Experiential Dining in Upperville

Micheal Sparks’s Underground Kitchen Pop Up Dinner comes to Fauquier County

“Come here, girl.” Micheal Sparks enveloped me in one of his signature bear hugs and shook hands with my husband. He was dressed in a long, flowing…I’m not quite sure what…over dress pants, which, as you realize as you get to know him, is his signature style. “Good to see you again. Here’s your cocktail.” He handed me a gorgeous glass with a moonshine concoction garnished with blackberry and raspberry.
“Just a taste, please,” I said.
“What? Not drinking tonight? I don’t want to hear that, girl.”
“Micheal, I have to take notes and write an article about your dinner.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, honey, tonight we’re going to party!”
“Well, I also have to drive.”
“Oh, don’t let that stop you. We’ll grab you an Uber.”
An Uber? Has he looked out the window? Taken note of how he got here? Not only are we in Fauquier County, we’re in Upperville. It’s pitch black outside and the feel of the location is of rural remoteness.
“I don’t think so, Micheal,” I laughed.
“What, there are no Ubers here?” This is a foreign notion to Micheal, who lives in Richmond but spent many years in New York City as a designer for Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton.
“Well, I haven’t tried it, but I’m guessing not.”

Micheal Sparks; Photo by Chris Johnson

I had met Micheal once before at one of his dinners in Charlottesville. He is an enthusiastic foodie and the founder of the Richmond-based Underground Kitchen and its well-known gourmet pop up dinners that occur usually all over the South, with the exception of a quick trip up north to host a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City this summer, which went, he said, “Fabulously.” Underground Kitchen promotes up-and-coming chefs of color and female chefs who sometimes get overlooked by the media. “We give our chefs carte blanche to go beyond their culinary comfort zones to create unforgettable menus that leave a lasting impression,” Micheal explained. On this evening in October, we were experiencing his UGK: New Americana tour.

“Upperville?” I asked. “How on earth did you decide to come to this little town?” After all, Underground Kitchen last performed multiple dinners in the foodie city of Charleston, South Carolina, and, of course, the aforementioned New York.

“Well, it turns out my business partner Kate grew up here and thought it would be a great place for it. And our featured chef tonight, Penn Kinsey, went to school at Foxcroft School.” A lifelong food lover who grew up in the restaurant business, Penn created her first dinner party, featuring Coq au Vin, while in high school in Middleburg. She now runs a restaurant in Park City, Utah, but was delighted to return to her old stomping grounds.

Unfortunately, I am neither a chef nor a photographer, so I can’t really comment in the food other than to say that, as a lover of gourmet food, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted.

The venue, Buchanan Hall, was decorated to the nines, with one long table with elegant place settings, multiple wine glasses for wine pairings with each course, candles, and stunning florals.

It turns out, actually, you really don’t need to drink much to really enjoy the experience. There are seven courses, and although each one was small, it all added up to a very satisfying dinner. A few sips of the wines paired with each course was perfect and let the food, the main attraction, shine.

Of course, the wines were nothing to sneeze at, either. The Amuse Bouche, the precursor to the first course, was accompanied by a Veuve Cliquot champagne, and the accompaniants to the following courses ranged from Newton to Pippin Hill to Smoke Tree.

But the food? You can see the whole menu in the sidebar, but my personal favorites were the Yellowfin Tuna Tartare on a wonton crisp, which almost stole the show on its own. The Chicken Fried East Coast Oysters — the fried crust really tasted like the best southern fried chicken crust you’ve ever tasted, until you get into the center to the oyster. Amazing flavors together. The Pan Seared Diver Scallops where close behind on my list of favorites, as was the palate cleansing granite “shot” (liquid instead of the customary frozen sorbet type) with grapefruit, orange, and something else that made it the tiniest bit spicy. And bread pudding is a favorite of mine personally, so the Apple Cinnamon Brioche Pudding obviously went over extremely well with me. The crowning touch was the vanilla bean whipped cream, which emphasized the vanilla almost to the taste of vanilla ice cream.

The long table, as it turns out, is strictly on purpose. Micheal’s intention is to encourage a family style experience, to create a friendly atmosphere where people make new friends and interact with each other more so than if everyone was seated at separate tables. This is a fundamental ideology of Micheal’s: the power of food to foster relationships. Micheal said, “This is a movement, this is not a snooty foodie thing. It’s about friends and neighbors and bringing people that share a love of food and wine together. We want to bring this country back together, away from politics; it’s all about love. And if you are part of that movement, you are part of our family.”

Coming up:
Dinners in Wilmington, DE, Washington DC (sold out), Richmond, Baltimore, and more.
The opening of Micheal’s Underground Kitchen Test Kitchen in Richmond
Another dinner in Upperville “after the snow goes,” in Micheal’s words.


Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 101 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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