The Underground Kitchen is coming to Columbia.
Based in Virginia, UGK hosts series of pop-up dinners in unique locations using locally sourced ingredients and local and regional talent to prepare the food. Currently in Richmond, Charlottesville, Williamsburg, Lynchburg, Roanoke and Washington, D.C., the company has recently branched out and is planning dinners for Annapolis, Md., and Charlotte and Raleigh. Columbia will be added to the list around the end of March.
CEO Micheal Sparks says Columbia was “a pragmatic choice” for the company's foray into South Carolina because he sees the city as a central hub in the Southeastern region. Also, Sparks has roots here; his grandfather is from Columbia, his grandmother from Augusta.
Here’s how it works: UGK finds a suitable venue and finds a chef, usually a local, sometimes brought in from out of town. The dinners feature five to seven courses, paired with wine, that correspond to a theme. Once the venue and menu have been decided, a limited number of tickets — between 50 to 75 — become available (prices vary but include food, wine and gratuity). Ticket holders are given only the date of the event and the city in which it will be held. The precise venue, the chef and the menu are kept secret until 24-48 hours in advance. The build-up is designed to create a unique dining experience. “Think family dinner meets Cirque du Soleil,” says Sparks.
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Sparks and UGK Program Director Zachary McElgunn have been scouting possible locations for their first Columbia dinner. The emphasis will be on somewhere that has the potential to be “chic, fabulous and glamorous,” said Sparks. Recent dinners have been held at a winery, a courtyard alleyway in Richmond and there was an overnight experience at a plantation with dinner at night and breakfast the following morning. Another event started early in the day with diners meeting up with a guide and foraging for mushrooms, which were incorporated into the evening meal. For an upcoming dinner, Sparks has a plan for participants to help harvest oysters for the menu.
“It’s about the local food. Educating diners about the food chain while enjoying an elegant dining experience,” says Sparks. “I want to bring the community together, and it goes beyond a person’s social or economic background, to enjoy the simple love of food and wine.”
Sparks is also working with agricultural colleges in Virginia and local farmers to get them involved in growing the food for Underground Kitchen dinners. His goal is to have 80 percent of the ingredients used on the dinner menus grown specifically for UGK by the end of the second quarter of 2016.
UGK is also building a roster of local and regional talent of chefs and producers (think cheesemakers, chocolatiers, etc.) that would participate in the pop-ups. It is Sparks’ plan to have 6 to 12 events in each city over the course of the year.
Interested or want more information about The Underground Kitchen? Check out photos and menus from past dinners and register for free at www.theundergroundkitchen.org. If you are a chef or venue owner who is interested in collaborating, contact McElgunn at email@example.com.