As any foodie knows, a dish is much more than just a collection of ingredients and a cooking method. Every ingredient and meal holds a wealth of rich history and cultural influences that have combined to bring the meal to where it is today. In The Underground Kitchen, dining is about far more than just eating a meal, but is instead a multifaceted dining experience that opens clients' palettes and worlds.
The Underground Kitchen brings this to guests with its elaborate and mysterious events. With a focus on experiential dining, each dinner party or pop-up event is full of incredible food, beautiful decorations, local ingredients and a curated atmosphere. The mission of UGK is to connect people with food and provide a unique, unforgettable experience for diners.
UGK also strives to celebrate diversity and educate people about the dishes on their plates and the ingredients they contain. To achieve this, the Underground Kitchen teaches guests about the unique background of the chefs who have cooked their meals, along with explaining where the ingredients have come from.
What Is the Underground Kitchen?
This experiential dining consists of four to seven-course meals designed by emerging chefs. To keep the mystery and intrigue alive, the locations of the events aren't revealed until 48 hours before the event. To stick with the theme of creativity and intrigue, no two events are the same, and each event is an otherworldly experience that's so much more than simply eating a meal.
As founder Micheal Sparks explains "We turn alleyways into little Italy. We hang chandeliers in the middle of the forest with a beautiful dinner setting...people give us their beautiful mansions." From the middle of the forest to the Smithsonian, the locations of The Underground Kitchen are just another unique aspect of the experience.
How Did the Underground Kitchen Start?
UGK was dreamed into existence by its founder Micheal Sparks back in 2013. It all started when he and his partner moved to Richmond, Virginia. They didn't know a soul, and in an effort to meet their neighbors, they began hosting dinner parties. This led them to get involved in the Richmond food scene, and they began to invite local chefs over to cook. After about six months, Micheal decided to make his elaborate dinner parties and chef connections into a business, providing chefs a way to experiment and think outside the box with their cooking. As Micheal explains,
"During that process I started asking myself, where are all the black chefs? Where are the women chefs? Where are all the LGBTQ chefs?" As he noticed that these underrepresented groups rarely owned their own restaurants or food trucks, Micheal decided to remedy this with his business, creating a platform for underrepresented chefs to show their talent.
He and his business partner Kate Houck work to give opportunities to these groups, providing a safe environment for up-and-coming chefs to fully realize their talent and learn how to open their own restaurants. Each chef receives the opportunity to create a one-night event or a dinner series showcasing their talent and providing guests with a singular experience.
Along with this, UGK started a non-profit during the Covid-19 pandemic, in which they provide meals to the hungry. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they're served over 170,000 meals, along with starting a 5-acre farm to grow their vegetables, and creating a senior program and a work force program.
Why Is it Called the Underground Kitchen?
When Micheal was first starting his business highlighting underrepresented chefs, he and his partner were taking a walk down the James River in Richmond, when they ran into a park ranger. The ranger offered to give them a tour of the Harriet Tubman trail, during which he told them about the many ways that Harriet Tubman avoided the confederate army.
During this inspirational tour, Micheal came up with the name "the Underground Kitchen," inspired by the courageous Underground Railway that allowed so many enslaved Africans to reach freedom during the 19th century. Little did Micheal know that something called the Underground Kitchen had already existed in US history. During the Civil Rights movement, the Underground Kitchen was a system of home kitchens that fed civil rights leaders, providing soul food to organizers like Martin Luther King. When Micheal discovered this years later, he was surprised and pleased to know that the name already had such an important past.
What Are the Underground Kitchen Events Like?
Although each event is different, guests can count on the fact that the dinner will be a unique experience full of culture and history that gives guests a new perspective on where their food comes from, bringing clients "culture, history, experience and the unexpected." As Micheal says "We're touching on history, we're touching on personal experience, we're touching on all these things...and it's to educate people more than to make them uncomfortable."
One past event, called Americana, gave chefs the opportunity to create a six-course meal that told their life story through the dishes. This incredible event allowed chefs to use ingredients and cooking methods to represent their cultural heritage and life experiences through food. As explained by Micheal, "It's their stories and we create the story around it. We did one dinner series event called the great Americana, and it was sort of in response to our government at the time...telling true American stories and how America has such a melting pot. Each chef had six courses to tell their life stories."
UGK events are hosted across the mid-atlantic, from New York City to Memphis to Miami. During the pandemic, large events have been suspended, but the organization hosts in-home and private events with small numbers.
UGK has some exciting events in the works to look out for. One such event is a museum series in which the Underground Kitchen will be hosting dinners at museums around the country. Another is a partnership with the Shenandoah National Park systems, in which UGK will be connecting wilderness to food, hosting dinners in beautiful natural places with fresh ingredients. If you're interested, check theundergroundkitchen.org often, as tickets typically sell out within 15 to 20 minutes of being released.