Underground pop-up dining has become ubiquitous in global food culture. The former Starry Kitchen, which began in the tiny apartment of Nguyen and Thi Tran in Los Angeles, led to global recognition and a cookbook deal. In Buenos Aires, the low-risk restaurants operated out of chefs’ homes called puertas cerradas—Spanish for “closed doors”—are one of Argentina’s best-kept secrets. Some underground pop-ups begin as hobbies, accepting only donations. Some are born out of necessity in a struggling economy. Many also come at a high price, catering one-of-a-kind experiences for the elite. Underground dining might be inextricably linked with the allure of being part of a secret society, but it’s also about the pleasure of coming together with strangers to share a good meal—and a good story.
“Going out to eat—and as good as the food can be—can oftentimes feel like a shallow experience,” says Jacob Boehm, executive chef and owner of Snap Pea Catering in Chapel Hill, which has offered conceptual pop-up dinners for five years at secret locations around the Triangle. Over nine to twelve courses, Boehm creates each dish to drive the narrative of the food and the location, which is revealed thirty-six hours before the event.
There was last summer’s Saturn-inspired course at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill and the “Banquet” dinner at The Fruit in Durham, an immersive theatrical feast accompanied by a performance of Macbeth—kind of like Sleep No More, but with food you ate with your hands. There was a dinner at the butterfly house at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science and one on the Old Bynum Bridge above the Haw River.
“It’s so crazy to see one hundred twenty-four people breaking bread together at a single table,” Boehm says. Every detail, from each locally sourced seasonal ingredient to the wine, flowers, table settings, and other décor, is tailored to the theme of each dinner’s story. Sometimes a dish will make a pun; other times, a key ingredient ties in a historical reference. Boehm says his events not only teach guests about where the food came from, but also connect them to a larger story about where they’re eating it.
At Raleigh Denim, guests learned about the process of making a pair of jeans, from growing cotton to manufacturing to shop display. In the former St. Agnes Hospital, which was the only fully equipped African American hospital in the South in the 1920s, Boehm crafted individual Pommes Anna by layering local heirloom potatoes dug up from within twenty-five miles of St. Agnes, as was the stone it’s built from.
Snap Pea’s events are wildly popular. Its fifty-seventh pop-up, which is currently running for three weekends, is called “The Affair of the Stjålne Mesterværk.” The event—a murder mystery co-produced with Clay Thomas, a writer in Chattanooga—sold out in ninety seconds at around $200 a head. Each guest has been assigned a character and asked to arrive in full costume.
In addition to other homegrown pop-ups that have come and gone, such as The Blind Pig—formerly of Asheville, will begin operations in the Triangle this fall—and Raleigh’s ChickenWire, the area also sometimes attracts them from other places. Underground Kitchen is a Richmond-based, traveling, experiential fine-dining company featuring award-winning chefs like New York City’s Giovanna Delli Compagni and J. Ponder of Food Network’s Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. It returns to Raleigh this weekend at a soon-to-be-disclosed location for $150 a ticket.
Underground Kitchen has hosted a dozen of these dinners in Raleigh—“Unearthed” in 2016 at the now-defunct Cave 1912 and “Luxury: Ruffled by Truffles” in 2018 at City Market—and it also held a recent dinner at the James Beard Foundation. Much like Snap Pea Catering, Underground Kitchen emphasizes storytelling, diving into the origins of the food and exploring where it’s farmed, who’s doing the farming, and whether those practices are sustainable. Each ingredient is as locally sourced to the surrounding region as it can be.
Underground Kitchen has traveled all along the Eastern corridor and recently expanded to the Northeast. Its current tour, “The New Americana,” showcases not just the food, farmers, and artisans, but also the personal stories of the up-and-coming chefs on board, such as Raleigh’s Caribbean-born Lemar Farrington, who will cook this weekend. Founder and CEO Michael Sparks says that since the very beginning, Underground Kitchen has stayed within its margins to keep the business financially sustainable.
“We make sure it’s worth it to go into each market,” Sparks says. “Things need to travel well and be cost-efficient—it’s like a restaurant on wheels.”
Sparks, a former fashion designer from New York, started Underground Kitchen in his Richmond home with his partner, Richard Brown, as a way to connect with their community.
Sparks said that in today’s divided political climate, sitting down at a table of strangers and being able to leave with twenty new friends is more important than ever. Since he started Underground Kitchen he’s observed an openmindedness among guests seated at the community table. That community, Sparks says, consists of over thirty thousand ticket sales in the Southeast—and counting—thus far.
“You’re coming together with this group of twenty to sixty likeminded people might not have the same views—but everyone is on the same page,” he says.
Contact food and digital editor Andrea Rice at email@example.com.
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