Brian Laughlin didn’t plan on being a chef. And he certainly didn’t plan on paving the way to community-oriented fine dining experiences in Jackson Hole. But the 32-year-old from Portsmouth, Ohio has made a name for himself here through his unique Pop-Up Dinners that bring together elegant cuisine, fine wines, a cozy atmosphere and good company.
Growing up an artist, Laughlin went to the Art Institute of Pittsburg to study industrial design. To help with the bills, he got a job cooking. “Somewhere along the way, I realized I was better at cooking then I would ever be at industrial design,” he remembers. But his love of art, design, aesthetics and color theory has come full circle into the culinary experiences he creates. “I’m not content just cooking, and I’m not content just designing,” he says. “I like to curate the entire experience – for example, when a dish goes out you can have a song on that can make people feel a certain way.”
That’s the common theme in his Pop-Up Dinners – a completely unique and curated experience from the oversize reclaimed bar wood tables he brings to the venues to the china dishware to the unique wine pairings for each of his courses.
“Fine dining is elevated cuisine. You’re able to evoke emotion in people, you’re able to really make food more thought provoking and meaningful.” His dinners usually include 5-7 courses focused around seasonal ingredients with a palate cleanser in between each.
Why so many courses? According to Laughlin, your usual fine dining experience will include a huge hunk of meat, a pile of starch and a vegetable. With Pop-Up Dinners, you’re getting to try more things and expand your own tastes. The courses are smaller, but Laughlin says people report being the “right amount of full” and are often repeat customers.
With menu items like smoked hens egg in a wild mushroom broth, and elk tartar with oyster emulsion, trout roe and charred broccolini with a caramelized shallot chip – it’s clear that Laughlin loves to push the boundaries and bring a special palate to his dinners. But he also gives the opportunity to cultivate community – his dinners include 14 seats, but usually people purchase tickets as couples or even as singles. He learns a little bit about everyone who will attend and then creates a seating chart. “I’ve sat billionaire moguls next to professional ski bums,” he says. “At the end of the dinner they’re trading phone numbers and planning to ski together.”
For those of you who might feel a little shy, his advice is just to have an open mind. “You get surprised when you get pushed out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Friendships can happen out of it. There’s been dinners where I can’t even explain the dish because people are so lively talking to their new friends.” And don’t forget, there’s wine pairings, too. “Usually by the third wine pairing, everyone starts conversing with everyone else,” he laughs.
In addition to Pop-Up Dinners, Chef Laughlin sets his sights on cooking amazing, beautiful food anywhere, including weddings, house warmings, gallery openings and business dinners. Finding inspiration in diversity of both ingredients and cooking techniques, Laughlin is quickly becoming a rising star of the Jackson food scene, so keep your eyes and taste buds open for more creative and delicious endeavors from him.