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|KCMag.com: UNDERGROUND SUPPER CLUBS|
STORY BY Alicia McGarry
The Sell-outs. That’s what we like to call the hush-hush dining events that are popping up all over the country. But when KC’s foremost foodie Jenny Vergara introduced the concept of underground supper clubs to her Midwestern brethren, it began to take on a life of its own.
In Kansas City, there exists an optimal balance of the undying foodies, occasion diners and those of us who fall somewhere in between. In a city that welcomes edge but strives to keep its traditional, fine-dining sensibilities, chefs are mostly limited to rustling up dishes that are friendly for special-occasion diners. On the other side of the spectrum, there are the foodies for whom there exists no greater purpose in life than seeking out the most poignant and prized dishes in the world.
Jenny Vergara is one such culinarian who defines foodie so aptly it’s even her company’s moniker, Foodie LLC. When she dreamed up The Test Kitchen concept, her place in KC’s culinary scene would become forever emblazoned within it. Vergara wanted to conjur up a culinary platform from which chefs could create with reckless abandon and even a pointed disregard for mass appeal—hence, test.
Although, say, using a paintball gun to sauce a plate or serving food in cans probably wouldn’t fly in a traditional restaurant setting, The Test Kitchen welcomes the weird, the unprecedented and the extraordinary. What’s not welcome? Substitutions. Special requests. Dietary restrictions. No, thank you. Instead, patrons sit down to a multi-course experience in which they relinquish all control over to the chef. Vergara just needed a chef.
As Vergara dined one evening at The American Restaurant, Alex Pope, who worked in the throes of the kitchen, had creativity that struck her fancy. Vergara asked if he might be interested in cooking for her then brand-new underground supper club, The Test Kitchen. After an immediate “yes” from Pope, the two began brainstorming for the inaugural meal. Vergara recalls the first dinner with a profound nostalgia, and rightfully so, for it served as a harbinger of all that was to come. “Course number six got a standing ovation that night from the crowd and was hugely inventive––imagine the best peanut butter and jelly you’ve ever tasted,” Vergara remembers.
The rest is history––a veritable foodie revolution has since ensued locally, widely credited to Vergara’s efforts in transforming Kansas City into a worldwide culinary epicenter. And by many accounts, it appears we’ve arrived.
Since then, several underground supper club events are popping up throughout the city. In fact, the concept of a pop-up restaurant just so happens to be what’s behind Vergara and Pope’s latest collaboration. It’s called Vagabond––a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t experience currently taking this city’s salivary glands by storm.
Vagabond is a multiple-night dining experience with a pre-arranged menu and price, during which time the chef is allowed absolute free reign with regard to every dimension of the culinary adventure. And, like the name implies, Vagabond pops up and then is gone for good, adding to the allure and desirability of the experience. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Maybe it’s the way locations often remain undisclosed, or that Test Kitchen and Vagabond events are often held in obscure, mysterious locations. But somewhere along Kansas City’s culinary cabal scene has developed something of a clandestine identity.
In most cases, it’s as easy as getting on an email list. Of course, there are certain “secret-dining opportunities,” as Vergara calls them, that require an “in” in the restaurant industry––like those hosted by the Crossroads Social Club and led by The Rieger’s Executive Chef Howard Hanna.
The more exclusive events require attendees participate in a lottery system, with only 20 “winning” a seat, such as the Boulevard Brewmaster Luncheons, where Brewmaster Steven Pauwels pairs Boulevard beers with a meal from a different local restaurant for each event.
Adding to the luncheon series’ mega-allure, the luncheons usually feature a beer that is either on limited release or has yet to be released at all. Because of the extraordinary demand, Pauwels says Boulevard decided a lottery system was the best way to dole out seats fairly.
The luncheons––which kick off again this month after taking a short hiatus––are the brainchild of Pauwels, who says he will often dream up a perfectly paired luncheon while dining out. “Some chefs create new dishes, others use the excuse to create something new. We work with a wide variety of chefs, and one constant is that they are eager to learn more about our beer and how to pair it,” Pauwels says.
For opportunities that don’t require a lottery or getting on the right email list, order a trip to Weston. Green Dirt Farm Dinners take the concept of farm-to-table and dial it up a dab for Kansas City’s discerning palates, but the focus remains staunchly honed in on the food centered around Green Dirt Farm. What’s not sourced directly from the farm comes from other local farmers and food artisans. With the experience transpiring in a barn-turned-dining room, it’s hyper-locovarian cuisine at its finest.
Tony Glamcevski, events director and mastermind behind the Farm Table Dinners, originally left his career in the full-time restaurant industry to work on the livestock side of Green Dirt Farm. “Through my work on the farm, I developed an enormous amount of appreciation for all of the work that goes into producing high-quality, grass-fed meats,” Glamcevski says.
And though there are no lotteries or friends to be won in order to score a seat in Green Dirt Farm’s dining barn, you do have to be quick on the click. Seating is first come, first served but limited to 30 people. Last season, each of the farm’s dinners, which usually run from May to October, sold out in less than a week. “It’s a dining experience that follows our local growing season, where the chef’s menu reflects a snapshot of a particular time and place in our agricultural landscape,” Glamcevski says.
When it comes to getting in on the underground dining scene, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a seasoned foodie, a special occasion diner or something in between. There comes a time when even the chef bows to the experience created at these events.
“We’ve gotten so used to having it our way,” Vergara says. “But the truth is, it’s really an expression of love and passion that the chef wants to show you, and if you can sit down and be quiet long enough, you can taste the integrity and taste the passion. When a chef is left to his own devices, I think it will create a different dining experience altogether.”
SO YOU WANNA JOIN A CULINARY CABAL?
Vagabond Pop-up Restaurant
Crossroads Social Club
Boulevard Brewmaster Luncheons
Green Dirt Farm Dinners