Q&A with Panzur Chef Rei Peraza | Chronogram Magazine

Q&A with Panzur Chef Rei Peraza

New Year’s Eve 2017 was a bittersweet day for fans of Panzur restaurant in Tivoli, which went out with a bang and a ball drop after seven short years. CIA graduate and chef-owner Rei Peraza was ready to move on to new things.

Over the past six months, Chef Peraza has popped back up on the food scene with monthly dinners hosted at venues around the Hudson Valley. We checked in with him to ask about what he is up to post-restaurant.

What made you decide to pivot from a restaurant to pop-up events?

I didn’t know I would do pop-ups. We worked for almost the entire calendar year prior to closing on a large project in Sonoma, California. We were planning on relocating out there in March 2018, but then a wildfire happened in the fall and screwed up the timeline. It was kind of a do-or-die moment for us.

After seven years of running the restaurant, we were really looking forward to stepping things up and taking on a new challenge. So we decided it was time to close this chapter and do something different.

So how did the idea of pop-ups come about?

We decided to take a couple months off. We figured we’d earned it—time to chill, eat, drink, and hang out. During that time we just completely reconnected with the area. We moved here because we loved everything it stood for and what it could mean for our world and our business to be so connected to the dirt. But for any chef or restauranteur, at some point that becomes blurry—you are always grinding, always trying to do and grow, and you forget that you live in a beautiful, idyllic place.

So we decided to adjust ourselves to try and make something here. We had built a customer base and following. We knew the area and loved it. I needed to cook. And I had people emailing me all the time asking what was going on. So that evolved into “Let’s just do something once a month, have at it, and just see what happens.”

When did you start?

We started in June. The first couple were in my home. We sold them out super fast—I was blown away by support we were getting. For the most recent one, we used the banquet room at Farmers & Chefs, which overlooks Walkway over the Hudson and the river.

What cuisine are you doing for these pop-up events?

At the end of Panzur we were working towards tasting menus and selling them out. So we decided to go with it. My passion has always been progressive menus. I love that rapport and conversation, the pomp and circumstance of sitting down for a few hours and connecting to food and dining as an experience. In the end you get sustenance, but dining can bring you so much more pleasure and memories.

Are you using these pop-ups as a testing ground for new ideas and techniques?

Yes. One of the things I wanted to do was to challenge myself. To prompt an internal evolution, I had to make this about the process, about technique, about self exploration, and food exploration.

Each menu each pop-up is very different. Each reflects a time and place. As the year progresses, it will be more challenging to do dynamic tasting menu with the bounty from this area. We’re using a lot of same techniques we did at restaurant—a lot of fermentation and preservation that allow us to manipulate flavor a little bit more and create a dynamic experience.

How much are you selling tickets for?

We’re pushing a little bit for area with pricing—tickets range from $200-250 a person, which is usually 10 to 15 courses plus drink pairings. You get to taste anywhere from eight to 15 wines a night and sometimes some crazy crafted cocktails. The point is to have a fun, intense, and nicely indulgent experience.

Doing this as a business is difficult. You’re always caught between rock and a hard place. My menus have a sense of exclusivity, which I hate, but I get it—it’s not a cheap night out. That said, It’s definitely well worth it.

How many people usually attend?

The last event sold out at 24 people, which is the very very max I am willing to do. It’s usually between 15-20. They’re an experience, and a lot of fun for us, but intense. I’m 44, and I always joke this is what you do when you’re 25.

We bring our own handmade china, so we are moving not only food, but also 300 courses’ worth of silver, glass, and china. It’s the epitome of a traveling circus.

Have you thought about increasing the frequency of these events?

There is no way I would want to this more than once a month. We usually do a Friday and Saturday. Once we get the one day built out to a certain level that we can bring in staff, then we add the second day. That is the only thing that makes them viable—to do it back to back. Of course we’ve been lucky so far to sell out days back to back.

Tell me more about the financial viability of the pop-up model?

We don’t want to lose money but it’s also not P&L-driven. Can we make it profitable? Yes. But it’s not meant to be a big money-making venture. It’s a fun way to stay connected to where we are and to flex our brains and keep pushing. Doing it as a pop-up allows us to give more value because we are able to put more resources behind what you’re touching and feeling and eating.

With pop-ups you are parachuting into an existing space. How much does the vibe of the venue contribute to the feeling of the night versus what you bring?

That’s really difficult. The aesthetic is something we have very little control over—We can decide to do it in space or not. There is no budget for us to build up space and make it super beautiful. Even at $200 a person, the scope is small. So obviously we want to spend money on the memories you’ll take with you—china, glass, silver, linen, and obviously the food and wine.

Having opened over 10 restaurants and a few hotels, I know that the design of a restaurant isn’t necessarily about how it looks, but how it makes you feel. That is always a moving target, but it helps us fine-tune that vision.

What are some of your future pop-up venues?

In October, November, and December, we’ll be at the Inn at Ca’Mea. The restaurant has a completely separate building—an old Victorian house with a kitchen and dining area. We have a lot of guests coming from city for that. We love the idea of being in Hudson where people can take train up and never have to rent. And even if people drive there, there are plenty of places to stay. We are also in discussions with our old landlord at Panzur. Maybe we’ll do a week or two there.

What do you think is the appeal of these pop-up dinners for diners?

You go out to eat because you are craving or wanting to be immersed in someone else’s idea, someone else’s passion. The idea of restaurants having menus that all read the same—it’s safer from a business perspective—but I love restaurants, at all levels, that are more personal, authentic, and real to people who are behind them. I hope that when you come and eat my food, whether at a brick-and-mortar or a pop-up, you feel that and feel value in the experience.

How are these pop-ups different from Panzur?

From a chef’s perspective, when you own a restaurant, it's’ really difficult to be progressive all the time. You have a financial responsibility. You have customer base. You have box you are working within.

The pop-ups are kind of selfish in a way. I spend a couple weeks just throwing ideas around. There is that bit of free thought that we don’t often get when in midst of operating restaurant. Not just time for thought but time to evolve that thought, so much so that it becomes counterintuitive. It’s difficult to narrow it down.

Also working in other people’s spaces creates a connection. I find it really important to be close to other restaurants and other properties. We’ve done them in fields under a tent, cooking over a fire. It’s not always a brick and mortar, it can be anything.

When is your next event?

The last weekend of October at Ca’Mea in Hudson. It’ll be an Indian Summer Tasting Menu. The idea is this progressive walk, starting with flavors preserved from early summer going through the months into the flavors more recognizable as fall flavors.

This is one of my favorite two times of the year, when summer turns into fall, because the difference in products is huge. You have things like eggplants, peppers and green tomatoes overlapping with first of season apples. It’s a lot of fun to play with and to play with people's heads.

What else can we expect from you in the future?

We are working on some brick-and-mortar projects here in Hudson Valley, putting together a financial investment group to get things off the ground. Until that happens I’m just going to keep doing this.