by Jesma Reynolds
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a recent crisp spring Sunday, and Raleigh Denim Workshop is humming. But it’s not the whirring of sewing machines that typically enliven the space – this is the weekend, after all. Today, the workshop is temporarily occupied by a small and scrappy band of cooks prepping for a pop-up dinner by Snap Pea Underground.
In a few hours, 50 guests – all of whom managed to buy a ticket before the event sold out in under 15 minutes – will arrive for a nine-course meal. It will be inspired by the making of denim, from the planting of cotton through the final garment construction. But the diners don’t know that yet. They received the location’s address only 48 hours earlier, and have no idea what the meal will entail. No matter. The regulars among them know they’re about to experience an extraordinary meal.
The mastermind behind this endeavor is Jacob Boehm, 27, who is in constant motion. Boyish in rubber chef clogs, faded jeans, and a red baseball cap pushed up and askew, he surveys the operations. He checks the cooking area set up on an outside loading dock and inspects a food-prepping station near the banquet table. He misses no detail. He zeroes in on a box of pea tendrils, plucking out a few unsuitable ones. He readjusts a place setting so a grouping of fork, plate, and napkin are just-so.
The logistics of staging a multi-course dinner in a manufacturing warehouse are massive, but it’s this level of fastidiousness and relentless purpose that has successfully launched Boehm’s vision for “wildly creative concept dinners” in undisclosed locations around the Triangle every four weeks. Serving a locally sourced, plant-based (the meals are vegetarian, but that’s not their defining purpose), delicious, inventive, and sustainable nine-course dinner seems plenty ambitious, but not for Boehm. He’s equally interested in connecting food to place, telling stories, and weaving them into the meals he hosts in locations around the Triangle. They have included the Hunt Library at N.C State, the rooftop of Citrix, the banks of the Haw River, and a food market in Durham.A self-taught cook, Boehm says the experimental nature of his creations are the most organic way he can express himself. As a music and theatrical lighting design student at Stanford University, he presented a similar multi-course concept dinner for a final class project. After a stint working for James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker at Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Ore., he returned to his native Chapel Hill to launch his vision. Partnering with pastry chef Rachel Schmidt, formerly of The Umstead Hotel and Spa, he has elevated the pop-up dining experience for foodies in the area.
Emails are sent out to a mailing list each month, and usually all three dinners in a series sell out right away. Tickets are generally in the range of $85. Demand has been high enough that Boehm recently branched out to launch a new series of Thai street food pop-ups called Thai Yum-Yum with tickets in the $45 range. They’ve also sold out within minutes. An avid traveler, Boehm has a soft spot for Thai cuisine, something he gained experience cooking at Pok-Pok; he claims no one in the area is making the kind of food enjoys eating when he goes abroad.
Back at Raleigh Denim, it’s now 6:30 p.m. and guests are trickling in, wine bottles in hand – Snap Pea is BYOB. With no designated seating, parties fill in where chairs are empty, making for a truly communal dining experience. There’s a foursome from Durham comprised of a Duke surgeon, a metal artist, an Istanbul native, and his North Carolinian wife. A recently relocated couple from San Francisco who work in technology beam as they describe the earthly paradise they’ve made their Raleigh home: a mini-farm complete with chickens and room to grow vegetables, they say, plus a never-ending list of DIY projects. They remark on how unpretentious folks in the area seem to be, and with that, Boehm taps a water glass, setting the stage for the multi-course meal, telling the story of the food we’re about to eat and how it relates to the making of denim.
And just like that, the afternoon’s controlled chaos converts to a seamless presentation of both food and Southern agrarian history. Strangers quickly become dinner companions, engaging in each course by chiming in with questions for Boehm and responses to his narrative. They also leave their seats, getting up to visit the food prep area, as Boehm and his team have encouraged them to do. Six courses in, no one seems to miss the meal’s lack of meat, but everyone is becoming plenty full and plenty informed about King Cotton and garment-making. This is the New South, after all.
Next comes the first of three (yes, three) desserts. A cube of sorghum brown sugar cake rests on top of a purple sweet potato jam accented by sorghum and pecan krispies, representing the cutting phase of denim-making. This is followed by a black sesame brownie with blood orange and honey curd and topped with stitches of coconut caramelized white chocolate, which represent sewing – and also honor Raleigh Denim’s 82-year-old pattern maker, who was the second person hired at Levi Strauss. Though ingredients are simple and minimal, the resulting dishes are anything but straightforward. The flavors are complex and unexpected.
As guests linger for questions and answers, Boehm reminds them how their participation in the dinners has a direct impact on local growers and purveyors by putting money back into the local economy. And he tells them to be on the lookout for an email announcing next month’s dinner series later in the week, which as expected, will sell out in less than 15 minutes.
4 medium red beets with tops, peeled and tops removed and reserved
10 cups water
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 head of green garlic or 4 cloves of regular garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
4 tablespoons of olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
3 ounces feta, shaved
Flaky sea salt
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F
Shred 2 of the beets. Bring the water to a boil in a large pot, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer.
Meanwhile, dice the other 2 beets. Heat a large, wide pot over medium-high. Melt butter and add onion, beets, garlic, and 1 tablespoon of salt and sauté until softened, about 10 minutes.
Clean reserved beet green and trim most of the stem off the leaf. Toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Arrange in one layer on a parchment-lined sheet pan and roast until crisp and dehydrated. If they are browning too quickly, simply lower the heat.
While the beet greens are roasting, strain beet-infused water and return to the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
Add rice to the onion-beet pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is a bit toasted, about 5 minutes, then add 2 cups of broth. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring constantly, until liquid has evaporated. Continue adding broth 1 cup at a time as rice absorbs liquid, stirring constantly and simmering until rice is tender, about 30–40 minutes. You might have beet stock left over.
Finish the risotto by stirring in the lemon juice. Serve by topping with the shaved feta, crispy beet greens, a drizzle of the remaining olive oil, and a pinch of flaky sea salt.
Serves 4. Total time: 1 hour.
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