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Have you ever dreamed of opening your own restaurant but didn't want to make a career out of it? What if you could open up for only a day - just for the fun of it?
A group of food-loving friends from Finland wanted to make this possible, and in the spring of 2011 they decided to do something about it. In their home city of Helsinki, they created a social movement that celebrates food and restaurant culture for just 24-hours. They named it Restaurant Day. But what they started as a way to bypass local laws is turning into a global phenomenon.
Timo Santala, one of the founders of the groundbreaking event, explains: “Restaurant Day is a food carnival, where anyone can set up their own restaurant, cafe or bar for a day, anywhere they want. It happens four times a year and it’s a celebration of food culture, crazy restaurant concepts and togetherness.”
The idea came when Santala’s friend Antti Tuomola tried to set up a restaurant in the archipelago of Helsinki. Stringent regulations iprevented the project from getting off the ground, so Tuomola called upon friends Olli Sirén and Santala for help. They discovered that restrictions didn’t apply to pop-up restaurants, as long as they opened for one day only.
This led to a brainstorming session, a Facebook page, and a social media campaign that captured people’s imaginations. In May 2011, the first Restaurant Day saw around 40 one-day pop-up restaurants open in towns and cities all over Finland. On street corners, in public parks and in private homes, even on the beach, everyday folks set up restaurants, cafes and bars selling everything and anything, from gourmet hamburgers to exotic delicacies from far-flung corners of the earth.
“We get so many global kitchens - immigrants who open up restaurants, people who have travelled somewhere and want to share something - we had fried grasshoppers a couple of times,” says Santala. Just about anybody can participate, whether they have experience of working in a restaurant or not. And the theme for your restaurant can be as conventional or as crazy as you like.
Last May, two Finnish friends opened a spoof North Korean restaurant serving Asian-influenced food. “There was also a champagne tasting and a molecular kitchen on a hot-air balloon flight,” says Santala. “And there was one guy who opened up a frozen pizzeria that served up Dr Oetker pizzas from the local supermarket, heated up in an electric oven. It was a mockery restaurant concept. It was hugely popular.”
Aside from all the wild and wacky pop-up concepts, there are some gastronomic gems to savour. “I’ve tasted so many good things,” says Santala. “Last August we had a four-course meal at a Finnish-Italian couple’s home. They had such amazing food. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Inclusivity is key Restaurant Day’s success, but participation is not confined to enthusiastic amateurs. On the second Restaurant Day, chefs from Chez Dominique, Helsinki’s only two Michelin star restaurant, took a day off from their usual duties.
“They just decided to go barbecuing hamburgers in the park and giving them away for free,” says Santala. “It was Michelin star hamburgers in a park.”
Restaurant Day is changing people’s attitudes to food and restaurants in Finland, but its influence is spreading much further afield. The last event in November 2012 saw almost 800 restaurants take part in 25 countries. Pop-ups have appeared in Brazil, Costa Rica, Australia, Thailand and Japan. “A real movement is building up at the moment in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Amsterdam, Holland - good Restaurant Days with more than 10 restaurants participating,” says Santala.
As the next Restaurant Day on February 17th approaches, pop-ups around the world are registering . Rio de Janeiro's Cuisine Rouge promises burgers and juices made with fresh ingredients from a coffee plantation zone. Meanwhile, in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, there will be three pop-ups including one in the form of an Eskimo’s igloo.
It sounds like fun, and according to Timo Santala, that’s the whole point. “I make the comparison that kids play doctor and stuff like that, but on Restaurant Day we play restaurants.”
The next Restaurant Day takes place on February 17, 2013. Restaurant Day takes place four times a year, in February, May, August and November, and anyone can take part.