When Michael Sparks and his husband first moved to Richmond, VA, they had a hard time finding their footing. Neighbors were polite, but they seemed a little standoffish. Sparks, a design and branding expert who previously lived and worked in the high-end markets of Madrid and New York (cough, cough Louis Vuitton)—decided to play to his strengths in his efforts to increase the couple’s social standing in their new home. So, he threw a dinner party. His effort had the desired effect—and then some. Not only did Sparks attract the community he craved in Richmond, he found his calling.
A few years later, in 2013, with partners COO Kate Houck and CFA Alexia Billiart, Sparks founded a company called Underground Kitchen. Originally started as a pop-up dinner series in Richmond, Underground Kitchen has grown into a 32-city tour that, in its zig-zag of the Eastern states, is reimagining the dinner party as an intersection of art, story and community. The basic concept is simple to understand: Underground Kitchen curates sumptuous, yet INtimate dining extravaganzas in secret locations—hence “underground”—that are only revealed to diners 48-hours ahead of time. Intrigue and mystery are only part of the equation. Underground Kitchen partners with local farms, niche wineries and emerging top chefs to create four-to-seven-course menus with matched wine pairings. Creativity among the collaborators is encouraged. Underground Kitchen limits their associates with only one directive: make the meal unforgettable.
After hearing that Underground Kitchen was “one of the most exclusive dining tickets in town,” the powers-that-be in Wilmington, DE, sought Sparks out and invited him to consider our city for the UGK New Americana Tour. To find out what Underground Kitchen has in store for its upcoming first date with Wilmington, I called Michael to chat. (Excuse me for switching to his first name at this point. It’s just that after our tittering exchange, this maven of hospitality feels more like a friend.)
“We are killing it,” Michael says of their rapid-fire expansion. He moans about fatigue after 300 events in a six-year period—topped off with a recent event at the James Beard Foundation, but then counters with an enthusiasm for future projects that suggests that he hasn’t even hit his stride yet. These plans include a 31’ Airstream kitchen/tasting room on wheels.
So, what about Wilmington? Michael tells me that he has lined up Chef Danielle Harris of DMH & Co, Washington DC, to cook for the August 10th event. Underground Kitchen likes to partner with women and minority chefs because part of their mission is help give exposure and build careers of those who fall into populations who are underserved in the industry. (According to 2014 Bloomberg analysis, only 7% of American restaurants are headed by female chefs.) Chef DMH ticks off both boxes, female and minority, and her resume is stellar.
For the New American Tour, chefs will use food to tell their stories. Chef DMH will be on hand to explain each course as it is presented and share how the dish represents her life journey. A wine expert from EU Family estates will be pairing Bordeaux-style wine with each dish.
Michael would not disclose the secret Wilmington location to me. You can’t fault a girl for trying. But he raved about the artistic vision for the evening. “Plating is perfection.” German linens. Homer Laughlin China. The word “sexy” was bandied about. All of it helps to set the stage for the real feature of the evening: community. When it comes down to it, even though the food is sumptuous, the wine is rare, and the setting is full-tilt luxury; this is not some snobby, foodie event. Underground Kitchen’s mission is about setting the stage to bring people from different walks of life to a table to tell their stories and find common ground. Warning: Hugging new friends is a consequence of these dinner parties. Come solo, bring a date or a few pals, but get tickets ASAP because Underground limits seats to 60—the max number possible to maintain the desired intimate vibe. Oh, and say hello to your new friend Michael.
UGK New Americana Tour comes to Wilmington on Saturday, August 10, 2019 from 6:30-9:30 PM. See Underground Kitchen website for tickets ($150 each) and more details. Dress for the event is business casual, but comfortable. Underground Kitchen can accommodate pescatarian and vegan diets. If you miss this event, be sure to sign up for their mailing list to keep informed of future events. Underground Kitchen plans to visit and bestow their magic on each of their markets once a quarter.
Editor’s Note: Check out the review of Jill’s Underground Kitchen experience!
Photos by Chris Johnson, provided by UGK.