NORTH STONINGTON — Pop-up restaurants, a one-and-done culinary experience, may be commonplace in urban areas, but until recently they’re been few and far between in this part of the world — a situation that local caterer Linda Sample has sought to change.
A Thyme to Cook, Sample’s catering company, has been holding a pop-up dining experience called The Table since November, when the idea was to have a dinner once a month. Now the dinners are planned for once a season, each one held in a surprise location, which ticketholders learn about 48 hours in advance.
“We wanted the suspense of going to unconventional sites,” said Sample.
Previously held at The Velvet Mill in Stonington, in a castle-like home in Old Mystic, and at the Lyme Art Association, among other venues, The Table will once again be held somewhere unexpected. Sample will release the location two days before the July 18 event. It will be in “a really cool place,” she said.
Pop-up restaurants are typically organized by restaurants, not catering companies, Sample said, but this isn’t the first time she’s pushed the boundaries of the typical.
In 2005, she won a Catered Arts Through Innovative Excellence, or CATIE, an award from the International Caterers Association, for a concept that she called mini-meals. That idea, now known as small plates, has since become popular. It’s one of three CATIE awards that Thyme to Cook has won, among other honors.
She is also one of two caterers in New England certified by the Green Restaurant Association.
Thirty years ago, Sample was a nurse practitioner who started a small specialty food shop and cooking school in the backwoods of North Stonington. Today, that business is a well-known off-premises catering company that operates between Boston and New York. Although the bulk of her business is weddings, she said, she has catered everything from small private parties to corporate events.
One of the keys to her business, Sample said, is using local foods.
“We source as local as possible,” she said.
Sometimes that means developing relationships with local farmers, and sometimes that means picking pineapple sage, Japanese parsley, or other herbs from her own garden.
She also focuses on creating “a wonderful guest experience,” not just serving food. When she listens to guests leave a wedding she’s catered, she doesn’t want to hear “that was nice.”
“We want to hear guests say, ‘that was so them,’” she said.
Working in venues that aren’t designed for restaurant service, such as airport terminals, museums, and even once atop a tall ship, can offer challenges, but Sample said she’s prepared for them. “You have to anticipate everything,” she said. “It’s quite a logistical feat, really, to keep food hot.”
Sample and her crew build a field kitchen at every site. “No matter what happens behind the scenes, we make it work,” she said.
A Thyme to Cook has 15 full-time employees, and can have up to 150 people, such as valet parkers and bartenders, at an event. Among the full-time workers is executive chef Rachael LaPorte. A native and resident of Lebanon, Conn., LaPorte said she grew up on a family farm and learned to cook at her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen counters.
With degrees in both culinary arts and restaurant management, LaPorte worked in commercial kitchen, taught culinary classes at Windham Technical High School, and managed a 50-seat restaurant.
LaPorte said she appreciates the emphasis on local ingredients and described her cooking style as “flexible local,” or better yet, “look out the window and see what we’re cooking.”
Her favorite items to cook, she said, are the foods that are difficult to cook well.
“I love cooking the boneless short ribs,” she gave as an example. “Anyone can throw a steak on a grill, but it takes an artist to cook a working muscle.”
“I work in one of the best kitchens ever, because we all respect each other, and we truly care about the product we put out,” she added. “It translates into the food.”
Catering clients may get the food they ask for, but at The Table, LaPorte and Sample get to bust out and be creative. The menus of past events are filled with exotic fare such as the “shiraz slow braised elk” served at the Groton New London Airport in April, and the “phyllo nest dipped in chocolate laced with local honey and filled with handcrafted truffle ‘eggs’ served with sabayon mousseline, Russian olive coulis and citrus sauce” served at the Velvet Mill in December.
“It’s an experience,” Sample said of The Table. “It’s unlike everything else.”
For more information on The Table and A Thyme to Cook, visit athymetocook.com.