Seven Questions with Acorn Kitchen

Published Thu, Nov 08, 2012 09:29 AM
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Lauren Eney and Tyler Helikson of Acorn Kitchen pose for a photo on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh. Photo by Ann Tobler

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

Just when you thought the foodie craze had run out of 'fresh' ideas — I mean, there are only so many ways to spin a farm-to-table concept — through the rabbit hole comes Acorn Kitchen. It's like "Clue" meets "Alice in Wonderland" … sans the cunning and crime, but heavy on the intrigue.

Partnering their prowess, hostess-with-the-mostess Lauren Eney (a born entertainer, she started donning aprons and fashioning menus for dinner parties at the ripe age of 4 — lucky stuffed animals, they were) and resident Raleigh-expert and veritable jack-of-all-trades Tyler Helikson (a staple on the downtown bartending/social circuit, one of the brains behind TriangleBlvd, and now Southeast regional marketing manager for Moet Hennessy) fused their fete know-how to fashion the pop-up party concept.

The breakdown? You get on the list (score!). You get a save the date riddle. You wait. Anticipation mounts. An hour before the event, you receive a clue to your remote dining destination. You go … eager, feelin' like you're kind of a big deal, and perhaps half expecting eat me/drink me-labeled concoctions and a game of croquet with the queen.

It's that alluring. It's that chic. It's that fresh — and we haven't even tapped the decor (hey there hand-fashioned rustic table out of reclaimed doors), the sips (red, red, wine…) and the nips (homemade crème fraîche? nom nom) — but Eney and Helikson were happy to share the deets. Now … just to get on that list. Until then, nosh on this.

Q: So, let's talk pop-ups. You create the party and the guest list, revealing to your guests only the date and time. It's very Alice in Wonderland, no?

LE: You could say that — minus, of course, the Mad Hatter.

Q: So, an hour before their arrival, you send guests a clue to lead them to the location. It's like scavenging for food but in the most sophisticated of fashions. Where'd you get the idea?

TH: Awhile back I saw a video called "Out of A Forest" that really inspired me. I love the idea of throwing an event in a completely unexpected, remote place. I’ve wanted to host a pop-up ever since, and it came down to finding someone to help me with the execution. We both share a passion for entertaining, good food and good wine, so it was a natural partnership.

Q: I assume the guests were really eager to unveil the mystery of the pop-up? There must have been a ton of energy among them upon arrival…?

LE: Our guests were definitely very curious in the week leading up to the event. We sent out riddles asking them to save the date — and nothing else. They didn’t know where it would be, who would be there, what we would serve, or what it would look like. When they arrived, I think they were all a little shocked.

Q: Food is very posh right now, as are dinner parties — and, of course, anything you have to get on the list for creates a fury of fascination. Whatcha gotta do to get on the list?

TH: Be awesome? Ha! In all seriousness, we just want to bring together interesting, fun people.

For our first event, we invited a mixture of our close friends and family. We tried to make sure that we pulled from different groups so that we had a really diverse group of people who didn’t know each other well.

Moving forward, the pop-up dinners will still be by invite. However, we will publish the date and time on the Acorn Kitchen Blog and @AcornKitchen), and those who are interested in attending can sign-up to be included on the invite list.

Q: Your inaugural event was a sort of rustic, yet chic, DIY 20-guest party in October at the AIA building courtyard. How does that premiere party demonstrate your MO?

TH: We wanted to create a unique experience with a homemade, personalized vibe. We were lucky to be able to use the courtyard at the AIA — the space was incredible. The modern building and downtown views, juxtaposed with our rustic table setting, was the exact look we were going for.

We put time and thought into every single detail at the party. For instance, we went antiquing in Liberty, N.C., to pick up table accessories. I built the table out of reclaimed doors. We wanted to create an elegant but unexpected look that would make our guests feel special.

LE: Also, as the word "Acorn" in our name suggests, we wanted to pay homage to our hometown. Each invitation contained tiny acorns gathered in Moore Square. The place cards were written on pressed Oak leafs. We had chocolates from Videri, a local chocolate factory, as party favors. We wanted every aspect of the party to really feel like Raleigh.

Q: On the menu?

LE: Tyler and I put a lot of thought into the menu, and I prepared all of the food for the event. For me, it was really important to include fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. You can imagine we had fun doing test runs in the weeks leading up to the event.

For the cocktail hour, we served Ruinart, smoked salmon with homemade crème fraîche, a cheese plate and candied bacon. Once we sat down to eat, we poured a big Italian red wine. With that we had a fresh beet and chèvre salad, braised chicken with stone fruits, capers and olives, and a leek and sweet potato gratin.

For dessert we served a butterscotch pot de crème with homemade crème fraîche, salted caramel and Maldon sea salt. According to one of our guests, "the sea salt was gangster."

Q: So as dinner party experts, and since 'tis the season to host all kinds of gatherings, what advice do you have for hosts and hostesses this holiday season?

LE: I try to do as much prep work as possible the night before and have a detailed plan for the day of the event (and, being totally neurotic, I even schedule time to shower and get ready). I also try to choose dishes that can braise while I sip wine and chat with my friends. You’ll have so much more fun if you can get the bulk of the work out of the way and stay out of the kitchen once your guests arrive.

TH: Also, focus your energy on bringing together a fun group of people, and the rest will work itself out. The food’s important, but the key to throwing a memorable party revolves around the guests. And it doesn’t hurt to have plenty of Champagne on hand.

Acorn Kitchen

See more photos by Ann Tobler from the shoot in downtown Raleigh.

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