Jennifer Carroll, co-executive chef at Spice Finch in Rittenhouse, is best known for her multiple star turns on the Bravo reality series, Top Chef. She made her debut in season six in 2009 and has gone on to compete again in seasons 8 and 15, as well as on an episode of a spin-off show, Top Chef Duels.
This month, she’ll appear in another all-star season that reunites fan favorites of the past, this one set in Los Angeles. The show premieres March 19. Carroll can’t say much about the upcoming season, but she can share that one of her favorite parts of Top Chef in general is Restaurant Wars.
In this episode, a mainstay of every season that’s also beloved by fans, the contestants work frantically for 24 hours to create a pop-up restaurant in what is often not a restaurant space. The chefs dream up the concept, the menu, and the decor and serve a meal to an eager crowd of fans and judges.
If you’ve ever thought it might be fun to be a diner at one of these impromptu events, now’s your chance. Carroll and her partner chef Billy Riddle have launched a monthly series of pop-up dinners inspired by Restaurant Wars. They’re transforming different venues around the city into fully fledged restaurants for one night only.
Just like on Top Chef, dates and locations for the dinners are a closely held secret until tickets become available on Eventbrite.
Carroll kicked off the series with a “Veggie Curious” supper in January at Amrita Yoga studio on South Street. The four-course meal took diners through a vegetarian (and mostly vegan) menu that fit right into the plant-based craze of the moment. Even before the first bites were served, guests encountered a number of quirky surprises that related to its wellness theme.
The evening’s dress code was shoeless. Diners jettisoned all footwear at the entryway, mingling and sipping drinks in their socks. A long communal table ran through the center of the room. Candlelight softened the atmosphere, a fitness studio with exposed beam ceilings and brick walls. Bundles of white cloth hung from the ceiling — silk loops used to practice aerial yoga. Heather Rice, owner of Amrita Yoga, demonstrated some gravity-defying poses before the meal began.
Each event will have a different theme — the Veggie Curious dinner was followed up with a Caribbean-inspired feast in an interior design showroom. The March event will celebrate women’s empowerment. The through-line is Carroll and Riddle’s collaborative cooking.
Throughout their careers, they’ve both worked in many fine-dining kitchens, including some with Michelin stars, and they bring that expertise to bear at these more whimsical events.
“We always start with the best ingredients we can get and we ask ourselves, how can we elevate this without ever making it pretentious?” says Carroll.
The Veggie Curious menu showed off Carroll and Riddle’s enthusiasm for global flavors.
A rich fluffy focaccia was served with a wedge of sunflower seed-based “cheese.” The chefs swaddled a savory sweet potato filling in Swiss chard leaves. The main dish placed a surprisingly meaty roasted red cabbage, glazed with pomegranate, at the center of the plate, satisfying all possible curiosity over whether vegetables could carry the meal. The supper concluded with a guided meditation and ginger turmeric shot.
The pop-up dinners are small affairs. In January, just 24 people attended the event.
“We keep it very intimate, so I can interact with every guest,” she says. And true to the style of Restaurant Wars, Carroll played the perilous front-of-the-house role, charming diners, talking about the menu, and posing for photos with her fans.
Behind the scenes, Riddle cooked, using a makeshift kitchen set up on folding tables, putting out some of the prettiest plates anywhere in the city. “Jen has done this kind of cooking on TV many times. She’s made dinner at a gas station. She’s been challenged to make some dishes on a beach with just coconuts and a fire,” says Riddle. It makes any space seem like a viable restaurant to the couple.
“We wanted to do something that would let us be more creative and experimental, to try out different types of flavors and cuisines. It’s fun for me,” Carroll explains, adding that she’s fueled by stress and being under pressure.
Luckily, at the end of these pop-up dinners, there’s no dramatic judging or cheftestants throwing each other under the bus, no tearful goodbyes, and no one packs their knives to go.
Keep an eye on Carroll’s Instagram feed — @ChefJenCarroll — for news about upcoming events and to stay up to date on Carroll’s wins and losses on Top Chef as this season’s contest unfolds.