Hillsboro-area chef turns Haitian cooking into pop-up eatery
Elsy Dinvil was 5 years old when she started cooking in her mother's kitchen.
She remembers mixing spices for her mom's recipes, and the pair would spend hours preparing meals for her family in their home in Jérémie, Haiti, about 180 miles from the nation's capital, Port-au-Prince.
"I love cooking," Dinvil said matter-of-factly in a thick Creole accent as she drizzled sauce onto a fried pork dish in her Aloha kitchen. "I really do. That is when I really come to life."
Five months ago, Dinvil, 46, made a major career shift. She left a decade-long career in the financial sector to start Creole Cravings, a restaurant and catering service specializing in the foods Dinvil grew up on: plantains, beans and rice and other staples from her Haitian upbringing.
But you won't find Dinvil's restaurant on your next drive through town. Instead, her restaurant is part of an ongoing trend in the industry toward temporary "pop-up" restaurants, which offer customers unique food items and experience for only a few days, or a few hours, at a time.
"I didn't have the money to invest in a food truck," Dinvil said. "For years, people told me to open a restaurant, but I didn't think I was good enough to offer my cooking to the public. I was not sure if I could do it."
Once a month, Dinvil sends an email out to a growing list of interested eaters, along with a menu for that month's dishes. Customers pre-order and pick up their food on the day of the pop-up.
Creole Cravings is hosting its next pop-up event Monday, Jan. 29, at Tamale Boy, 668 N. Russell St., in Portland, offering a four-course Haitian dinner to anyone who wants it. Customers are asked to pre-order their meals online.
Check it out
What: Creole Cravings pop-up restaurant
When: Monday, Jan. 29
Where: Tamale Boy, 668 N. Russell St., Portland
More info: creolecravings.maxcheckout.com
Portland and Washington County are largely devoid of Haitian and Caribbean restaurants, and Dinvil said low-cost pop-up restaurants are a great way to introduce the community to a new type of food without investing in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
"It's scary," she said. "People don't like to try new types of food."
So far, most of Dinvil's events have been in Portland, but she said she'd like to bring the concept of pop-up restaurants to Washington County.
"Most of my customers come from Hillsboro and Beaverton," she said. "I'd love to do something closer to home for them."
Dinvil has gained a small but devoted fan base for her cooking. She posts regularly on social media and said a community has started to form around her table.
"The idea at first was that people would pick up their food and go home and eat it, but at our events we have Haitian music playing, and people sit together and eat," she said. "They don't know each other, but they are building relationships with the people they see at our events, and they're building friendships."
That trend is being seen across the restaurant industry. The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't approach to dining has been increasingly popular over the last several years.
With no steady salaries or monthly rent to worry about, the business model is seen as a lower-cost way to test out new ideas or gain exposure without having to invest thousands in a new restaurant venture.
Pop-up restaurants need only a place to set up for the day, usually in existing restaurants, homes or rental space, relying largely on word of mouth and the use of social media to gain followers.
Dinvil fell into the business model by accident, she said.
"I didn't know there was such a thing as a pop-up restaurant until after I started doing it," she confessed. "I'd only heard of pop-ups for clothing, like trunk shows."
According to the National Restaurant Association, pop-up restaurants aren't going anywhere — and have been seen as a rising trend in the industry.
The concept took off a few years ago, according to online event organizer Eventbrite, after the use of pop-up restaurants saw an 82 percent year-over-year growth between 2013 and 2014. In 2016, the site continued to list the business model as the fastest growing trend in culinary events on its site.Cooking is more than just a business for Dinvil — it's a spiritual experience, she said.
"I love the joy of having a bunch of ingredients and coming out with something new," she said. "The love and the care that goes into it? Cooking is about more than just 'not being hungry.' It isn't just food for your body, it's for your soul."
Dinvil emigrated to the U.S. after high school and said it was difficult to adjust to American life, at first. She spoke limited English and struggled in community college.
"I cried every day," she said. "It was July, but it was still cold, for me. For a while I tried to move out of Portland, but I don't like any other state. This is my home. After Haiti, this is my home."
Dinvil's food connects her to a culture more than 3,000 miles away, she said, and helps people understand her country in a way they don't see on the news.
"When someone hears about Haiti, it's usually about poverty, children begging in the streets or the lack of cleanliness," she said. "But there is another side. I didn't know the world viewed Haiti that way until I moved out of Haiti. There is poverty, there are struggles, sure, but people haven't given up on life. They are trying to make the best out of what they have.
"I want to represent my culture well. They don't have much, but get some music, and someone cooking rice and beans, and you've got a party. They do so much with what they have, and I want to do that through my food."
Someday, Dinvil said she'd like to open a traditional restaurant — giving her food a permanent home in Washington County — but she says she's not in a hurry.
"I would like to have a location they can identify me with, but I'm enjoying this model," Dinvil said. "But if I do, I'd still like to do pop-ups. I'm liking that model, at least for now."
Editor's Note: This story originally included the wrong name for Dinvil's business, Creole Cravings.
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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