The aerospace engineers at Tucson’s World View Enterprises could’ve had KFC cater the launch of its spicy chicken sandwich into space earlier this summer, and presumably fed Zingers to all of mission control. It would’ve made plenty of marketing sense. Instead, Chef Riley Chandler got the job.
Of course, having Chandler—a rising star in Tucson’s culinary scene—cater anything and everything makes perfect sense, too. But it turns out that World View and Chandler’s Pop-Up Tucson were a logical pairing, as well—young ventures, with stratospheric ambitions.
“You know, World View had a few delayed attempts (of the KFC launch),” Chandler says. “So, I delivered about 30 meals to their headquarters over several days, feeding everyone in mission control. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
“Just being a part of that was mind-blowing!”
A year ago, the launch of Pop-Up Tucson was nearly as buzzy as Rob Lowe’s KFC Zinger commercial—so much so that nearly every foodie in Tucson wrote about Chandler. Modern dining in scenic locations, the stories read, shrouded in mystery. A homegrown kid from a working-class family, who learned from James Beard-winner Janos Wilder and was inspired by friend and Phoenix pop-up innovator Chef TJ Culp. And he learned to cook from the Italian grandmother he adored, who commanded her own kitchen until she was 99.
Who doesn’t love this guy’s story?
“We got off to a great start,” Chandler, 23, tells me at a local Starbucks one recent afternoon. “But now it’s time to step up our game and see what we can really do with this.”
Through his first few pop-ups, there wasn’t much of a “we” in the traditional sense. Pop-Up Tucson has been almost all Chandler, though he’s collaborated with lots of Arizona talent, including Culp and his friend James Piazza of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. But as he prepares to kick off his second season of pop-up dinners with Pop-Up Tucson’s first-anniversary hors’ d’oeuvres party on August 19-20, Chandler believes he’s created a more permanent “dream team” that includes Marival’s Chef Kyle Nottingham, 28, and Ryan Moore, 23, who now manages Pop-Up Tucson’s hospitality operations.
“Ryan brings a lot to the table,” Chandler says of his longtime friend, who is ending his six-year tenure at North Italia at La Encantada to begin working for another Sam Fox restaurant in Tucson, Culinary Dropout, this November. “He’s the only one ambitious enough to call me to pursue a collaboration. He said, ‘Hey man, I like what you’re doing. I want to work for you.’”
“Front of the house is not my specialty,” Chandler says. “With Ryan (who will manage Culinary Dropout’s 150-person banquet facility), I know that he has everything taken care of, and I can just concentrate on the food.”
Moore first worked with Chandler at a Pop-Up Tucson event last winter inside a hidden garage at Armory Park’s Owls Club. He saw first-hand that they both share the passion and motivation to make Pop-Up Tucson successful.
“Riley motivates me to hustle harder,” says Moore, who’s known Chandler since before they were in high school—Moore at Sabino, and Chandler at Tucson High. “The thing about him I like the most is that he’s not afraid to try anything. Nothing is stopping that guy.”
The only thing Moore thought would improve Pop-Up Tucson was for Chandler to make more food, more often. With many of Chandler’s events selling out within 48 hours after being announced, Moore told his friend he wanted greater consistency—at least one event every month. Chandler, of course, is overachieving. This upcoming season, Pop-Up Tucson will host four pop-up events each month.
Chandler is also placing greater emphasis on his chef’s table option—a sort of “front row” ticket, as Chandler describes it, that places VIP customers right in front of the cooking and includes top-flight wine selections poured generously—so that foodies can have a more intimate and informative experience. Details can be found on his new website, popuptucson.com, which he redesigned himself, and a forthcoming app Chandler hopes to have finished sometime in the next several months.
As for Nottingham, the executive sous chef at Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa, Chandler began working with him at Pop-Up Tucson’s Top Floor event last March.
“We did that pop-up in a penthouse condo, above 44 Broadway,” Chandler says. “We had 360-degree city views, and so much modern art it was almost like a museum. Stainless-steel kitchen, chef’s table there on the island with six people right in front of us. That was one of my favorite locations, and the first one with Kyle.”
Chandler and Nottingham mixed local ingredients with some a bit more exotic, including Iberico ham, caviar and edible gold flakes.
“It’s a lot of stuff I didn’t have access to before I worked with Kyle because I was on a minimal budget,” Chandler says. “But resorts can get all kinds of things, which is why I’m really excited about this collaboration, being able to use ingredients from Miraval’s garden that are grown right here in town. We pick all kinds of stuff from their garden, which they graciously allow us to do. They even have a beekeeper on property, and we’ll be using honeycombs in some of our desserts.”
Chandler says that collaborating with local purveyors is a priority, and he’s expanded his network for the upcoming season, including the University of Arizona’s Tucson Village Farm, which he visits every Tuesday for their U-Pick night. He’s also working with Top Knot Farms in Benson for much of his poultry, including chicken, duck, turkey and quail; Pivot Produce and Chef Erik Stanford, who also trained under Janos Wilder; and Cindy Gardens & Farm Co-Op, which sells at retail farmers’ markets on weekends and works for a network of Baja Arizona farmers.
It’s no surprise that Chandler isn’t complacent with his first-year success, working harder the more popular Pop-Up Tucson becomes. It’s a work ethic he’s displayed from the beginning.
“When I first started Pop-Up Tucson, the very first event, promotion wise, was literally only me, by myself, because TJ was in (Phoenix) and his reach was to those people,” Chandler says. “I had no staff to speak of and none of my friends could afford fine dining. I had to figure out a way to fill up 30 seats in 30 days. I did it the only way I knew how—footwork.”
Chandler says he printed business card-shaped flyers with all the information for the event and a phone number to call to reserve a seat. There was no website. Chandler was generating interest by doing tastings at Williams & Sonoma in the Foothills, handing out business cards at the same time. The event ultimately sold out after two weeks of personal face time.
Chandler is almost offended that “people often look past” the time and energy he’s put into Pop-Up Tucson. “People just think I was wildly popular from the go,” he says. “Yeah, Pop-Up Tucson is a great idea, but like any other idea you have to find a way for people to hear about it. The internet is now our biggest growth tool and footwork is no longer required, but I will always be proud of the work I put in to get this started.”
Location and menu secrecy will also continue to be part of Pop-Up Tucson’s appeal and marketing strategy. But Chandler is willing to tease one ingredient in particular native to Baja Arizona.
“Thanks to all the rain we’ve had this summer,” Chandler says, “expect to see lots of prickly pears on the menu this season. They’re beautiful and they’re everywhere.”
Header image courtesy of Pop-Up Tucson.