By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
The restaurant industry has been known to churn out some overworked, burnt out and exhausted human beings. Some after a year, some after twenty. Nevertheless, it can also incubate extreme levels of creativity and purpose. Such is the case with Katie Smith-Adair and Hagan Blount, founders of Place Invaders. Although neither Katie or Hagan have professional culinary experience, what they lack in formal training they make up for in creativity, enthusiasm and a touch of “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” attitude. For a pop-up dinner virgin, it was nothing if not refreshing.
Katie and Hagan began Invading in New York City just over a year ago. Self-described “food tourists”, their beginnings resulted in a bit of lost money (nothing new where the food and beverage industry is concerned), minor misunderstandings with Airbnb, and what appears to have been a steep learning curve. They persisted.
Says Katie, “We felt like we were on to a good idea… The reaction was great, and we had a lot of fun despite the mayhem, so we decided it could only get better. We've done about one invasion per month since then, and have accommodated up to 30 guests each at six seatings over a weekend. There's always still a small element of ‘are we going to be able to pull it off?’ but things go much more smoothly than that first invasion.” Now toting a small trailer, they are currently making their way across the country, leaving behind a very intriguing Instagram feed in their wake.
Place Invaders takes the concept of a “pop-up” dinner into private homes- hence the misunderstandings with Airbnb- and the homeowners are let in on the upcoming happenings. Guests, on the other hand, are not. The location remains a secret until the day of the dinner. For those that enjoy scouring menus, reading reviews, and planning what wine to order, the shroud of secrecy is rather exciting. All you know for sure is that you will show up somewhere at a given time. Although not a 100% revolutionary concept, Katie and Hagan’s environment was clearly well thought-out. Details like lighting and music were spot on, and Katie’s hospitable and collected vibe got the evening off on the right foot.
Portland Gets Invaded
The most recent Portland Invasions were held at a residence in Southwest. It offered the quintessential backdrop of Portland scenery. How do they find their locations? “Starting up in a new city, we often look on short-term rental sites to find cool places, where the owners are accustomed to renting their space. After our first event in a market, we typically get a number of referrals. People always have a friend or relative who is into food and has a great location for our events. In places like Portland, people have a real pride in their spaces. It's awesome to see what people do with their real estate, and we want to keep their character represented in the space. Katie does the floral arrangements and we put candles on every surface, but other than that, we let the spaces we're invading speak for themselves. Luckily, it seems voyeurism is a national pastime.”
What about the food? As with a restaurant, the atmosphere can be just right, but if the food isn’t up to par, all is lost. The menu was kept simple and ingredient-focused, showing a degree of awareness that commanded respect. This would not be an arena to get fussy with plating or extravagant elements. The passed appetizer of Sriracha Broiled Oysters got rave reviews, as guests- most of whom did not know each other- mingled.
Another collective favorite of the attendees was Prosciutto & Ricotta on toast, topped with Truffle Honey. Again, the wheel was not reinvented with this dish, but small details like the thickness of the bread and the ratio of ricotta to prosciutto and honey were on time. The most curious among the courses was definitely the dessert: Candy Cap Mushroom Panna Cotta with candied bacon. This marriage of sweet and savory may have bewildered a few taste-buds, but definitely left an impression. I found my mind wandering back to it, even days later.
Portlanders love to keep it local, so Katie and Hagan’s philosophy on ingredients definitely falls in line with the area. “We want to learn about an area through the food, so we go to farmers markets and talk to people about their harvests. We try to find out what's good, what's interesting, and where the ingredients (focusing on the proteins and vegetables) come from. A good start to a successful dish is to find great ingredients and to not mess them up.”