Six years ago, Micheal Sparks and his partner moved to Richmond, Virginia. They didn't know anybody, so they started inviting their neighbors to dinner.
"It got out of hand," says Sparks.
Those dinners, highlighting local ingredients, grew into community events, which eventually led to Sparks founding the nonprofit Underground Kitchen
Underground Kitchen is described as "an outrageous community-oriented secret dining society, enlisting the most talented chefs in their field and pushing them to the limits of their culinary creativity while serving a menu in an unexpected, stunning venue." It's currently in 15 cities. Underground Kitchen will make its way to Memphis in May or June.
First, a venue is selected — past venues have included a hat factory, an art gallery, and a mansion — then a chef is selected. The chef may be local or may be recruited from another one of Underground's cities. One thing's for sure, the chef may not cook his usual menu. "We give them the outlet to blow it out," Sparks says.
Dinners are held once a month, and each one has a theme. For one event held at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, the site was transformed into a fishbowl. The menu was surf and turf. Another, in a distillery, incorporated bourbon in each of its six courses.
Sparks describes Underground Kitchen as the "Cirque du Soliel of food." Everything from the music to the decor, is curated. "I'm pretty much a bitch about it too," Sparks says.
Memphis is part of Underground's Silk Road 95 series, which highlights purveyors (wineries, fisheries, farms, etc.) along Interstate 95 and its offshoots.
Guests sign up for a free membership at theundergroundkitchen.org
, and then they are informed when tickets go on sale. They are given a little hint of what the dinner may entail ("saffron," perhaps) and that's it. Forty-eight hours before the event, they are given the location. Guests learn the chef and menu at the event.
Underground Kitchen hosts three types of dinners: UGK Dine ($85), three courses and highlighting new restaurants; the regular UGK ($150) with six courses; and UGK Bespoked, which is tailored to corporate or nonprofit events. Proceeds from the dinners go to programs geared toward food education and getting vegetables to those who need them most.
The dinners, Sparks says, allow people to explore food. "Picky eaters," he says, "It's not for you."
Images courtesy of Underground Kitchen