Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”
The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).
“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.
Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.
“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”
Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.
But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.
“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”
For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.
One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”
For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.
Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.
Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.
Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.
Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals
“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”
For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.
“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”
Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day