Top secret: The Underground Kitchen adds pop of surprise to dinner parties

Photo: Tom McGovern Photo: Tom McGovern

The Underground Kitchen is so Charlottesville, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t made its way here before now. Pop-up dinners have been, well, popping up all over town for a while. It’s usually a one-of-a-kind, multicourse menu, meticulously chosen wine pairing or spectacular view of the mountains that inspires self-proclaimed foodies to fork over the cash for a seat at the table. The Underground Kitchen certainly promises the food, the wine and the venue, but with a twist: It’s all a surprise.

When members of the exclusive supper club pay for their tickets for an upcoming event, they know the date and time, and that’s it—no location, no chef, no menu. Those who do manage to snag tickets before they run out (most events are only 25 to 50 people) find out the location just before the event, and not until they’re seated do they get a peek at the menu.

Micheal Sparks, who is counting on Charlottesville’s culinary enthusiasm to propel his Underground Kitchen dinner parties, addresses guests. Photo: Tom McGovern
Micheal Sparks, who is counting on Charlottesville’s culinary enthusiasm to propel his Underground Kitchen dinner parties, addresses guests. Photo: Tom McGovern

Around 7pm on December 3, Underground Kitchen owner Micheal Sparks taps a knife against his glass of kir royale to quiet the crowd of about 50 milling around the living room of a home a few miles off Route 250. The hostess for the evening is Chroma Projects owner Deborah McLeod, who offered up her home art studio for the event. Sparks’ introduction is short (he knows everyone’s there to eat), but he welcomes guests to the first Underground Kitchen dinner in Charlottesville and shares some background about the company.

The concept was born a few years ago in Richmond, when the success of Sparks’ neighborhood dinner parties made him realize, “I have to make this a business.” Since its inception, Sparks has hosted more than 300 events in a half-dozen cities, and tickets for the dinners often sell out within minutes of going on sale. The chef is central to these events, obviously, and Sparks loves getting chefs out of their own ZIP code and into an unfamiliar kitchen, cooking for a whole new crowd. That’s why Julep’s executive chef, Matthew Tlusty, made the trip from Richmond to serve the five-course meal he prepared specifically for the Underground Kitchen’s Charlottesville debut.

Chef Matthew Tlusty, from Julep in Richmond, says narrowing down the menu for the five-course dinner was the hardest part. Photo: Tom McGovern
Chef Matthew Tlusty, from Julep in Richmond, says narrowing down the menu for the five-course dinner was the hardest part. Photo: Tom McGovern

“As a true chef, these are the things you really look for,” Tlusty says as he stirs a simmering pot of Jacob’s cattle beans. “I love the challenge.”

The meal begins with charred octopus and cherrywood-smoked bacon over a bed of greens with a warm mint and white balsamic dressing, a dish that Tlusty says has been successful at past events but that he would “never put on the menu because nobody would order it.” And that’s the beauty of dinners like this, he says—the opportunity for him to create and serve dishes that he wouldn’t otherwise get to make, and that guests wouldn’t otherwise get to taste.

Next on the menu is a sweet, creamy carrot and dill soup, followed by Chesapeake rockfish with spinach Pernod sauce and creamed Carolina rice, then braised wild boar with Jacob’s cattle beans and a peppercorn-rosemary biscuit. Every course is paired with a different wine, including selections from Uruguay, France, California and Portugal.

Photo: Tom McGovern
Photo: Tom McGovern

The chef rounds out the meal with a dessert that he promises features an ingredient “that most of you probably haven’t had in years.” Bemused and curious murmurs ripple down the four long tables, and guests delightedly shout “Pop Rocks!” after they bite into the salt-and-clove baked apple topped with the carbonated, crackling candies.

Narrowing down the menu, deciding where to use previously successful components and where to try something entirely new, Tlusty says, is the most challenging element of pop-up dinners like this. But he thrives on that challenge, and says his ultimate goal is to create and prepare a 10-course meal.

Sparks promises that Thursday’s event is the first of many, and he’s constantly on the lookout for new locations, chefs and mixologists. Tickets to the inaugural Charlottesville dinner were $150 per person, and the plan is to establish different price points for different types of soirées. A dinner prepared by a “higher-end chef” may run upward of $300 per person, whereas after-work mixers featuring cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will likely be in the $75 range. A little something for everyone, Sparks hopes.

For more information, and to join the mailing list about upcoming events, visit www.theundergroundkitchen.org or find them on Facebook.