What Happens When’s John Fraser on Using Restaurants to Create Communities and Why His New Spot Isn’t a Pop-Up


Dovetail chef John Fraser’s newest project, What Happens When, isn’t quite like any restaurant that’s existed before. Namely because the “temporary restaurant installation” changes its whole concept and menu every month and will only exist for nine months. Fraser partnered with Emilie Baltz, a design strategist and visual designer, to create a space centered around the process of collective creative collaboration. We called up John to learn more about this revolutionary new dining concept.

Why create a pop-up versus a static restaurant?

The first thing is that, although it’s temporary, it has an end. It’s a restaurant that’s going to die in nine months. It’s not a pop-up. We’re not using a reclaimed space. It’s a space where we can develop creativity and have a good time. It’s not a serious restaurant like at Dovetail, which is my baby, but which does have its limitations and certain expectations.

What are some of the challenges of running a temporary restaurant?

The hardest part is just making the restaurant work. Conceptually it’s going to change every 30 days. We’re meeting today to discuss the next concept. It requires a lot of time and creativity to maintain, and it would be hard to maintain after nine months.

Was it hard to find cooks to work for What Happens When given that their job won’t exist a year from now?

No. At Dovetail we get pretty slow in the summer so we’ll probably be able to hire the guys downtown for the uptown restaurant. And actually, for a restaurant job, nine months is a long time.

What has been the best thing so far about What Happens When?

I think for me it’s probably the outpouring of support that we’ve gotten. We used Kickstarter to raise funds. There’s this idea that you can do more for less.

What’s it been like using Kickstarter?

It’s about engaging people and trying to make them feel like part of the process. We’re saying, “Be part of this restaurant.” It engages people in a way that they might not be used to. We’ve had some interesting submissions for concepts — people giving us notes of inspiration or telling us their favorite meals. You get to see what’s important to people and it’s rarely the food.

Do you think Kickstarter could be a model for the next generation of restaurateurs?

I don’t know about restaurateurs. None of the money goes into the restaurant. I’m not keeping it — it’s 100 percent for the design and materials. But it’s saying if we raise $22,000, we’re setting up a box where creativity can exist.When coming up with each month’s concept, do you focus first on the menu or the décor?

It’s a little bit of a push and pull between the two. For last month’s menu, the design of the restaurant came first. Which is really interesting. Usually when I do a restaurant, I have a menu and just say, “OK, here’s the menu.” Here, I pushed myself. It’s a lot more of a collaboration.

After the idea is in place, how long does it take to retool the menu and décor?

It’ll happen overnight. On that Monday we’ll close down and we’ll open with a new concept.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

The fried potato skins wheat-beer fondue and pickled sausage. We’re in this place right now of Nordic and Scandinavian food being big. My chef de cuisine and I had been talking about pickling sausage for years now. To make the dish, you cook potato confit in extra-virgin olive oil and scoop out the potatoes and deep-fry the skins with bitter leaves like watercress stems and it’s got some braised onions and sorrel.

Do you think the popularity of a perpetually changing restaurant reflects the fickle nature of New York City diners?

I think it’s more of an effect than a cause, but it seems that it’s working out that way. It is really about what’s now, what’s new. It’s more about media and less about people since the media is so focused on what’s new and people respond to the media.

Check back tomorrow for when John reveals what he’d cook for a Valentine’s Day date.

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