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Rise of the pop-ups

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Nate Harbison isn't your typical aspiring chef, but there's nothing typical about starting a pop-up restaurant in Missoula. He doesn't have much culinary pedigree. He has never owned a restaurant. He counts tacos among the great food inventions of human history. None of these things should surprise you. He's still qualified for the gig.

Pop-up restaurants wear many different masks. They happen in people's homes, in unoccupied commercial spaces and abandoned buildings. The meals, usually dinner, are often for small groups of people who purchase tickets in advance, and when the food is finished, so too is that iteration of the restaurant. (Increasingly, though, celebrity chefs are opening pop-ups that stay in one place for weeks or even months.) Like brunch burgers, gourmet toast and food trucks, pop-up restaurants were a food trend in Portland 10 years ago, so, naturally, we are now ready for one in Missoula.

This is a good thing not only for Missoula diners, but also for people like Harbison—people who are passionate about food, but also relatively new to the game and understandably reticent about investing in a restaurant, truck or cart.

"You need to put so much money into a restaurant, and so many of them fail," he says. "I just want to get my food out to people. I want to get their feedback and see what they like and what they don't."

A pop-up, then, is the perfect place to start.

It wasn't until just a few years ago that Harbison started thinking about food and cooking seriously. "I'd just moved to Missoula, and I spent most of my days babysitting my girlfriend's son," he says. "I was just bored, so I started cooking."

Harbison, 29, had few culinary skills when he began cooking at home. Though he'd worked in kitchens before, much of his know-how came from his mom, who was an unremarkable cook. "The few things she taught me, they weren't bad," he says. "It was just the plainest food."

PHOTO COURTESY OF BLK/MKT
  • photo courtesy of BLK/MKT

In the beginning, Harbison followed recipes line-by-line, but soon began tweaking them. Growing up in northern California, he loved to paint and draw, and while he doesn't consider himself "the greatest artist," he's always found inspiration in color. When he realized cooking was a lot like art—ingredients in a recipe are just paint on a palette—he gained the confidence to make the recipes his own.

"I realized that I could rearrange the food and that that could make it completely different," he says. "It's a painting on a plate."

About a year ago he got a job working at the Dinosaur Café in the rear of Charlie B's bar. He likes working there, but cooking a menu as entrenched in Missoula culture as the Dino's doesn't leave much room for creativity. So last fall, after a visit to San Diego, Harbison was inspired to research other avenues to introduce people to his food.

BLK/MKT (Black Market) hasn't officially launched yet, but Harbison hopes to begin a regular Friday dinner service in the next month or so. Though he's not sure exactly how BLK/MKT will operate (one of the advantages of being a pop-up), he initially plans to offer weekly or monthly memberships. After signing up, members will receive emails detailing where and what Harbison will be serving that week. He says it could be anywhere from a private home to a vacant commercial space. The experience will change each week (the food, he points out, will be prepared in a commercial kitchen and served at that week's location).

And as for the food, if the photos on BLK/MKT's Facebook page are any indication, Missoula will be glad to have, what I believe to be, its first true pop-up. Sidewalk pad thai, a venison meatball sub (pictured above), pineapple shrimp ceviche—Harbison's food looks both elegant and straightforward, equally suited for first dates and nursing hangovers.

"I'm not going to have a theme with this ... I just want to cook really good food for regular people. And at this point, I just want people to try my food," he says. "By any means necessary."

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