Why the Chef Behind LA’s Hottest Pop-Up Doesn’t Want Her Own Restaurant

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One of the reasons Angelenos trek down a pebbly pathway to find Zoë Komarin’s buzzy Wednesday morning Zoë Food Party pop-ups in a backyard behind Highland Park’s Collage Coffee — marked by hand-drawn signs with a Clarissa Explains It All 90s vibe — is that Komarin looks like she’s having the most fun someone could possibly have cooking. While she builds breakfast sandwiches in fluffy handmade pitas, the infectiously enthusiastic chef is puffing up said pitas in bamboo steamers, laughing with her husband, Udi, chatting with customers, even convincing non-beet believers to try a spoonful of her garlicky pickled beets.

Then there are the pita sandwiches themselves, multilayered, ever-changing treasure hunts that might include, say, baby potato salad, green arugula “romesco,” quick pickles and Potato Sticks (yes, those), before ending with a few bites of scrambled eggs and homemade labne.

Although her gatherings these days are casual, Komarin is no stranger to the restaurant world: She helped open Tel Aviv’s lauded Cafe Xoho, before leaving Tel Aviv for New York City and ultimately settling in L.A. two years ago. “We’d been doing pop-up dinner parties in New York and Berlin, but after a year, I was exhausted. I wasn’t feeling the fun,” Komarin explains. “At Xoho, the cooks had more fun than anyone else in the room. People would hang out and watch. When I came up with Zoë Food Party, it was meant to capture that every time I’m gathering people to eat food, it’s a party.”

Zoe Komarin assembles a pita. Photo by Christ Parker

That “party” first meant L.A. pop-ups centered around a freshly baked item (bagels, mostly) before Komarin turned her attention to pita. “No one in L.A. was making fluffy, soft pitas, the type you live on in Tel Aviv,” Komarin says. “So pita was at the top of my list of ‘dough goals’ at the beginning of this year. For two weeks, I made two batches a day, and on the 14th day, I unlocked it.”

Komarin has no plans to turn her weekly gig into a restaurant. And while she may not take food too seriously, make no mistake: She puts a lot of thought into every event and bite. We sat down with Komarin recently to chat about pop-ups, pita, and passing on restaurant life.

Eater: When did you decide the restaurant world wasn’t for you?

Zoë Komarin: When we left Tel Aviv, Udi and I traveled to Southeast Asia for half the year. Three weeks in, I had a herniated disk and a pinched nerve. I went for treatment and physical therapy in Hong Kong. The work you do in restaurants is so repetitive and so laborious, and the hours are horrific. I knew after the injury, which luckily didn’t involve surgery, that I’d never go back to a standard kitchen again.

Describe the Zoë Food Party experience.

It’s a little bit like accidentally showing up to someone’s backyard. When you get there, you know everybody even though you’ve never met anyone. You’re watching something unfold in front of you. Then there’s what I call “the dig.” I’ll put up to ten or 11 components in a pita. Eating it is childlike and messy. You’re going to have food on your face and hands. It’s why we coined “Bend to the Pita,” too, not just as a nod to worshipping it, but because you have to lean in to eat it. I think energetically it’s breaking some of the seriousness of foodie culture.

What’s your response when you’re asked about opening a restaurant?

I don’t want to be locked under the details and minutiae of the business. Kitchens are five-alarm fires all day every day. In my case, not to sound ego-driven, but why I really love about what I do is linked to my feeling as an artist. The pita parties are mini collections that take on a life of their own. The restaurant framework abuses people’s lives. Their backs hurt, their hips hurt. That can be great, but if you are a food person and you love cooking/feeding people, we have to invent new spaces.

So what do you envision for Zoë Food Party?

I’d love to lead workshops and gatherings where we maybe talk about food history. That’s something I’m working on, as well as some collaborations. In a dream world, Zoë Food Party might be a space but it’s not a restaurant. I keep things improvisational, and I’m more comfortable growing a network where people tell me what they need. If there were a long-term plan, there might be the evolution of a space, that might incorporate everything from a pop-up vibe to a CSA to a small production space…but it’s not a restaurant. It could be anything, really.

Karen Palmer is a Los Angeles-based writer and runs a pizza pop-up called Pain Pizza.