Jimmy Wong doesn’t have any culinary training, but he’s running a wildly successful fine-dining pop-up out of his college apartment anyway. The 20-year-old — who attends Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo — draws on his cultural roots and background to create carefully cultivated Californian cuisine through an Asian American lens for diners who are helping him pay his way through school.
When Wong was 16, he started bussing tables at a Japanese restaurant near his home in Cupertino. After working his way up to a front-of-house position, he emailed every “four-dollar-sign” restaurant in his area looking to expand his food-world expertise. Chez TJ and Plumed Horse wrote him back, both of which have one Michelin star. Wong spent the summer of his high school junior year shadowing pastry chefs at both kitchens.
But the real motivation behind Wong’s pop-up, dubbed DENCH., was his time spent at Lazy Bear — a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco that also started as a pop-up. He’s also inspired by pastry chefs Francisco Migoya (Modernist Cuisine), Janice Wong (2am:dessertbar), and Melissa Chou (Master Jiu’s).
“Coming into college, it was always on my bucket list to do pop-up dinners for people after seeing people in other schools run successful pop-up restaurants out of their college apartments,” Wong told The Daily Meal. “It wasn’t until I got my own studio that I realized it was possible for me to do the dinners.”
Since September, Wong has welcomed customers into his home to indulge in a $45 five- to seven-course tasting menu. The food science major says people really take to his house-made Hokkaido-style milk bread roll brushed with melted butter and topped with Maldon sea salt, which is served alongside some “really nice” local cultured butter.
Wong gets his ingredients from local farmers markets weekly, where everything is locally, organically, and sustainably sourced. Past menus have boasted dishes including shishito poppers, 62-degree tea eggs, and beef ribeye.
“I create dishes based on the seasonality of ingredients and try to really showcase the ingredients and who I am on the plate,” the full-time student said. But because of his pastry expertise, customers enjoy his sweet treats the most.
“Since I’ve always preferred doing pastry, people also enjoy my desserts a lot,” Wong said. “Currently, I serve a dessert called Raekwon’s ice cream, which is a Valrhona chocolate ice cream served with a Valrhona chocolate cremeux, cocoa-dusted meringues, butter pecan croquant, French vanilla crème Chantilly, and cherry powder.”
If you’re in the San Luis Obispo area and are looking for an unconventional fine-dining experience, you can make reservations for up to four people on Saturdays at 7 p.m. through Wong’s website. But you’d better act fast, because seats sell out quickly. There are currently no reservations left for the month of April, but Wong will announce the next round of openings through his Instagram @jwongdynasty. This fancy dorm room operation could make Cal Poly one of the 75 best colleges for food.