It is Sunday morning, and I am sipping a divine cup of French press (angels singing above) and eating cinnamon buns (Carrie Fisher belting out a Broadway tune in my head) in post-glow of a remarkable dinner party I attended last night. Coffee and pastry were part of the goodie bag I received as Aretha Franklin sang me out of the top-secret location where I spent three hours tucking in with a couple dozen strangers at my first—and Wilmington’s inaugural—Underground Kitchen (UGK) event. The décor was stunning. The food was…well, I’ll get to all those superlatives later. The way you really know it was a good party? It’s the morning after, and I am checking in on social media, accepting and sending out friend requests. Those of us at the north end of the table aren’t strangers any more.
I had interviewed Michael Sparks, CEO and founder of UGK, over the phone leading up to this event for a preview. I knew he was a character to meet from the first word on the phone. Gurrrll! Maybe I am just imagining he said that. At any rate, he sounded tired and elated, like a Cinderella who was taking off her glass slipper after a night of dancing but still ready to dish about the ball. I felt prepared to meet him in person—sort of. Forty-eight hours before the event, I got an email from Kate Houck, the COO of UGK, telling me the secret location: the second-floor atrium of the Community Education Building on French Street. When my husband and I stepped off the elevator, Michael was the first person I encountered. Draped effortlessly in his flowing desert-dweller chic apparel, he hugged me and handed me a cocktail of muddled blueberries, fresh herbs and moonshine. He had told me to dress casually and comfortably—which I did in a kelly green kaftan dress. Also in the receiving line were Kate, in mod, black, origami wrap, leggings, platform slides and Alexis in a cerulean, goddess dress. This is all to say—dress in what makes you happy. My husband was wearing a button-down shirt and chinos—as were most of the men. I’m not sure his ensemble sparked any kind of Marie Kondo joy in him—until Michael, a designer in a previous life, helped him accessorize it with a moonshine cocktail. Then, we were all in party mode.
Mingling, we trotted out our banter and tried to remember the names of those gathered in the bright glass atrium. Having never been in that space, I took in the view of the Wilmington skyline in three directions. At seven PM, Michael clinked his glass and gave a short speech on the origins of Underground Kitchen. Long story short? He was known for giving great dinner parties and turned this passion into a traveling road show. At his direction, our waiters for the evening seated us all at long table that was appointed in white linens that grounded a sculptural, yet informal, tablescape that featured tendrils of greenery nestling bright zinnias and white votives. Wood planks with the company’s logo served as our plate chargers. I looked over the printed menu before me and couldn’t decide which of the five courses I was most excited to try. While my husband had a view of the city, my seat overlooked the table where bottles of Bordeaux (legendary stuff you can’t get locally) stood in formation, like recital dancers waiting in the wings for their assigned pas da deux.
And then there was the food. Sigh. (How is that for a superlative?) The amuse bouche, Crostini a la Panera, seemed to be made for my tastes specifically. Smoked chicken, Ancho aioli, and pickled red onions. The menu could have read Abra Cadabra. Open Sesame. Let’s Get Ready to Rumble. It was all the catch phrases…in my mouth. The next plate, North End Dumplings, was a play on pierogis and my husband’s favorite course of the evening. Crispy potato dumplings, caramelized onion, Kobe beef crumble, Fuji apple dashi, and horseradish sour cream. A little brothy, very satisfying. I didn’t know whether to dig in with spoon or a fork.
Here, I must take a detour and talk about the serving ware. Underground Kitchen has a whole warehouse filled with Homer Laughlin China—of Fiestaware renown. I have dreams about this kind of thing. (Some people have a thing about shoes or handbags. I have to restrain myself around tableware.) Needless to say, each course was presented on a gorgeous plate, styled to complement the food and send me drooling. We also had silverware for days, fanning out on either side of our wooden chargers. Michael admonished us not to think of this as some snobby, foodie event. “It is about community.” And here is where we found it: between the courses served, when we chatted excitedly, and in those moments when we laughingly tried to figure out which fork to use. We weren’t professional golf caddies or guests of the Queen; our implement of choice didn’t matter. When it came to the course of mini, white fish tostadas, like buttons on a plate, some of us used our fingers while others used fork and knife. No judgments. Just fun.
I am not going to detail every morsel. I will say that the food was exquisite, thoughtfully garnished, and the wine was expertly paired. When table mate Jane and I swooned over a certain Chardonnay, Michael planted a half bottle of it between us with a wink. I think that act makes Jane and me “wine sisters” for life.
Before the fourth course, D.C. based Chef Danielle Harris came out to address her newfound admirers. Underground Kitchen is a platform for rising talent and especially champions female chefs and chefs of color. This multi-city tour, titled New Americana, allows chefs to tell their story through food. Chef DMH, as she is known, is using this experience as a springboard to launch her Food Truck business. That is her future. Her past includes a first job at Panera. Our amuse bouche course was her witty reimagining of a favorite sandwich on the Panera menu. I’ll never look at a Frontega Chicken Panini the same way again. Each course was a chapter in Chef DMH’s life. Inserting my own history as a writer and a cook, I gorged on the synergy of narrative and food.
My favorite course was the Fusion Duck which came next. It was everything: umami richness, berry sweet, with crispy bits, and a ginger bite. UGK is meticulous about food and where it comes from. Their vendors added another plotline to the evening’s storytelling. We learned about where UGK sources their food, from duck farmers to vintners, and the ways UGK fosters responsible growing practices and emerging food education programs in the cities where they touch down.
Lights out, candlelit dimness shrouded the dessert course. Vanilla Fennel Italian Bread Pudding with Blackberry Jam and Lemon Ricotta. Could we possibly eat another bite? Yes, but don’t ask me how. It must have been part of the magic of the evening. Waking up this morning, I may have thought the whole thing was but a midsummer’s dream—except for the evidence of cinnamon buns.
Underground Kitchen plans to come to Wilmington quarterly. What festive witchery will Michael and his team conjure next? And in which secret location? I don’t know, but one thing is for sure: when you hear of the next happening, get your reservations IN early. Because, although UGK uses mystery and the element of surprise to gild their events, these pop-ups are not going to stay secret for long. Now if you will excuse me, I need to turn up some Aretha and Facebook message my new friends.
Photos by Chris Johnson, provided by UGK.