Diners at Underground Kitchen's Pittsburgh debut. Photo by Joerose Tharakan.

Amid the clinking wine glasses and clattering flatware came a familiar shout—”Here we go, Steelers, here we go!”—followed shortly thereafter by an opera singer’s “Ave Maria.”

None of it felt strange or out of place. In fact, was it almost perfectly Pittsburgh—just as Micheal Sparks intended it to be.

Sparks—organizer of the national pop-up dinner series Underground Kitchen—brought the event to his hometown for the first time Wednesday night, showcasing a spectacular six-course meal for a sold-out crowd at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Details of the dinner, including its menu and location, were kept under wraps until shortly before the event, giving the evening’s festivities—which included an opera performance, a DJ set and (naturally) a few spontaneous Steelers chants—an added touch of surprise.

They say every displaced Pittsburgher eventually finds a way back. Maybe so, but few can plan a homecoming quite like Sparks.

Underground Kitchen organizer Micheal Sparks (right) laughs with diner Bridget Ford. Photo by Joerose Tharakan.

“The whole thing is phenomenal,” said Bridget Ford, one of 65 diners at the event. “It opens doors for people to taste things they’ve never tasted before. [Sparks] has this ability to make everyone feel welcome. Outsiders feel like insiders, and everyone has a great time. It’s like magic.”

For Sparks, it’s all part of the experience he sets out to create: a jubilant meld of food and camaraderie. “It’s like Cirque du Soleil meets a dinner party,” he says of Underground Kitchen. “Growing up in Pittsburgh, our family meals were where everything happened. We took them seriously—we’re the kind of people who take a month to plan a tailgate party. So in bringing Underground Kitchen to Pittsburgh, I knew I had to get it right.”

To do so, Sparks enlisted J. Ponder, a traveling chef who rose to prominence after taking home the top prize on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. A Georgia native who now lives in Virginia Beach, Ponder had never been to Pittsburgh when he got the call from Sparks. “He told me, ‘This is Pittsburgh—we have to wow them,’” says Ponder. “So I researched what Pittsburghers eat and what the culture is like here. I found that it’s really a melting pot—it’s not like Miami, where seafood is everything, or Maryland, where everyone eats crab.”

To reflect the city’s varied tastes, Ponder created “Air, Land & Sea,” a menu featuring everything from duck breast with raisin mostarda to lamb chops with cous cous and pan-seared salmon with pumpkin squash purée. “I was trained as a French chef in culinary school, so I went with some classic French techniques,” he says. “The sauces, the cooking methods, and keeping it simple with salt and pepper—it lets the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Chef J. Ponder at the August Wilson Center. Photo by Joerose Tharakan.
Chef J. Ponder at the August Wilson Center. Photo by Joerose Tharakan.

Giving Ponder a platform for his award-winning work is part of Underground Kitchen’s mission, says Sparks. “Nationally, minority and women chefs rarely get the exposure they deserve.” Featuring Ponder—a Black chef—was one way Sparks could counteract that, he says, and “the August Wilson Center was the perfect place to do that.”

The Center is special for another reason, too, says Sparks—it’s a symbol of just how much his hometown has changed. “As a young African-American man from Pittsburgh, I couldn’t make it here as a designer,” he says of his early career. “I knew from an early age that I had to get out. So the fact that so much is happening here, and that this beautiful Center exists now, warms my heart.”

Sparks’ career as a designer has taken him around the world: First as creative director for Louis Vuitton in Madrid; then to New York City to open his own design business; and finally to Richmond, Virginia, where he now lives with his partner. It was there, he says, that he developed the idea for Underground Kitchen. “Richmond, like Pittsburgh, is very much a car community. You get in your car in the morning and you drive to the office, and then you drive home. You never have to talk to anybody except your colleagues. Being the people person that I am, I found that really difficult after living in New York.”

To get to know their neighbors, Sparks and his partner began inviting them over for drinks. “Well, drinks turn into dinner, and dinner turns into people begging to come back for more,” says Sparks, laughing. “It kind of got out of hand. So we started hiring chefs to come to our house and cook, and eventually it developed into this pop-up dinner series that we could use to raise money for worthy causes.”

Since 2010, says Sparks, Underground Kitchen has given scholarships to hospitality and culinary students. “The whole thing just keeps growing,” he says, who has operated in numerous cities.

As of Wednesday night, Sparks can add his hometown to the list. And with a second Pittsburgh event planned for November, he hopes to share his family’s ethos with even more eager diners. “My family taught me that food is where the heart is,” he says. “Food is how you understand where people are coming from. You know, we live in such a crazy political climate—people are trying to divide us. But food shows us how to come together, to support one another, to love one another.”

Ryan Rydzewski

Ryan Rydzewski is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Lawrenceville, where he reads on his porch and holds up traffic on his bike. Follow him on Twitter @RyanRydzewski