Tasting menus are apparently making a comeback — and in Brooklyn, one of the borough’s most under-the-radar, multi-course meals currently comes from a 26-year-old chef cooking in Blundstones and jeans. As part of Hera, a roaming dinner series and a restaurant-in-the-making, chef Jay Rodriguez is taking over the kitchens of apartments across the city, turning them into sceney, reservable dining rooms where no two meals are the same.
“Someone might be seated at a couch, or maybe one month we have a chef’s table,” says Rodriguez, who started Hera with business partner Kacie Paganelli. The experience is always different, and after a year of always the same, New Yorkers are eating it up.
Rodriguez refers to Hera, which officially launched in February 2021, as a “roaming restaurant.” (“Pop-up” didn’t feel quite right, he says, because the team also hosts private dinners, residencies, and donates meals through mutual aid organizations.) There are eventually plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but in its current form, Hera is best known for serving seasonal, $90 tasting menus in the apartments of New Yorkers, while also popping up at neighborhood venues like Winona’s and Winner.
How it works: On the last weekend of each month, Rodriguez hosts a three-day dinner series, whose star is an eight-course tasting menu. Every menu is completely different, according to Rodriguez, and New Yorkers are digitally lining up to get a taste of his seasonal cooking, which draws from his experience working in the kitchens of heavy-hitting New York restaurants like 232 Bleecker and the Michelin-starred Oxalis in Crown Heights.
The pop-up restaurant starts taking reservations, typically in the middle of the month, through Instagram and always sells out, in part because there’s just five, highly sought-out seatings each month. It’s created a lot of demand, Rodriguez says, not just from those who hear about Hera through word of mouth, but also from repeat customers who want to sample the latest version of the pop-up.
Hera reinvents itself from month to month, down to its playlist, wine pairings, and in-season menu, the latter of which sources its ingredients primarily from the city’s farmers markets. Notably, each month’s dinner series also occurs in a different New York apartment. Rodriguez reportedly finds the venues through friends of friends, draws up a contract with its tenants — do move my couch, don’t move my kitchen table — and outfits the space with bistro-style furniture for an intimate, spaced-out dining experience.
Hera is only offering indoor service for now, and while there’s no vaccination requirement for booking a seating, all of its kitchen staff are fully vaccinated, according to Rodriguez.
There’s an air of secrecy about Hera (the pop-up’s Sunday seating is loosely invite-only), but that’s partly because Rodriguez hasn’t wanted to deal with the multi-week waiting lists that can befall some of the city’s best-liked, worst-kept food secrets. “It can feel like a secretive thing — and it is — but I want everyone to be apart of it,” Rodriguez says. “No matter who you are or where you come from, you should have this experience.”
The $90 price tag, before gratuity and an optional $45 wine pairing, remains the same each month in an effort to serve a more “approachable” and “affordable” tasting menu, especially for New Yorkers who may have been turned off by the coat requirements and triple-digit fees that can accompany the style of eating elsewhere. “Ninety bucks gets you an incredibly diverse, yet focused, dining experience,” Rodriguez says. “That price point will never go up. It’s always going to be $90.”
The logical next step for a sold-out run as a pop-up is a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and Rodriguez hopes to find Hera a permanent home by the end of this year or the middle of next. “The goal has always been for me to own and operate a restaurant by the time I’m 30,” he says.
He has plans to use the brick-and-mortar space to serve free tasting menus for community members on Mondays, and to open a community fridge in front of the restaurant for repurposing food waste as meal kits. But before all of that, he has to plan his next dinner series, scheduled for sometime, somewhere at the end of June.