Richmond-based very-special-dinner company is putting on two events this week in its hometown.
Pssst. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Underground Kitchen, and perhaps you haven’t. It’s OK, it’s kind of cloaked in a bit of mystery, and that’s part of the appeal!
I spoke with Zachary McElgunn at Pop Up Revolution, the company behind the Underground Kitchen, and he had many things to say in advance of this week’s UGK: Certified South Carolina, which celebrates Lowcountry cuisine, and Gospel Brunch.
What can someone expect from an Underground Kitchen?
ZM: An Underground Kitchen event is essentially a private dinner party for no more than 50 ticketed guests. That’s the basic outline, in practice it’s a bit more complex.
These affairs are curated around a given theme, which integrates some aspect of the venue, the chef’s professional background, and the season (seasonal cooking is a BIG focus of UGK–we are committed to sustainable dining, so using produce that is in season is essential to accomplishing this goal).
As an example, I’ll tell you about our upcoming event in Asheville, N.C. The event is called “Through the Cooking Glass,” drawing inspiration from the book by Lewis Carroll. The book is about a girl (Alice) who climbs through a mirror, and so inversion is a big part of the plot line. Tying this into the UGK, we have asked the chef to prepare inversions on popular dishes. Taking something that people know, and turning it around in an interesting way. That’s another part of what we strive to do when creating a theme: giving the chef some creative direction that they can mold using their expertise in the kitchen.
On the day of the event, the guests arrive to the venue, the location of which they have learned 48 hours beforehand, and they share a five- to seven-course meal with a different wine pairing for each course. Our sommelier selects the wine based on the menu that the chef has presented us prior to the event.
Other than sharing the actual meal, the event is community-driven, meaning that we source as many local ingredients as possible, drawing on local farms and food purveyors. Because of our commitment to “creating connections around the table” many, many people at these events leave with lasting connections both to the other guests and the venue itself. We’ve been told that we are responsible for three engagements, a wedding venue selection, and innumerable business deals as a result of our dinners. We love bringing people together, and sharing outstanding food is our tool.
Do you have to be a real “foodie” to get the most out of it?
ZM: While these events are for people who might consider themselves “foodies,” no, you do not have to be a die-hard gustatory adventurer in order to enjoy these events. Sometimes the food is “out there,” but some people like a little weird. Definitely if you’re into adventurous/experimental dining, than UGK is for you, but people with other interests still enjoy our events fro a number of other reasons.
Something that I would say is necessary to enjoy these events, however, is that you are a person interested in meeting other people. These are social affairs. Our focus is on the communities we create and strengthen, and very rarely does someone leave an event (even someone who came alone!) without making a few connections. On the evaluations we collect at the end of each event, “making new friends” is often what people say was the most enjoyable part of the evening. And the food and drink, of course.
What’s next for UGK?
ZM: That’s a questions that requires some unpacking. First, we are definitely going to continue putting on our events in cities around America. The members we have in the cities in which we currently operate are very supportive of the idea, and with every new city, we are growing our community event by event.
Other than continuing to put on these events, with an increasing repertoire of chefs and venues, we are working towards the operations of our non-profit. The Underground Kitchen Foundation is our non-profit dedicated to eliminating food deserts in America. In fact, a portion of the proceeds from each event goes towards the achievement of this goal. Developing working relations with local farmers and farmers’ markets, going into the food deserts in the cities in which we operate and offering healthy food options, and eventually, teaching the food preparation and healthy eating habits that augment quality of life are all on the roster for 2016 and beyond.
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How to get your ticket
Sign up for UGK: Certified South Carolina by buying a ticket online. It ain’t cheap–$150 per ticket, but it’s the experience as much as the food you’re buying, plus financial support of a good cause. The dinner takes place Wednesday, May 11th.
If you can’t make that, what about the Gospel Brunch on May 15th?