PIFA Report: French Invasion, Wolfgang Puck and the Death Of A Trend

PIFA–the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts–is currently in full swing, offering everything from trapeeze artists and discussions of Dadaist cinema to augmented reality smartphone installations (like a giant squid named Archie assaulting the Schuykill River Waterworks), a re-imagining of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella by the Miro Dance Theatre and a stage full of slam poets (which, not for nothing, would be much more interesting if they were also being assaulted by a giant virtual squid–or a real one).

But if you’re reading this blog, it’s probably the food that has you most excited, so for all you serious Frog-humpers and Francophiles in the crowd, we have this reminder: Tonight is the final night that the 11 chefs brought in from Paris and Lyon to cook with their Philadelphian partners will actually be in the kitchens, preparing dishes from the menus on which they collaborated. Most of the restaurants will continue serving the special menus for the duration of the festival (places like Le Bec-Fin and Rouge will not), but if you’ve always wondered how Terence Feury at Fork would get along with Simon Lacassin from Prefecture du Rhone in Lyon, or what might come of a one night stand between Daniel Stern (of R2L) and Babette De Rozieres (of La Table de Babette, Paris), tonight will be your last chance to find out. The way the schedule looks, the French contingent is being given Saturday night to get weird in Philly all on their own, but they’ll be on a plane come Sunday and headed back to their own kitchens. You can check out the full list of hot chef-on-chef pairings (and make last-minute reservations) here at the PIFA website, and for a run-down on all the menus and dishes being presented (like the Feury/Lacassin scallop mousseline with puff pastry and morel sauce, the Bresse chicken with foie gras terrine at Le Bec or the floating island desserts being done by something like half of all participating kitchens), just go here.

PIFA is also acting as a kind of coming-out party for Wolfgang Puck, whose catering wing took over operations at the Kimmel Center (PIFA ground zero) in January. Puck has a branded crepe cart working the lobby, will be doing Parisian street food from the PECO Bar in Commonwealth Plaza (offering inexpensive cassoulet, frog’s legs, pastries and booze before, during and after all events), and has a pop-up restaurant called Le PIFA Bistro doing weekend dinners and a Sunday brunch in the Lounge at the Kimmel Center.

Except that Le PIFA Bistro isn’t really a pop-up, is it? I mean, there was a time (and it was not too long ago) when the pop-up was the coolest thing to happen to the restaurant scene since the French Laundry started accepting stagieres. Idiosyncratic chefs did pop-ups. Guys with something to say that couldn’t be expressed within the traditional bounds of a stand-alone restaurant with a regular menu, a reservation system and, you know… An address.

Pop-ups were fast-hit, DIY phenomena–skin-of-the-teeth operations where a chef would essentially establish a restaurant with a two- or three-night life span, cook genius food for a crowd of dedicated fans willing to pay a premium for an un-repeatable experience, then vanish without a trace. They were the raves of the restaurant world, before raves became ubiquitous and started taking on corporate sponsorship deals from Pepsi and Viagra. They were one part supper club, one part speakeasy, and to be in attendance meant not only that you were getting a good feed straight from the hands of a chef with some personal investment that went beyond the purely financial, but that you were plugged in–a well-connected grubnik with enough insider information to know that some wild-eyed white jacket was throwing off the bonds of fiduciary oppression for a night (or two or three) and cooking some kind of guerilla 4-course in an old shoe factory just to prove he still had it where it counts.

Yes, there was a time when pop-ups were cool. But that time apparently ended the minute PIFA rolled into town because, for all the cool stuff that the organizers are bringing to Philadelphia, a quote/unquote “pop-up” by celebrity chef and QVC/HSN regular Wolfgang Puck is like a thumb in the eye of everything that pop-ups were originally supposed to represent. It would be like if Bobby Flay suddenly decided to get into the hamburger business (oh, wait…) or if chain restaurants started horning in on the food truck craze (dammit!). Nothing low-ends the awesome-meter faster than mainstreaming a trend.

I could’ve maybe–maybe–let this go if Puck was truly and personally invested in Le PIFA Bistro, getting in there and actually grilling the salmon or making the French onion soup himself. But he’s not. His exec for the Kimmel catering option, Christopher Stevens, is running the show. And nothing against Stevens, but the minute the PR people start branding every short-time, event-centric, Puck-less restaurant venture a “pop-up” is the minute that the trend finally fixes its eyes on the horizon and dies.