Two men wearing white aprons meet in a secret location to cook a product customers can’t get enough of. But this isn’t “Breaking Bad”: It’s Breaking Bread, Chef José DeJesus’ pop-up “social dining experience,” where he serves a seven-course tasting menu to nine guests at a location kept secret until the night before the meal.
Inspired by season five of “Breaking Bad,” in which Walter White and Jesse Pinkman operate a mobile meth lab inside houses closed for fumigation, DeJesus quit his job as a fish cook at Eataly to serve private pop-up meals in the Bronx.
“There was a point when I wanted to quit working in restaurants because I didn’t see myself moving up as fast as I wanted to,” DeJesus said. “I woke up and was like, ‘Why don’t I just work for myself?’”
He held his first few dinners at his home in the Bronx in March 2017. He invited friends and family, who helped spread the idea by word of mouth (now interested guests pay $120 to $150 for a full dinner). He met his partner, Chef Christopher Cedeño, at one of his home-cooked dinners. Cedeño has 20 years of experience working for the likes of Charlie Palmer and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but after attending two of DeJesus’ dinners, he joined him to pursue pop-up cuisine.
Sunday night, nine guests sat along a chef’s counter in the back of Mottley Kitchen in Mott Haven, facing a stovetop with two cast iron skillets. No one knew what’s on the menu until it arrived at the table, but the guests got an idea of what was to come by watching the chefs cook. First up: golden kiwi with feta cheese and mint grown in the cafe’s rooftop garden. Each diner cleaned their plate in under a minute.
DeJesus, a Bronx native with Puerto Rican roots and a culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of NYC, explained between courses that he goes by “Trill Cooker,” combining the hip-hop portmanteau of “true” and “real” with the word his kids used when they were too little to say “chef.”
For the second course, DeJesus and Cedeño threw blanched Brussels sprouts on cast iron pans to char them before plating them on a pool of anchovy sauce and sprinkling them with Parmesan and crisps. The guests discussed the irony of sprouts: as adults, we savor a food we all loathed in childhood.
DeJesus encouraged guests to ask questions, and they do. How does he know the food will be good if he doesn’t taste it as he cooks? He uses his eyes, nose and years of experience. How has the business of being a chef changed for him? He networks through social media rather than, say, a billboard. This intimate back-and-forth is one of Breaking Bread’s biggest draws. According to DeJesus, “The experience is not based on how shiny the chandeliers are, but more based on the food and the chef experience you’re getting.”
Everyone is settled in after a few courses, and the dishes seemed to come faster. Cavatelli with guanciale and red onions. Crispy branzino — an ideal fish because it doesn’t taste too fishy, Cedeño said — with plum tomatoes, capers and herbs in a tomato vinaigrette. Pork belly, torched avocado and yucca with chimichurri.
For dessert, there was passion fruit ice cream with coconut whipped cream and toasted coconut sprinkled on top. DeJesus ended the meal with “chocolate excuses,” chocolate chip cookies made from his 11-year-old daughter’s recipe.
It’s easy to see how DeJesus’ name spread, ultimately landing him a spot as a rookie on the Rookies vs. Veterans season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which airs Sept. 28. But there’s no yelling in this kitchen, just a communal appreciation of food.
One of the guests, Liz Pagan, 47, a friend of Cedeño’s, summed it up aptly. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”