Micheal Sparks is used to holding elaborate, multicourse meals in secret locations all over the country. Tickets to his dinner series have cost from $195 to $500, with dishes artfully plated by “rising top chefs” and evenings dissolving smoothly into early mornings.
The Underground Kitchen, also known as UGK, was gearing up for its March 12 Artistry of Artisans dinner in Charleston, South Carolina, when the world swiftly, surely changed.
“Everything was wiped out,” Sparks says. As he and business partner Kate Houck mourned the loss of business due to the spread of COVID-19, Sparks realized he didn’t want to attend the pity party long. “I thought, ‘there are going to be a lot of people hurting worse than us.’”
So they mobilized. “I told someone the other day, ‘thank God Micheal’s mind never stops working,’” Houck says.
Using their connections with local farms and vendors and the talent of their chefs, Houck and Sparks on March 16 launched Community Comes First, a food relief program bringing soup, tea and bread to those in need.
Those receiving free meals include the homebound, emergency workers and medical staff, and family members and patients in temporary residence during the pandemic.
“We fed more than 200 people that first week,” Sparks says. Now, UGK has partnered with six Richmond churches that are part of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, using the churches’ commercial kitchens to prepare meals for hundreds of people across the metro area. UGK has worked with area organizations including Caritas, Ronald McDonald House, the Doorways and the Reinhart Guest House at St. Mary’s to provide meals for those who need it most.
“Our working philosophy is love your neighbor,” says Assistant Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson. “The idea emerged through friendships with the folks at Underground Kitchen — we have facilities, they have chefs out of work, it all started coming together.”
Brooke-Davidson says that while assisting those in need is certainly nothing new to the close-knit church community, this is different — a serendipitous coming together as the world comes apart at the seams.
“This is really new, to be able to do a grassroots collaboration is a real gift,” says Brooke-Davidson. “This is a faith where people gather around the table. God is known to us in the breaking of bread. Right now our people can’t gather, but we can help make sure our neighbors are being fed.”
And they’re being fed well. Recent soups whipped up by the UGK chef team have included a coconut curry beef from Will Richardson of Kudzu, lentil soup from Hamid Noori of the Mantu, and chicken consommé from globe-trotting itinerant chef Jean Lorestil. Ladonte Cooper has been baking pans upon pans of beautiful French loaves and focaccia.
Richardson was set to headline his first dinner March 12 in Charleston. He says he had been looking forward to cooking in the low country for a long time. But like Sparks, he had no interest in moping. “Underground Kitchen ... it’s totally improvisational by nature. We’re good at making a lot out of very little,” he says.
The chef credits generous vendors for donating ample proteins and veggies with which the chefs can craft their beautiful soups. And as for the generosity of the entire experiential dinner series team? “I think a lot of people who cook for a living, whether they know it or not, do so out of a need to nurture people. It’s easy to go into this when the opportunity is there, to put our skills to work in a really challenging time.”
Support Underground Kitchen and its food relief efforts by donating online at theundergroundkitchen.org/event/ugk-soup-program-donation.