If you know the name TJ Culp, it’s probably only because you’ve paying very close attention to Instagram, where the chef has been posting photos of sophisticated dishes served at intimate private dinners under the name Pop-Up PHX. Culp would often host the events at his own apartment, and for $100 all said and done, attendees got wine pairings and five to six courses featuring modern plate-ups of beef tartare, roasted beets with strawberries, and poached halibut served handsomely on custom-made stoneware.
“It was the first opportunity to cook whatever the hell I wanted,” Culp says.
It was also a testing ground for the chef's next project. Come January, Culp will open a 37-seat eatery called Restaurant Progress in the Melrose district. The area includes longstanding jazz dive Char’s Has The Blues and the popular gay bar Charlie’s, where the Los Yaquis food truck permanently parks to serve some of Phoenix’s best tacos for $1 each. Until now, however, it has yet to feature a buzzy new restaurant.
At Restaurant Progress, Culp plans to offer a menu with 12 to 16 dishes every night — a mix of starters, mid-courses, and four entrees (one pork, one poultry, one beef, one fish). Ingredients will change on a whim with the seasons. There will be an optional tasting menu for which the chefs will choose five dishes for each diner.
Then, at 10 p.m. each night, Culp says he’ll offer a late-night menu that goes off-script.
“I feel like Melrose is awesome with all of its bars,” Culp says. “There’s definitely a lot of late-night stuff going on, so I think it would be awesome to get this dinner service out of my way each night, and then at 10 o’clock flip the script, something for hanging out and having fun.”
He doesn’t have a fryer, so “it won’t be your typical bar food. It’s going to be some fun, new-age stuff.”
The restaurant will also serve wine, beer, and craft cocktails. Culp says he's still looking for a mixologist to anchor the beverage program.
“I want someone to come in and hone it, with a lot of freedom and a lot of opportunity,” he says.
Culp’s pop-up dinners have flown mostly under the radar, but in Valley kitchens, Culp is known as a young chef who spent his formative years after culinary school at Fox Restaurant Concepts' Culinary Dropout. He’d go on to open the Las Vegas location in 2012, but after putting in a year, he left and entered Las Vegas’ fine-dining scene. Culp worked for a short time under Alain Ducasse, the French chef with 21 Michelin stars to his name, then was asked by some chef mentors if he’d come work at Central Bistro in Phoenix.
“I ended up staying there longer than I’d planned,” says Culp, who eventually became the head chef. He broke off from the restaurant to take time to explore and stage in New York, in order to, he says, find out what he liked before coming back to the Valley. When he returned, he began hosting weekly Pop-Up dinners and catering events with friends. It was on a trip to the Melrose neighborhood to purchase art for one of his dinners when he saw the "For Lease" sign in front of the Melrose pharmacy building. The vacant frame would become the starting point for Restaurant Progress.
When asked why he picked the Melrose neighborhood, Culp says he likes that it's largely uncharted territory for a new restaurant. "I love the whole vintage scene — that whole area. It’s kind of up-and-coming, but not completely,” he says. Culp also hopes the move will inspire other young Valley chefs to take more risks.
“I really feel that young chefs need to start breaking out a little more," he says. "I’m 25 myself ... I’ve figured it out, but I want other young people to figure it out and really start pushing the envelope a little bit, and come out and unify."
For inspiration, Culp says he looks to restaurants opening in cities with thriving food scenes being paved by young chefs — places like San Francisco, Portland, and Austin.
“They’re opening all these restaurants that are 30, 35 seats," he says. "They’ve got induction [stovetops], you know, they’re learning how to get past the system … I was eating at Le Pigeon in Portland, and it’s like 12 seats, two dudes that were my age. They had a Walmart fryer. And I was like, ‘C’mon, you can do this, TJ. There is no one holding you back. Just do it,’ you know?”
Culp says the story behind the restaurant's name is a little complicated; it expresses a lot of his feelings about Phoenix’s restaurant industry and how it got him to where he’s at. With his construction background, working with his father, he’s built out the interior of the space himself. Right now, it’s just him.
“The name ‘Restaurant Progress’ is where I’m at,” Culp says. “I really liked it, and it’s what it’s developed into.”
Restaurant Progress will be located at 702 West Montecito Avenue, and is expected to open in January 2017. For more information, check the Restaurant Progress Instagram.