You are walking down a cobblestoned Italian road. The street is quiet. It’s Sunday and almost nothing is open. Most people are still in bed, or sharing cappuccinos and cornettos in the little cafés that break this standstill. You are guided by a worn out set of instructions, passed down from student to student, and you find them a bit complicated and confusing. So instead, you follow the scattering of people you recognize from here and there, as you duck into an unmarked courtyard. Those in the know have already made themselves comfortable around one long, rooming house style table; it is nothing more than a converted old sign that says ‘Food’, coupled with two benches. Others stand or sit, impatiently in the hope of their hangovers will soon be cured, and their bellies filled. A smart tongued, blond chef is singing in the window as he cooks. You’ve made it! You’ve made it to the brunch!
The fair haired man behind it all was Dan, an Australian student attending the University of Gastronomic Sciences (or UNISG) Masters’ program and was two sessions above mine. He ran a pop-up café serving brunch every Sunday out of the courtyard of his first floor apartment. He loved good food. He loved making good food, sharing good food, and seeing our smiling, bulging faces devouring the good food he made. You knew he loved all of this - as all UNISG students do - whether he showed it when he went home early from a Saturday night out leaving the rest of us behind so he could start the breads for the next morning, or when he met with produce vendors to assure where they got their goods. But more than anything else, he was creating a space, a meeting space, a sharing space, an extension of the University that was not associated with it in the least, but where the minds alike converged. I’m not sure whether that was his intention from the start, or whether that was just a by-product of what he did for the joy of it.
The café always seemed to me as a symbol of the very exciting ideas and events that were and are happening as an extension of the university. My introduction to the pop-up café concept was from the perspective of an outsider to the food world in general, and I considered it innovative and non-normative, a little like the university. I saw this concept as a place for freedom and creativity, where there was room for risk without institutional constraints. Just being a simple bystander, I found myself wanting to start something new.
The morning he made us beignets stands out in my mind. I don’t need to describe the beignets because you’ve heard all the descriptors before: fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside, pillowy and light in general; Dan’s and these hit all those standards and more. Brunch at Dan’s was as much spicy Thai curries with smuggled in chili pastes, as it was Italian sugos or fresh made French breads, it was chips and burgers and bastardized versions of American pigs in a blanket with pancetta. There were always desserts and peanut butter French toast with a whipped cream to top so memorable that everyone still talks about it. The stuff of international university students’ dreams made it to that menu: it was diverse, a little bit fatty and it was cooked by someone else! But, quite simply,Sunday brunch was every meeting place, coffee shop, pub, bar, bakery. The food was good, but the food was not the most important thing.
In the end, it was about Dan –his personality, his appearance, the way he made you feel at ease right away in his company. He had this wild and unruly hair: kind of curly, kind of knotty, blonde, always tied into a pony-tail. He would wear these outrageous outfits, vests without shirts, khaki or mustard yellow shorts, horn-rimmed glasses, all sorts of hats - wide brimmed, fedoras, Indiana Jones’, and all of that sort of thrown in together. His clothes were more of an extension of his wild personality - his massive gesticulating, his excited shouting, his insane expressions, his thick Aussie accent. I wonder whether the success of the café would have happened without his inviting and somewhat kooky personality. As much as the café was about the interactions that we had amongst the other patrons, it was about the stories and fun that could be had behind the counter with him. In the end, my favourite memory of his brunches was how he would sing as he cooked, wooing the food, telling it how lovely it was. He was courting you and it.