“If you do a pop-up restaurant in Hong Kong, and 400 people come to it, you’ll meet enough people to open 20 restaurants in 20 countries,” says the nomadic 25-year old English chef James Sharman, as he huddles over a makeshift bamboo table. He’s in the vacant basement of Beijing’s Opposite House hotel, where his traveling dinner series, One Star House Party, will begin to put that theory to practice over the next two years.
For the past few weeks, Sharman and four friends have been engaged in a mix of culinary anthropology and light construction, as they hustle to develop a menu and build a temporary restaurant. They have even hand-carved the wooden spoons diners will use to consume the multi-course menu inspired by China’s imperial history. “I love building a menu from an experience,” he says. “A chef can research an ingredient at home on the internet then carefully source it once he’s arrived, but it’s so much more palatable to immerse yourself in a culture and build out a dish from an experience you’ve had.” Traveling around the globe, they will repeat this process — each month, they will spend three weeks researching and building a pop-up restaurant, and the final week serving food — over the two-year duration of the project, which will culminate with another (homecoming) dinner in Hong Kong.
Nomadic since adolescence, Sharman has no shortage of experiences to impart through cooking. He moved out of his parents’ home at the age of 15, working as a kitchen porter in his native Leicestershire before becoming a protégé of the British chef Tom Aikens. In his early days, he slept in Aikens’s Kitchen. And by the time he earned more suitable accommodations, fast rising through the ranks of Aikens’s Chelsea and Hong Kong restaurants, Sharman departed for a six-month stint at Noma in Copenhagen. Incapable of staying still, he’d capitalize on his off days, returning to Hong Kong to moonlight as a private chef. “I’d finish work on a Saturday night, pack into a suitcase all the pieces for a 12-course menu, catch the late flight and go straight to cooking dinner for a half dozen people,” he recalls. “Then I’d fly back to Denmark, and be back at work Tuesday morning without anyone knowing I was gone.” As Noma prepared to close, and to relocate for a pop-up dinner series held earlier this year in Sydney, Sharman returned to Hong Kong to devise one of his own making.
Over the past six months he calibrated the One Star House Party engine — its name a nod to both Michelin stars and a good time — with test runs in New York, San Francisco, Taipei and Seoul. Along the way, he recruited four friends (a former manager of London’s Soho House and a chef from the Ledbury among them) for the unpaid, two-year global odyssey. Every few months, the team will conceive an additional, more elaborate, experience to cover their overhead. They’ll trek across Nepal, from Kathmandu to the base camp of Mount Everest, to extend the courtesy of their cooking to the Sherpas, and in the new year they’ll cook aboard a no-frills train rolling past India’s tea fields, providing traveling diners with an experience that evokes Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” — while inching closer to their next destination, for cheap. Above, the One Star House Party team shares photos from their first month working together abroad.