techlife magazine: Mithalee Rawat explains the art of the pop-up restaurant

As part of my communications gig at NAIT, I occasionally contribute to the school’s techlife magazine. The print editions publish twice a year, and then there are new articles added to the website year-round.

Mithalee Rawat explains the art of the pop-up restaurant
published August 2013 as a techlife magazine web exclusive

by Linda Hoang

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Imagine sitting down to a gourmet dinner that was all organic, 90-per-cent local, and made completely from scratch.

Mithalee Rawat (Business Admin ’05, Culinary Arts ’11) describes that as the stuff of a “utopian restaurant” that simply wouldn’t be sustainable as a business. But the 26-year-old says as a one-time, exclusive pop-up restaurant, it works – and it can be a great way for an up-and-coming chef to get ahead.

So that’s exactly what she did earlier this summer at Vegetarian Nouvelle, her first pop-up restaurant. Rawat teamed up with chefs Matthew Helstein of Cibo Bistro and Sheldon Polowick (Culinary Arts ’10) of Canteen — current members of a culinary collective she calls Ration — for the five-course vegetarian pop-up, which was held July 24 at Sabzy Persian Grill on Whyte Avenue and attracted almost 50 diners.

A pop-up is a one-time event at a venue that doesn’t offer what the pop-up does. Some restaurants hold regular events that feature different menus and call it a pop-up, but, as Rawat sees it, the concept requires that a chef or a group completely take over someone else’s venue and offer a unique menu for their own paying guests.

“Pop-ups are a good way to do something really niche, really exclusive, really special, and really crazy even,” says Rawat. “When you’re making a special menu, the world is your oyster.”

For Vegetarian Nouvelle, Rawat wanted to take on the challenge of creating a vegetarian menu that would even impress meat lovers. “I was just super inspired by the scene right now,” says Rawat, who isn’t a vegetarian herself, but has noticed increased local demand for vegetarian and vegan options.

In addition to giving her a sense of what it’s like to run her own restaurant, Rawat believes holding the pop-up with Ration has helped build her identity in the community. She currently works as head chef of Pangaea Market, an organic food store and delicatessen in downtown Edmonton. She enjoys it, but misses working with gourmet, plated meals, which is her culinary background and passion.

After paying Sabzy what it would have made on its own for the night, Rawat broke even on her pop-up. She says Vegetarian Nouvelle was a success despite not making a profit, because she isn’t in it for the money.

“It was a very selfish thing,” she says. “I just wanted to do the pop-up for fun and wanted to show it can be done. I wanted to show off my skills.”

And she’d do it again. Rawat plans to do pop-ups on a somewhat consistent basis (let’s call them persistent pop-ups). She’s aiming to do at least two per year, so expect one more from her before this year is up. “I want to do a five-course Indian dinner with each course being from a different region of India.”

In keeping with the concept, however, when and where it will happen is anyone’s guess for now. Luckily, that spontaneity suits the often chaotic nature of Rawat’s profession.

“We’re cooks and our lifestyles are really not conducive to being consistent at anything,” she says with a laugh. “We all have so many different projects so to put down a date doesn’t usually work.”

Recipe: Vegan Creamy Almond Basil Spread or Dip


250 ml (1 cup) raw almonds
175 ml (3/4 cup) mild extra virgin olive oil
125 ml (1/2 cup) water
2 clove garlic (1 if organic*)
45 ml (3 tbsp) lemon juice (fresh whenever possible)
5 ml (1 tsp) sea salt or Himalayan pink salt
5 ml (1 tsp) black pepper (2 ml (1/2 tsp) if organic)
250 ml (1 cup) fresh basil

1 high-speed blender (like Vitamix or Blendtec)

*Organic ingredients tend to be more potent, especially organic spices, hence the reduced quantities.


Add all ingredients to a high-speed blender and blend till smooth.

Can be used as a dip with crackers, spread on bread, thinned out with a little more water as a sauce for steamed or raw vegetables or as a vegan mayonnaise substitute without basil.

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