Foregoing the traditional restaurant model, Chef Louis Robinson has the freedom to experiment with his gourmet pop-up dining events.
Louis Robinson was looking for a creative outlet. Growing up in Oakland and San Francisco, he fell in love with the Bay Area’s abundance of ethnic street food — especially tacos.
A staple of his teenage diet, this was the spark that ignited his lifelong passion for food. With no formal training, the chef got his start working in Bay Area restaurants, perfecting his craft and learning the industry.
As he continued to develop his skills as a chef, he knew he wanted to create something of his own.
“There’s only so much you can do, working for someone else,” he says. “It’s their business, their concept and their menu. I loved the chance to do something creative, but I wanted to be able to take it even farther.”
After moving to Sarasota in 2012, Robinson opened Spice last year, to do just that. Through the business, he works as a private chef, but his main focus is on pop-up gourmet-dining events.
He’s created a loyal following with his monthly events, for which he partners with area farms and restaurants to host farm-to-table dinners and most recently, a dinner series at Baker and Wife.
The pop-up model isn’t a common one, especially in Sarasota. But for Robinson, 32, that was one of its biggest appeals.
“In a traditional restaurant, there are certain limitations,” he says. “Unless you’re one of the best in the world, you need to design your menu to have a broad appeal. With Spice, my events are monthly. I have time to create a specialty, one-time menu with some really unique, exciting dishes that I probably couldn’t serve in a normal restaurant. It’s a constant creative challenge.”
It all starts with top-tier ingredients. Robinson orders his food from high-end specialty distributors. When developing a theme, Robinson first considers how he can incorporate an uncommon ingredient or present something familiar in a fresh way. That becomes the building block for the evening’s menu.
“I brainstorm things over the course of the month,” he says. “There are a lot of late-night experiments in my kitchen and calls to other chefs. There’s sort of a flavor memory. Everything I taste gets stored away, and you build a mental Rolodex of flavors that you know will go well with others. The more you experiment, the more you build on that.”
Robinson describes his cuisine as modern Latin Caribbean. As the name suggests, he incorporates elements of spice — especially chiles — into almost every dish. If he has one pet peeve, it’s an under seasoned dish.
His wife is from Jamaica, and he says he draws a lot of inspiration from the street food in her home country. Even in the simplest of foods, the flavors are bold, and it’s something he tries to incorporate in his meals. He plays with plating and presentation, adding a modern touch to the final product.
The monthly events offer something out of the ordinary for Sarasota diners, and there’s an element of exclusivity in a menu that’s only available for one night. Robinson is currently in the brainstorming phase of his next event. He’s considering a taco showcase, or even a Caribbean night. Whatever the theme, he says the reward comes in providing an experience.
“The food only looks beautiful on the plate for a few minutes,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about the customer’s experience. That’s what it should be — an experience. Food is powerful in that respect, and if I can tap into that, I’m doing my job.”