5 Questions With: Food Entrepreneur Michael Sparks

We learn what we can about the Raleigh installation of Underground Kitchen from its founder, Michael Sparks.
Written by Ayn-Monique Klahre

Recently, I got an email about an unusual dining experience in Raleigh: You buy a ticket, but wouldn’t know the chef, cuisine, theme or location until days before. How could I not be intrigued? So I hopped on the phone with Michael Sparks, the CEO of Underground Kitchen, the Richmond-based food enterpreneur who will be bringing his experiential dining concept back to Raleigh next week. Hungry (ha) for more? Here’s what he told me…

How did you come up with this idea?
My background is in fashion and I was working in London and Madrid. But on one trip back to New York I fell in love with an Australian doctor, and over about 15 years the guy who I thought might be a fling turned into my husband. In 2006, he got a job offer to live in Richmond, Virginia, was just emerging as a food capital in the East coast. We bought a house for ourselves and the dog in the museum district, but found that meeting people was impossible, they just hopped in their cars and drove around. So we started throwing dinner parties, first for our neighbors, but then decided to make it a business. Now we’re in 28 cities.

What’s different about this dinner party concept?
We don’t like to think of it as a pop-up, but as an experiential dining experience. It takes dining to a whole new level. Farmers come talk about the meat you’re going to eat, or the designer behind the dishes will talk about why they’re designed that way. But we keep it light, the most important thing is that folks get to meet each other. I see democrats and republicans getting together and realizing what they have in common instead of un-common, I love that.

Photo by Chris Johnson

Is it hard to pull off an event every month?
No, I’m a creative, I dream this sh*t! When I’m in bed, I’m thinking about what the next best thing could be. You tell me I can’t do dinner on a bridge, I’ll make it happen. We turned an alleyway full of garbage into Little Italy—we moved everything, sprayed it down, put up twinkle lights and put a table down the middle—we turned a stretch of railway track into the Orient Express. We just bought a 72-foot Airstream that we’ll be using to do off-the-grid events on the beach or in the forest.

Is this your first time in Raleigh?
No, this is our fourth time in Raleigh and soon we’ll be there monthly! Right now it’s about quarterly. It’s an amazing way to showcase up-and-coming chefs and for folks to meet new people.

What’s next for UGK?
Our next dinner in Raleigh is on Saturday, March 30 and there are still a few tickets left! We have some really interesting stuff coming down the pike—unfortunately I can’t tell you about it just yet, but it’s an amazing app—it will come out this summer.

For more information, visit theundergroundkitchen.org.