High-End Cuisine Goes Underground in Virginia

diners at UGK

If you’re looking for the best dining experience around Richmond, VA, you have to go underground. Since 2013, The Underground Kitchen has been creating one-of-a-kind pop-up events highlighting the best in local ingredients and talent. With customized menus and secret locations, these luxury experiences are not repeated and not to be missed. No wonder tickets sell out in minutes.

UGK is the brainchild of founder and CEO Michael Sparks, who wanted to create a platform for chefs of color, women and those who identify as LGBTQ+. “So I just started inviting people in the community to cook, who had skills,” he said. What started as a series of fun dinner parties quickly turned into a business, and, by 2019, they were creating pop-ups in 42 cities across the country.

entrance to a UGK pop-up

Guests learn of the event location a mere 48 hours in advance, yet it can take up to a few months for the UGK team to prepare. Each event is meticulously planned, from small-batch wine pairings to the zero-waste, local and organic-focused menus, custom linens and dinnerware and luxury floral designs. The end result is a specialized experience unlike any other.

How special? Take the September 2021 event at Fort Monroe, which honored the legacy of the enslaved Africans who were brought to shore at that very spot. By “interpreting history through food,” Chef Danielle Harris of DMH & Co. created a six-course menu that honored “Black history and American Southern history, which is all our history,” explains Sparks. Harris served dishes like jollof and whitefish nigiri with candied crispy okra and red bean wasabi paste.

chefs preparing a UGK meal

UGK is also a registered 501(c)(3) foundation. They pivoted during the Covid-19 pandemic to distribute over 220,000 meals to first responders, frontline workers and food insecure residents in the metro area. They continue that work to this day with their Community First program, as they work to rebuild their signature events.

And though they are staying local in Virginia for now – the pop-ups they did earlier shut down once the pandemic hit – UGK plans to pop-up with even more surprises. So if you want in on the underground network, stay tuned.

AUTHOR

AnnMarie Mattila

AnnMarie Mattila is a food writer, recipe developer and pastry chef based in New York. She has a master's degree from New York University in Food Studies and sometimes eats cake for dinner. Follow her at www.annmariemattila.com.

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