Yarrow: One Texas State Student’s Illegal Pop-up Restaurant

Co-founded by a Texas State Student, the roving restaurants hosts multi-course dinners in friends' apartments.

At dusk one July night, sixteen guests gathered on the balcony of a tiny Austin apartment complex, set back off the I-35 frontage road just far enough to be hard to find. They wiped their foreheads and sipped sweating drinks, but they didn’t go back inside the apartment—it was hotter than the evening air. Out the open door wafted the tantalizing smell of grilling meat.

Inside the apartment, Steven Gonzalez, Alex Lopez and Josh Turner, the founders of the Yarrow supper club, prepared for their fourth dinner. Alex’s friend Morgan Lennyx is at the bar helping Alex portion out the first round of specialty cocktails for night. In the kitchen, Steven, Josh and Joseph Villareal—their friend and a chef at the Austin restaurant Gardner—circle around each other doing the last minute prep.

Starting a dinner club is not unheard of for young chefs looking to escape the constraints of a professional kitchen. Steven, a chef at Vino Vino in Austin, and Josh, a chef at Launderette in Austin, originally got the idea for Yarrow from a Vice article called “How to Run an Illegal Restaurant,” one of many articles about the supper clubs that are popping up across the country. For young chefs strapped for cash and time, supper clubs provide a platform to explore creative impulses and experience the trials of running a restaurant without committing to it full-time.

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Photography by Marshall Tidrick, University of Texas at Austin

“It’s like a masochistic addition because it sucks so much, but then at the end you feel this relief,” said Steven, who’s also an Environmental Studies major at Texas State.

It’s also rewarding for the young cooks to break away from authority in an industry where chefs are expected to respond to orders not only with compliance, but with a “Yes, Chef.” “This is the closest I’ll ever get to owning a restaurant without the responsibility,” said Joseph, who’s now helped with three of the four dinners. “It keeps my culinary interests close. It’s more intimate, the cooking and tasting, the plating. Seeing the guests and their reactions to each bite.”

Though Steven and Josh originally had the idea in December, the first dinner didn’t happen until April. “It took a long time to even get started,” Steven said. “The biggest thing was money for plates and utensils and stuff. It took us a long time to get full reservations, because no one knew what the hell we were doing or what it was.”

Even getting people to understand that they had to arrive on time, that it wasn’t just a party where it was no big deal to come an hour late, had to be explained and emphasized. “And you have to RSVP like, a month in advance,” Alex said. “That’s really hard for people.”

But after only four dinners, filling sixteen seats is no longer a problem. At Yarrow’s most recent dinner, a couple preened over snagging two spots that opened up at the last minute. Which is not to say Yarrow makes lots of money. “We made like, 50 bucks,” Alex said. “Which is…nothing,” Steven said quietly. Both agree that something is better than nothing, but it’s clear that Yarrow has the desire and the clients to grow. “We have people who’ve come to every single dinner,” Alex said.

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Photography by Marshall Tidrick, University of Texas at Austin

Considering that Yarrow has only hosted four dinners, it’s pretty impressive that they already have too few seats for the demand. Even more so considering their complete lack of marketing: their only online presence is a Facebook page, and it doesn’t even pop up on search. “The thing that defines us is word of mouth. But I think Josh and I have begun to develop our own flavor and our flavors that we like,” Steven said. “[Yarrow] is a strange endeavor.”

Strange in that it has no particular focus in terms of cuisine. Each dinner has had a different theme, with menus ranging from vegetarian to Northern Thai to Nuevo Latino. Essentially, Steven and Josh pick a type of cuisine that piques their interest, research it and then create iteration after reiteration of a dish until it works—or doesn’t. “We try to construct the menu two weeks in advance—at the least. We try to work as much as we can—do as much research as possible,” Steven said.

The budget figures in what they can do too, especially when it comes to the drinks. “We’ve been trying to get creative: making our own bitters, making our own ginger beer,” Steven said. “But there’s some liqueurs that we just can’t make, that only two people know, or have like a 600-year-old recipe.”

Despite the variability of the menu, there’s one constant that forms the backbone of Yarrow—an aversion to pretension. “[I care most] that everything tastes good,” Josh said. “That’s number one. That it’s interesting. That it will be interesting but not too pretentious.”

The possibility of being pinned with that label is real, especially for a couple of college-age kids talking about making terrines and sunchoke custard. But according to Sarah Lopez, a longtime friend of the Yarrow founders and the host of the most recent dinner, the chefs are anything but. “I’d only been to the first dinner and now this most recent one, but both times I was beyond impressed by how much preparation they put into it,” Sarah said. “They all remain so modest, not making every conversation about Yarrow, and then when I actually see everything set up I’m just like, ‘How in the world did they pull this off?’”

The logistics are impressive. Consider: Alex, Josh and Steven pull off a four-course meal with the help of two friends (one in the kitchen, one at the bar) in whatever friend’s apartment has been offered to them for the night. That means they bring the tables, decor, kitchen equipment and ingredients.

At the most recent dinner, fish sauce shacked up with Aunt Jemima’s cornbread mix in the pantry, and an explosive green sauce hid amongst Reddiwhip and almond milk in the fridge. “The first time things didn’t move very smoothly,” Josh admitted. “We got up at 7:00, filled Steven’s car with all his equipment, cleaned the whole apartment, moved all the furniture and had to drive half an hour every time we forgot something.” While the boys take care of the dinner menu, Alex takes care of everything else—a list so diverse that she can’t even define her position. “Front of house,” she said, when pressed. “I wear many hats.”

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Photography by Marshall Tidrick, University of Texas at Austin

She was in on the project from the very beginning, tasked with doing everything that wasn’t menu planning or cooking. “[Yarrow] was an idea that Josh and Steven had in December, which I only know because I have pictures of like, ‘How to Set a Table’ on Pinterest that I took in December, because I’d never done stuff like that before.”

But by their fourth dinner, the Thai dinner, they’ve found their rhythm. When the guests arrive, the chefs are sipping Lone Stars and smoking cigarettes in between checking on the food, and Alex and Morgan are preparing the pre-dinner cocktail, a lychee vinegar and coconut milk mix that’s pale pink and refreshing.

As the start of the dinner approaches, the chefs gather in the dorm-room sized kitchen to prepare the first course, an herbaceous salad called Yam Samun Phrai. It’s a delicate pile of lemongrass, Thai basil, carrots, onions, lime leaf and ginger, all topped with fried shallots and chiffonade herbs: sawtooth and betel among others. Steven, Josh, and Joseph plate simultaneously—all three of them gathered at the bar—and then serve the guests themselves.

The salad was warmly spicy, with a salted onion crunch from the fried shallot. The dressing gave it a pickled feeling, but the buttery cashew fragments mellowed the herbs and vinegar. As the guests finished their last few bites, smoke filled the tiny apartment. Morgan stood underneath the fire alarm, fanning it with a dishtowel so it wouldn’t go off before the guests finished their salads.

Thai beers appeared on the table next, and then a delicately composed dish: slices of a house-fermented sausage layered between radishes, resting on a bed of gingery, marinated cabbage slaw. In other words, a Thai reworking of that classic German dish, sausage and sauerkraut. “We fermented the sausage for six days,” Steven said. “It came out really good.”

It was more than good. It was spicy enough that some of the guests fanned their mouths and gulped beer, but it wasn’t spicy heat without flavor. The dish was umami, with a clean freshness from the veggies, and an almost aggressively exotic mix of flavors.

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Photography by Marshall Tidrick, University of Texas at Austin

“The fermented sausage is generally served on the streets as a snack with raw Thai chilis and raw ginger,” Steven said. “Obviously, we couldn’t do that.”

The whole dinner felt like a balance between the chefs’ fascination with Thai cuisine and what they thought the guests could handle. The flavors were intense, lip-smackingly so. After the sausage, there’s a break between courses, partially so guests can escape the heat of the apartment (the AC wasn’t working), and partially so Joseph can run out and grill the next course.

Josh and Steven crowd over the stove, stuffing sandwich bags (the cellophane kind that don’t seal) with handfuls of sticky rice from a bamboo bowl contraption balanced on the stove. Joseph comes back and joins them, throwing a tray of tiny, banana leaf-wrapped packets on top of the fridge.

They roll the tops of the bags and tuck them under, creating an assembly line, until someone says, “This one needs a little bit more.”

“Are we serving a sauce with this?”

“Yeah, the green one.”

The sauce is retrieved from the fridge, and ladled into small Pyrex bowls from a Tupperware decorated with tiny orange dots. They scrape the rice unceremoniously from a ladle into the last few bags. “That’s how they do [the rice] in Thailand. It’s the best way to do it, it dries out otherwise,” Josh said.

The plates arrive before the guests in two bundles, with sauce placed at intervals on the tables: it’s so pungent, guests don’t need individual servings. Morgan and Alex set Thai basil gimlets in front of the guests, an elegant, herbaceous foil to the fish. At first, the guests aren’t sure how to approach the dish.

“What do we do with the sauce?”

“Do we eat the leaf?”

“It’s like a tamale.”

The banana leaf falls away to reveal basa, a catfish-like fish steamed to opaque whiteness, but tasting faintly of the smoky flavor of the grill and strongly of the red curry paste smeared on it. The tongue-tingling sauce in the Pyrex dishes is ladled out in small spoonfuls onto the fish and rice, an almost overwhelming melange of flavors, reigned in by the rice and cool mouthfuls of the gimlet.

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Photography by Marshall Tidrick, University of Texas at Austin

As they start preparing for the final course, a calmness spreads over the kitchen and the guests.

For dessert, the chefs serve a trio of sorbets and ice creams, and Alex and Morgan prepare rum-spiked Thai iced teas, lining up highball glasses on the drink cart. The tea comes from a plastic dispenser meant for cheap tailgate punches, but pours a spiked, spiced black tea that compliments the ice creams and sorbets.

Morgan serves the cooks the leftovers of the lychee drink mix, passing them tall glasses over the bar. For dessert, they form an assembly line again, placing a scoop each of coconut ice cream, lime and Thai basil sorbet, and a pandan sorbet with latik. They garnished the trio delicately with toasted sticky rice powder and tamarind syrup.

For something that started as Steven and Josh “just fucking around in the kitchen,” the dinner felt remarkably professional, personal and refreshingly unpretentious. Their style of cooking—intense, bright flavors, local ingredients, an attention to details and ingredients—and the atmosphere Alex created for the guests with the natural, minimalist decor, feel like the precursor to something more.

Though what that something is, they’re not quite sure. The dinner club has been put on hold until October; in the meantime, Yarrow is doing private dinners, perhaps to try their hand at catering as opposed to restauranteuring. “I haven’t done a [private dinner] yet, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Josh said. “I do like making food for my friends, but it’s also going to be cool to make food for people who don’t know what to expect.”

Yarrow is an audacious project that’s still young enough to defy definition as a restaurant, a dinner club or a catering service. What is clear is the intention behind it, the desire to create intense flavors in simple and authentic ways.

“I’m the one serving the food, so I can see people’s responses, that [Steven and Josh] don’t see, and people are honestly surprised at what comes out of whatever tiny kitchen they’re working in,” Alex said. “People have said that it’s nothing like what they expect. I feel like they expect mediocre food, like dinner party food, like lasagna.” “I’m not going to serve lasagna,” Steven said, laughing. “But at the same time, I’m not trying to make pretentious food at all. I hate all that fucking prick food, what do they call that foodie bullshit? Fuck all those people.”

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