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The St. Louis chefs turning big ideas into bite-size pop-ups

Side by side portraits of chefs Brandon Panosh and MJ Stewart.
Danny Wicentowski
Chefs Brandon Panosh and MJ Stewart are behind two very different kinds of St. Louis food pop-ups.

Outside the bustle of a full-service restaurant, St. Louis chefs like MJ Stewart and Brandon Panosh have embraced the “pop-up” concept, a smaller-scale offering focused around a particular dish, cuisine or atmosphere.

For Stewart, who works as an expeditor at Bowood by Niche, a passion for pastry led to a pop-up dedicated to desserts. She opened it in October under the name DNFT. It offers a three-course, all-dessert tasting menu, as well as a la carte options. The name DNFT is based on a food industry in-joke, frequently seen on the “do not touch” notes left by exasperated and profanity-inclined pastry chefs seeking to protect their sweet ingredients from kitchen coworkers.

“Pastry chefs have to write that on their prep because we create all the tasty treats, and everybody wants to eat them,” Stewart said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It’s like my inside joke to pastry chefs.”

With its smaller, more focused scope, the pop-up model allows chefs to focus on making the sort of food they want to create, added Stewart.

“I'm able to just come up with ideas in my brain and put them down and not have to worry about, ‘Will these people, in this part of the city, be open to that and [pay] this much money for it?’ Instead of that, people are coming to my pop-up to see what I have, which is kind of fun.”

Meanwhile, Panosh’s pop-up, Dinner at the Loft — which he’s run for more than a year with fellow chef Elliott Brown — has provided him the chance to craft meticulous dinner parties. And he includes participants in the planning process.

“It all comes down to what the guest is looking for,” said Panosh, who also serves as executive chef at Winslow’s Table in University City. “It’s just fun for all of us, to sit down and kind of just collaborate on everything with what we have available and different ingredients we're excited about.”

While large parties arrange their own venues, smaller groups find themselves at the aforementioned loft (belonging to Elliott Brown) in Midtown. Gathered around the table, strangers get to know each other over food and cocktails. For Panosh, the result is a welcome reminder of the large family dinners he experienced growing up with four siblings.

“It was very nice, to continue to do that for other people,” he said. “It’s very fun, and not just cooking — you're also creating the atmosphere.”

For information about reserving a seat at Brandon Panosh’s table, visit the pop-up’s Instagram at Dinner at the Loft. If you’re dying to try one of MJ Stewart’s pastries, keep an eye out on the DNFT Instagram for news on the January pop-up location.

To hear more from Panosh and Stewart, and to hear Sauce Magazine Executive Editor Meera Nagarajan discuss the trend of pop-ups and “nontraditional dining experiences,” listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Talking pop-ups with Sauce's Meera Nagarajan and chefs Brandon Panosh and MJ Stewart

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org. 

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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