Ever heard of a gastro mechanic? This is what Stewart Levine and the rest of the Gastro Garage pop-up dinner crew call themselves. Why? Because they cook things — salmon, short ribs — with blowtorches, in front of seated dinners for 10, or for crowds of hundreds.
“We are not chefs. We are gastro mechanics!” says Levine at the start of his pop-up dinner events, which routinely involve “Ghostbusters”-ish outfits, with goggles and backpacks, drills and, of course, blowtorches. It’s more dinner theater than your average pop-up dinner. And you’d be wise to ditch all hair product before the show.
A seated Gastro Garage dinner includes a gastro host — one person on the crew who guides the experience and explains the menu — and an entire crew of people who torch stuff.
Levine, who worked front-of-the-house for Wolfgang Puck for seven years and has worked as the banquet manager at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, started the Gastro Garage with Adam Manacker and James Campbell three years ago. And now the trio are getting ready to open their first permanent restaurant, a 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot space in the downtown Arts District, near Salt & Straw and Wurstkuche. The restaurant is scheduled to open by the end of summer.
“The idea is to feel almost like Benihana doing tableside stuff,” said Levine of their plans for the new restaurant, which will include having stations. “I grew up experiencing those tableside restaurants, watching people debone a fish or make a Caesar salad at the table. All those things bring magic to the table.”
Levine’s version of that table magic includes a “torch me” menu of doughnuts made by Kettle Glazed in Los Feliz (everything else is made by the Gastro Garage crew). Imagine doughnuts that are filled with various foams and topped with items such as bacon or a 12-hour slow-roasted pork, or apple purée and cheddar cheese for dessert. The doughnuts are torched until they crisp up — in some case with multiple torches — and the toppings melt.
In addition to the doughnuts, there will also be a drill bit station at the restaurant, where items such as marinated Korean short ribs, salmon and butter-poached scallops will be torched on giant industrial drills. And you can also expect a gluten-free friendly salad station and cocktails.
“We built this model for franchising,” said Levine, who added that the downtown location will be the brand’s flagship. “We want to build off into smaller iterations, so you could have something like this at the Grove or elsewhere.”
Levine says the Gastro Garage has a sponsorship from BernzOmatic, one of the largest blowtorch companies in the world. Right now, he and his crew are using five different blowtorches, but plan to expand their list of power and gas-fueled tools.
“Literally I will sit around and I will torch things to see how they come out,” said Levine. “You kind of just figure it out. Like maybe don’t use the big torch on this one.”
You can experience the Gastro Garage at a Hollywood pop-up dinner through Feb. 19. Tickets start at $50. The downtown restaurant is scheduled to open later this year.
Gastro Garage pop-up, 7065 ½ Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (310) 993-3979, thegastrogarage.com.