A few minutes past 7 p.m., the sound of a spoon tapping on glass echoes through the NorthStar Church of the Arts in Old North Durham. At long tables that line the dimly lit space, people coming from all over the Triangle sit beside strangers who will become new friends by the end of the evening. As a voice welcomes everyone to tonight’s event, people smile with anticipation for the gastronomic journey ahead of them. Some are attending for the first time, and some will call this their 50th event. One thing’s for sure: this is one of the most remarkable experiences one can undergo in the Triangle, and every individual will leave this once-holy hall having experienced, learned, and appreciated something new. Next month, this adventure will be replicated somewhere else — perhaps at a vintage car collector club, Lake Raleigh or within a tree-lined forest. Wherever it may be, you’ll be taken on an inimitable voyage through food, and one that leaves you more aware of the many ingredients that make a meal excellent.
Welcome to Snap Pea.
Pop-up dining isn’t an unfamiliar concept in the culinary world. International dining phenom Outstanding in the Field has been hosting their roving dinners, which they deem “radical alternatives to the conventional dining experience,” since 1999. You can find operations that mirror their lavish tasting menu-centric approach all over the United States. More common nowadays are more affordable pop-up experiences, often stemming from reduced options at the beginning of the pandemic. Businesses like Queens, NY-based superstar Pecking House turned fried chicken into a delivery sensation and later opened a full-blown restaurant. Los Angeles-based Calabama turned a bucket into a breakfast sandwich delivery vessel from Chef Cara Haltiwanger’s 5th-story apartment, still going strong every Sunday.
Snap Pea’s humble origins are a bit different. They aren’t traced back to conventional kitchens, but rather to a class assignment. What you may not assume about the chef of a dining pop-up experience is that they attained and achieved a world-class education. For California-born and New Zealand/Chapel Hill-bred chef Jacob Boehm, it came through a bachelor’s in Music from Stanford University. Determined to complete an assignment for one of his classes with the most creative approach possible, he presented his final project by cooking a meal for his classmates and professor. It wasn’t the best by any means — in fact, Boehm knows that it was one of the least sophisticated (albeit memorable) meals he’s put together — but the joy that his food brought those who were fortunate enough to eat it acted as a boon to his future prospects. It planted Snap Pea’s seed in his mind and gave him reason to believe that he could turn this passion into a career. After growing up surrounded by family with a passion for food and being transformed by a world-class education, being able to compose an experience where he could serve guests meals that not only left them full but with new ideas and memories would be a natural next step.
But Boehm didn’t hop into this world immediately. Before Snap Pea, he worked in marketing for a wastewater treatment technology company and some jobs at various restaurants. He later moved back to North Carolina, and within a few years of graduating from Stanford, he began to scale Snap Pea to make it become something greater than anything he had produced before. He figured that he would make the events a monthly occurrence — an arbitrary choice, but one that he carried with him until he realized that this was something he could make a career of. The pop-ups picked up steam. They sold out in minutes, then seconds, and to this day you’ll need to have fingers that move at remarkable speeds to successfully reserve a seat at a Snap Pea dinner. But if you secure a ticket, you’ll be treated to an experience unlike anything else you can find in the Triangle.
In many ways, a tasting menu is the pinnacle experience in the world of dining — an adventure of myriad flavors, textures and sensations. Snap Pea creates one that not only excels in how it approaches taste but also in the ideas it expresses. Every ingredient is well thought-out, and each component of your meal is sourced locally. This brings about a hyper-seasonality that makes dinner an exercise in dynamic storytelling grounded in the bounty of the season. Perhaps more excitingly, the place where you enjoy your dinner shapes the story you’re told throughout the evening.
A course on one evening was titled “1972 Porche 911,” while on a different evening, I was relishing “Camp Polk Prison Farm,” and during a separate dinner I enjoyed “Pleasure Activism Book Event.” Appropriately, these courses tell stories. The ingredients themselves may come full of history through where they were farmed and the people who decided to grow them, but beyond this, each course comes with a lesson in components of the place where you’re eating.
In the aforementioned 1972 Porsche 911 course at a recent dinner, Jacob described how the car’s engines are located in its back and are air-cooled, differentiating it from other cars. He took this unique characteristic to make a fried rice course. He explained that you want to use rice that has had the opportunity to air cool (get it?), and so he used Carolina Gold rice, cooked it, and spread it out on sheet pans to allow it to get as much air cooling as possible to dry out. On-site, he used aromatic tomato juice from preserved and roasted San Marzano tomatoes to cook the rice. It caramelizes in the pan to add extra depth. He then adds hakurei turnips, crisp, juicy and freshly retrieved from Wild Scallion farms at the Durham Farmers’ Market. He explained that farmers like hakurei turnips because they grow quickly and are crisp and juicy upon harvest. Some foraged mushrooms are served beside the rice, which came from Jacob’s forager friend who stumbled upon them on the day of the event and showed up at his door to provide them to him for free. Caramelized onions and eggs cooked at precisely 62 degrees Fahrenheit in an immersion circulator grace the dish, and upon first bite, you realize how special it is that this one course came together through heat, patience, and friendship. Where else can such an intricate story be part of the experience?
Laughter fills the dining room throughout the evening as Jacob describes each course with humor and grace. We all experience his natural storytelling abilities and become more and more invested in how these ingredients got from farm to kitchen, savoring each of our bites as a celebration of the hard work and determination that allows our food to arrive at our plates and the skill needed to prepare ingredients to such a high regard. We chat with neighbors as we appreciate and dissect the layers of flavors within our courses, telling stories about our experiences at past events and what compelled us to invest in a meal like this.
Speak with the team of chefs, dishwashers and servers that allow these magical events to take place, and you can conclude that such an operation is not only magic for the guests but also for those working their magic in the front and back of the house. Jacob, according to each Snap Pea employee that I spoke with, leads the operation with a sense of poise and determination. Brad Brown, one of the team members, speaks highly of Jacob. “He’s good at finding solutions and controlling emotions,” he told me after one dinner. “People like being around him.” Speaking with another team member, Donna, further accentuated how he’s truly someone special compared to the stereotypical tempered head chefs that have a bad reputation in the culinary world. “Finding [Boehm] was amazing,” she said. “He was like a breath of fresh air... He’s just a great guy. I don’t think I’ve worked for a better guy. I love doing this.”
At the end of the meal, a round of applause breaks out. We learned about how food is so much more than a recipe —- how beyond the people preparing it for us, it’s about the stories that shape their journey from idea to plate. How techniques with long and storied histories result in an extraordinary method of making something delicious and desirable in taste and texture. How the ingredients that nourish us come from farmers who are truly invested in producing crops that outshine the rest on the markets - fruit, vegetable, grain or otherwise. How, despite everything happening around us, all these individuals with amazing and inspirational stories managed to gather around a remarkably long table for a few hours to forget our worries and let the food we all ate whisk us away to new worlds.
As the meal closes, Chef Boehm says, “I can’t wait to do it again sometime soon.”
Neither can we. And whether it’s in a planetarium, a nature preserve or somewhere just as special, the journey we will experience together will be one of the most remarkable experiences we’ll undergo here – and, maybe, anywhere.
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