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An Introduction to John Fraser's Pop-Up, What Happens When

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A preliminary rendering of the space. As the months go on, the designers plan to use red lines to indicate the changes that have been made to the restaurant from stage to stage.
A preliminary rendering of the space. As the months go on, the designers plan to use red lines to indicate the changes that have been made to the restaurant from stage to stage.

Next week Dovetail chef/owner John Fraser and a group of artists and designers will embark on a unique restaurant adventure called What Happens When. It's a pop-up restaurant that will change entirely and surprisingly every month for the nine months of its existence, and as the restaurant evolves, we'll be there, each month, chronicling the changes and zeroing in on different components of the project in a column called A Work in Progress. To launch things off, an intro to the group.

[Photos courtesy of What Happens When. Check back for final photos of the space before the opening.]

On one of the coldest afternoons of the winter, Elle Kunnos de Voss and Nadia Tolstoy were inside 25 Cleveland Place wondering if something would explode. It was hard to tell what the thing in question was, as there were a couple of potentially flammable objects in view: a portable diesel heater two construction workers were using to methodically straighten black wire, and a collection of light bulbs that had just been fashioned into a sort of chandelier. The women chatted a bit (in German), giggled, and in case it wasn't clear enough, said they were only kidding. The other players—the chef and the composer—had yet to arrive, but this was already What Happens When.

This is the project Dovetail's chef and owner John Fraser recently revealed to the public, a restaurant that will change every thirty days and cease to exist after its ninth month. Fraser describes the concept as something he's long had in mind: "The idea I had years ago was to have this traveling restaurant on the back of a truck, and it's evolved into this...we're taking the pop up thing, but by collaborating with artists and musicians and people in other disciplines, presenting an actual art installation." He's taking his first stab at it in SoHo, and with four principal collaborators: the aforementioned Tolstoy and Kunnos de Voss, who will be handling interior design, the photographer and brand designer Emilie Baltz, and Micah Silver, an avant garde composer who is developing the soundtrack for the space.

Once the project opens to the public on January 25th, the main goal will be to present a restaurant that exposes visitors to the creative process, with the buzz term being a "work in progress." Come October 25th, it will all be abandoned. It is a decidedly straightforward idea that leaves room for diners to interpret—and for the creators to adjust. But the specifics reveal a calculated spirit of improvisation.

The Design: Kunnos de Voss and Tolstoy have made the 60-seat room look like a blueprint, where bistro chairs and tables will be set on white, life-sized blueprint stencils that occupy the entire space. This, as well as the black coat of paint they’ve applied to the interior, are the only design elements that will persist throughout the nine months.

The Music: To start things off, the team will draw inspiration from the winter. Silver has worked on what he calls a "sound menu" for the physical space that will comprise several different tracks. Among the sounds he’s culled are those of "snow slowly covering plastic foliage brought to Walden Pond in Concord, MA" and "recordings extracted from YouTube videos made at rural bonfires." With speakers above, below, and around the diner, the goal is to create a "larger texture" that doesn’t have the pretense of being a concert but does rely on having a somewhat captive audience, one that is in the moment.

The Menu: Nordic and Northern Germanic are terms that could well be applied to describe Fraser's debut menu, which he says is made up of "cold weather food," items where spice, for example, might come from horseradish and mustard as opposed to jalapeño: "mouthfuls and round flavors, not sharp ones." The food, at least to start, will be offered as a three-course prix-fixe (four apps, four entrées, four desserts). There will be a limited number of wines available each night, cocktails will be prepared tableside, and desserts will be presented on a cart. Fraser has hired Jennica Best, who worked at Dovetail, to be the service director. As she describes it, there will be no traditional service hierarchy, as all FOH staff will hold the title of captain and perform different roles throughout the installation's lifespan.

It's all part of Fraser's desire to pare things down and do something that isn't expected of a Michelin-starred chef with a restaurant on 77th and Columbus. Also evident is the desire to put something forward that doesn't fit nicely into the world of the blogs, of the Yelp: "Someone might very well hate their experience on a given night, but the point is that they'll never be able to revisit it again. I won't either."

They have their shit together, but no one on the team denies the risks; with room to provoke (the marching band he mentioned to Frank Bruni, as well as other performances, remain a possibility), there is room for failure. And perhaps as unsettling as it is exciting for those involved is the element of the unknown. Fraser has proven an able owner at Dovetail, but many would say that he has yet to cash it in, and for the moment, that's not the plan: "One day I might open up a bistro in Midtown and sleep a few more hours a night, but this is what I want to do now."

Friends and family starts Friday with a public debut on Tuesday. Stay tuned for more.
· All Coverage of What Happens When [~ENY~]

What Happens When

25 Cleveland Place, New York, NY 10012 (212) 925-8310 Visit Website