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UCLA student channels passion for cooking into apartment pop-up restaurant

Third-year neuroscience student Ronak Naik shares his love of cooking through his food Instagram account and quarterly pop-ups at his apartment. Inspired by professional restaurants, he said each event is themed, with all proceeds going to charity. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin staff)

By Alexis Jones

Feb. 9, 2022 9:00 p.m.

Ronak Naik is serving up original recipes on a DIY plate.

With a long-standing love for cooking, the third-year neuroscience student invents his own dishes and posts his creations and accompanying recipes on his food Instagram account. In addition to taking personal requests, Naik holds a pop-up restaurant out of his apartment in Westwood every quarter, the most recent of which took place Saturday. He said his passion for sharing food stems from his mother, who taught him to cook when he first became interested.

“When I was young, I always had a sweet tooth, so I started with baking,” Naik said. “My mom is a really big cook, and in the Indian culture, food is pretty big. … As I got older, it went from mostly baking to experimenting with more intricate dishes and stuff away from only desserts.”

While he still makes a variety of desserts, Naik said he also tries as many different cuisines as he can, such as savory Indian and Thai food. However, he said his favorites to make are Italian and Mexican, as he thinks he is best at cooking those cuisines. His latest original creation was an Italian burrata salad, which ​​consists of a pesto sauce base with wedged Roma tomatoes fanned out from the burrata cheese.

[Related: Student dishes out lighthearted restaurant reviews on Instagram food blog]

Having always cooked for his family and friends, Naik said the reason he created a separate Instagram account was to continue sharing his food with others, even when he wasn’t with them. He said he lists all the ingredients out with detailed instructions so that those interested can recreate the dishes, which mostly contain easily accessible ingredients. This decision also sets his posts apart from other cooking accounts, which Naik said only upload photos of their finished products.

Having known Naik since middle school, third-year astrophysics student Yash Gursahani said he saw Naik’s inclination toward cooking flourish during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gursahani said Naik often found new recipes to try and posted the results on his account to catalog his dishes before the account went public at Naik’s friends’ requests for the recipes. Gursahani said Naik started to rely less on instructions and began coming up with his own ideas once he gained confidence and taught himself more skills.

“Even now, he makes some dish and has some sauce leftover from the night before, the next day he’ll find a way to use it in something else,” Gursahani said. “He’s really developed a lot of intuition about what flavors work well together, and I think that’s just come through experience over the last couple of years.”

Naik said, when he goes out to restaurants, a certain dish, technique or plating that he likes usually inspires him to create something new on his own, as he uses it as a template from which to learn. He said he also acquires new skills from watching videos and competitive cooking shows such as “MasterChef,” as he admires Gordon Ramsay and uses his clips to learn higher-level techniques.

Although he pursues cooking as a personal hobby, Naik said owning a restaurant one day would be the cherry on top, which is how he thought of the idea to host quarterly pop-ups and treat them like a restaurant. Knowing that other restaurants did pop-ups, Naik said he set up his own pop-up as a nonprofit for the American Cancer Society organization at UCLA. The pop-up is advertised on Instagram and through word-of-mouth, and Naik said he donates all the proceeds to the association’s Relay For Life event.

Naik’s other roommate, third-year political science student Jack Shea, said he has seen the number of customers grow with each fundraiser. Doubling as the restaurant host, Shea said he greets people at the door and takes them through the ordering process. He said he explains the menu, how to order using Google Forms and payment – which is to Venmo Naik’s account by using printed QR codes posted around their apartment.

Naik said the theme of this quarter’s pop-up was brunch, and he offered dishes such as brioche french toast with cream and berries, and crispy sugared bacon. Customers were greeted at the door, and once they paid they could either dine in or take their meals to go. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin staff)

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Naik said he normally tries to tailor each pop-up to a specific theme to make the experience more enjoyable for customers. The theme of the event Saturday was brunch, as it included breakfast items such as brioche French toast, oven-roasted house potatoes, crispy brown-sugared bacon and iced caramel and mocha lattes. Shea said the food is packaged in cardboard boxes, and customers can either eat in the apartment or take the boxes to-go once they receive their orders.

For the upcoming spring quarter pop-up, Naik said he already knows which cuisine he wants to showcase next: Mexican food. As he continues with the fundraisers, Naik said he hopes to further expand his Instagram by potentially collaborating with other cooking accounts or uploading TikTok videos of him creating his food. Ultimately, his end goal with posting online is to compile all of his recipes into a single cookbook, he said.

“Food is the number one thing across the world that unites everyone from different cultures,” Naik said. “At the end of the day – despite everyone’s differences – every single person on the planet will sit down and eat food. That’s the basis of who we are.”

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Alexis Jones | Arts editor
Jones is the 2022-2023 Arts editor. She was previously an Arts staff writer from 2021-2022. She is a fourth-year psychology student from Las Vegas.
Jones is the 2022-2023 Arts editor. She was previously an Arts staff writer from 2021-2022. She is a fourth-year psychology student from Las Vegas.
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