On their Instagram page, The Side Door pop-up restaurant boasts impeccable service, an intimate ambiance and gourmet cooking. It might sound like any other high-end eatery in downtown Ann Arbor, but there’s one caveat. The business is run by three U-M students out of an unfinished basement.
Public policy senior Chris Wong, Business and Public Policy junior Daniel Zhang and Engineering junior Vineet Dongre are the founders of The Side Door. It’s, quite literally, a hole-in-the-wall establishment, named after the entranceway, which is located on the side of an unassuming off-campus house located in Ann Arbor’s Germantown neighborhood. The chefs — one of whom lives at the house — asked The Michigan Daily to not share the restaurant’s address to protect the owners’ privacy.
Since the business was founded at the beginning of the semester, The Side Door has served about 200 dishes to 50 students over five evenings spread out throughout the fall semester. Every meal, or “cook,” has its own theme, which have ranged from “vegetarian fusion” to a variety of global cuisines.
With just eight available seats every night, hundreds of students compete for the limited number of spots. The Side Door posts an RSVP on its Instagram account a couple of days before the dinners. The chefs told The Michigan Daily the RSVP fills up within minutes.
It’s not hard to see why. From Brûlé beet carpaccio with assorted greens to whipped goat cheese, hot honey and sauce vierge, Wong, Zhang and Dongre said they try to think outside of their box with their menus. Wong said the restaurant has three main goals: to create original dishes, provide customers with a top-notch, brand-new experience and to cultivate a community over shared meals.
“Something that we’re proudest of as a group, apart from the food that we make, is that we’re really into giving a good experience,” Wong said. “If you sign up for The Side Door, you’re signing up … without knowing who’s going to show up, and you basically come to this house, go into the basement, and you’re meeting new people, and starting new friendships.”
The self-taught chefs said they were inspired by their shared South and East Asian heritage for their first “cook.” Even though they have continued to include Chinese, Korean and Indian elements in their dishes, they have also branched out, sourcing ingredients and recipes from every corner of the world.
LSA junior Chava Makman attended The Side Door’s Thanksgiving meal on Nov. 17, which featured a Filipino-inspired Kamayan feast. She said the experience was unlike any she had ever had before. Makman added that the presentation and hospitality skills were far beyond what one might expect in a student basement.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had any Filipino food, let alone a Filipino-inspired, Thanksgiving-inspired combination meal,” Makman said. “So every dish I tried was brand new, and there were maybe five, six or seven dishes. Although they were our age, (the chefs) acted really professional. They provided an experience as if we were at a five star restaurant downtown in a city. It was superb.”
Wong, Zhang and Dongre said they hope The Side Door will continue to bring people together across campus who might not otherwise find themselves in the same room, no less around the same dinner table.
“Our third goal was to bring together people who would never, ever meet at this super big campus,” Dongre said. “In what other situation would you have a relatively intimate dinner with seven other people that you may not know? We want people to come to this thing and meet other people on campus.”
Engineering freshman Mena Nasiri said she signed up for The Side Door’s fourth cook after her sister, a junior, showed her their Instagram page. According to Wong, word-of-mouth and social media are how most people learn about The Side Door, with their Instagram followers more than quadrupling in the months since their first Cook.
When she heard about it, Nasiri said attending a cook seemed like a good way to meet people outside of the other freshmen who live in her residence hall.
“I came in a little nervous, because I have social anxiety, and (for) the first ten minutes I was kind of worried,” Nasiri said. “Most people came with people they know, but as the night went on, I really clicked with the group that was next to me. I found myself talking to most of the people by the end of the night, and that was really cool.”
Wong said that’s what happens every time.
“When we come down at the end, once all the food has been served, we see people who have never met hugging, exchanging numbers and forging new friendships, and that’s beautiful,” Wong said. “We wanted to do something really unique, and I think we’ve done it.”
Wong and Zhang initially met as members of Kappa Alpha Pi Pre-Law fraternity, where they first discovered their shared love of cooking. They then began to meet up every few weeks to cook together.
Over the summer, Zhang started to hear about students at other universities starting pop-up restaurants to serve other students.
“Something that I noticed was that a lot of other universities, like Duke, UChicago, and MIT, have these underground, higher-end student-run pop-ups where they have students serving students with their own menu items,” Zhang said. “My high school friends (attending those schools) would be sending their Instagram pages to me, and I’d be sending them to Chris (Wong), and saying ‘We should totally make this happen.’”
But the key difference between the other student-run pop-ups that Zhang heard about and The Side Door is the diversity of the food they serve, he told The Daily. According to him, there’s nowhere else that someone can taste “Kimchi Jjigae Risotto” which combines the spicy, acidic flavors from Wong’s Korean cooking with a buttery, Italian Risotto.
“A lot of other pop-up restaurants that we saw are focused on Eurocentric dishes,” Zhang said. “Ours is more specifically focused on our creativity. We are making things that haven’t been made before or seen online before.”
Even if they make it look easy, Wong, Zhang and Dongre said putting together a cook is a long and intense process that lasts weeks. While working as full time students, they have to acquire ingredients, develop their original recipes, prepare tastings and then prepare the food for the event.
“A lot of times, when we’re doing our tastings, dish testing or prepping, Vineet will be grinding on an assignment at the exact same time,” Zhang added. “He’ll be on a call with his friend trying to finish an assignment that’s due before 11:59 while he’s chopping garlic for us to make something. And usually that’s how it goes every week.”
It’s not a typical college experience, but Zhang said he would not have things any other way. Being able to give back to the campus community and running a business is not an experience everyone gets to have, he said. And it’s not something he takes for granted.
“I think it’s ultimately about prioritizing this, and being okay with not going out on a Thursday night,” Zhang said. “It’s about being able to sacrifice small things here and there, but it’s really, really rewarding.”
There’s also the challenge of cooking in a dilapidated college kitchen. Wong said they have learned to make the most of what they have and they use an extra campfire burner to cook food. They also recently started working with an outdoor grill they got from a friend.
“We have to DIY so many things,” Wong said. “The kitchen only has four burners, which is a huge problem when we have to make like 10 different things at one time — we need veggies, protein, carbs for one dish … we have to improvise.”
Chava Makman recalled seeing the chefs hard at work when she approached the restaurant for a cook.
“When I arrived, it was a blizzard, and I was running up to the side door — it was a physical “side door” — and outside I saw two guys in aprons, grilling on a barbecue, with no coat on, fully in the zone, grilling, and it turned out those were two of the cooks,” Makman said.
A four-course meal at The Side Door costs all eight customers $35, and the chefs say they need every penny to pay for ingredients. With their tight budget, they typically have no leftovers at the end of a dinner. So, after six hours of cooking, they end their night by grabbing a slice of Joe’s Pizza at 2 a.m. once they’ve scrubbed their last dish.
Student volunteers also come to the house to help the chefs clean up when they can.
LSA junior Karthik Pasupula is one of those volunteers. He’s friends with both Wong and Zhang and has come to multiple cooks to help wash dishes and to serve throughout the night. He says he keeps coming back to help because loves being in the environment that Zhang, Wong and Dongre “cook up” in the kitchen.
“You can visualize what true passion means when they cook,” Pasupula said. “They still find time to joke around with each other, and improvise on the spot, and there’s a lot of creativity flowing.”
But the future of The Side Door is up in the air, with Zhang going abroad next semester, Dongre taking a gap semester and Wong graduating. Wong said regardless of whether or not Zhang and Dongre re-open The Side Door next fall during their senior year, he is proud of the community they helped to foster this year.
“This thing is never going to last forever, and it was never supposed to,” Wong said. “I would hope that people who were served, and people who have worked on this with us walk away with the memories of the experience and think of it as something really special they did during college.”
Daily Staff Reporter Jojo Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.