some really cool tidbits here,” says Church, who particularly liked the fluke dish. “I normally don’t buy pheasant — that was great. And I had no idea that cucamelon was a thing.”
Guest Mike Manning came in from Belchertown. He says that he had never tried fluke before, and found it light and clean — not too fishy. “I just love the local angle they’re taking,” he says. “I don’t often get a chance to have good local meat and fish. Whenever I can, I like to put my time and money toward that.”
Mike Schilling is seated on the opposite end of the long table. He particularly liked the yellow watermelon in the first course, soaked in ginger and chili oil. Schilling works at Provisions, the specialty food and wine shop in Northampton, which plans to provide the Hush and Proper with some local cheeses for future dinners. Walker stopped in, Schilling says, and they started chatting. “I loved the concept,” he adds. “I had to come by.”
His wife Jordana Starr nods and smiles. “The local food in this area is so good,” she says. “Everything is delicious. I’m so glad I came.”
After introducing the coffee rum ice cream dessert, served with a hot cup of brewed Hadley-based Share Coffee, Walker and Widner lead the group in a big round of applause for the Foundry. The next dinner is in the works, they say, so keep those eyes peeled.
“And please don’t rush out of here,” Walker says. “We’d love to shoot the shit with you guys. So hang out and enjoy.”
Back in the kitchen, Widner calls the group into a huddle. He is grinning impishly. “You guys wanna eat ice cream sandwiches?”
Server Molly Dorson, who is lactose-intolerant, picks up a brick of ice cream cookie and studies it. “Man,” she says, “I’m not going to be right for, like, a week after this.” But she indulges, as do we all. A brief hangout follows, full of laughter. For the first time tonight, everyone relaxes.
“Thank you so much, guys,” Walker says, pushing up his glasses and wiping his hands. “Thank you so much.”
It was a long evening for the Hush and Proper — more labor-intensive, in fact, than the previous two dinners, Walker tells me later. “If we’re not a little stressed out about the menu items — if we’re not making these new challenges for ourselves every time, then what the hell are we doing this for?”
It’s about pushing a chef’s creative mind to new places, he explains. “How many people are we perfectly comfortable with serving? Let’s add 10 seats to that number. Are we comfortable with three courses? Let’s do five. I don’t ever want someone to come to our dinners and say it was just like last time. We’ve got to exceed expectations.”
It’s still becoming clear what exactly that means. Maybe, Walker says, the Hush and Proper will eventually do more than pop-up dinners. “We could do more home kitchens. We could work for hire. I don’t know yet. But if it means cooking creatively, working for myself, and making some money, then I want to find out.”
That creative opportunity is why Widner agreed to come on board. A week after the Foundry dinner, he tells me that challenges are a chef’s best friend.
“The mantra in our line of work is: adaptation,” he says. “Not everything goes as planned. You’ve just got to be flexible and deal with things on your feet. I love that.”
During this past dinner, that meant adjusting the succotash recipe at the last minute based on what local farms had in stock. It meant scrapping plans to compress the watermelon with chili oil in a vacuum sealer to boost the level of spice. And it meant, somehow, whipping up great food with a toy blender and a camping stove.
“In a normal restaurant setting, you think days ahead,” he says. “You have food left over from yesterday. You know how things are going to go. But we have none of that walking in — plus we have full-time jobs to work around.”
But there is calm to be found in the storm, he adds. “We love food, and we love sharing that with people. Cooking in restaurants is stressful enough as it is. Might as well have a good time doing it.”
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.