Best underground dinner party
The Hidden Kitchen
Let’s face it: Dining out is a fairly tame activity, one where you’re unlikely to experience the frisson of outlawry. Historically speaking, the restaurant itself arose in tandem with the bourgeoisie, and bourgeois it has remained. Unless you can find some place serving unaged raw-milk cheese (ooh!) or you’re willing to cross the line of one of those yellow conditional-pass health department placards (ah!), then your meal out on the town is likely to stay firmly on the right side of the law.
There is, however, a way to move into a less-authorized gray area: Skip the restaurant and instead go to Sacramento’s own Hidden Kitchen. It’s a dinner-party club where you sign up online at www.thehiddenkitchen.com, pay a suggested contribution for your multicourse meal, get a lovely meal and a restaurant-worthy experience in the home of Dennis and Mary Kercher.
They’re very clear, however, about the line between their dinners and a real, licensed restaurant: “First off, we’re not a restaurant,” says Dennis. Despite receiving publicity—they were even mentioned in a Newsweek story on the trend of what has often been called underground restaurants—they’ve had, they say, “no brushes with the law.” They stay on good terms with their neighbors, and so there have been no complaints about the occasional dinner parties.
Such in-home dinners, underground dining, supper clubs or whatever you want to call them, have blossomed in recent years. Of course, nobody really knows the extent of the trend, but spots have popped up and gotten press in New York; Portland, Ore.; and Paris—where the example, run by young Americans abroad, is also called The Hidden Kitchen. Dennis ate there while visiting Paris.
In Oakland, Calif., the well-known Ghetto Gourmet (www.theghet.com) may be the granddaddy of the trend—and it was also the inspiration for Sacramento’s own underground dinner spot. “We saw an article about The Ghetto Gourmet guys,” says Dennis, an avid cook, “and we thought, ‘We can do this, and do it our way.’”
The Kercher’s way includes several courses in their Land Park home—or on the gracious patio, in good weather—with all from-scratch food, mostly cooked by Dennis, like spinach-ricotta ravioli in Meyer lemon beurre blanc or Sonoma rack of lamb in rosemary and lemon confit with ratatouille. Usually, they also serve a bit of their homemade crema di limoncello and other flavors of potent liqueurs—something they’re extremely careful to note they are absolutely, positively not selling.
Recently, they’ve added an extra pair of hands. The Kerchers’ daughter Marina, 28—who trained at cooking school for a time—has moved back to Sacramento. She now works at the dinners as well, primarily doing the baking. Even with more help, preparing each dinner is a three-day affair: shopping one day, and then two days of cooking (plus cleanup the morning after). “It’s 100 percent Kercher powered,” Marina says.
They make a little money on the dinners, but “it’s very modest,” Dennis says.
“It’s a labor of love,” Mary adds. “You’d have to be nuts to do it [for the money], but if you get enjoyment out of it, it’s good.”
“We’ve figured out the system over the past two years, cooking and serving, and being on the Web has really made things run better,” says Dennis. The Hidden Kitchen now has an e-mail list of 450 people. “When we set a date, I send an e-mail out to that mailing list, and the date fills up within an hour,” he says. Because of cancellations, they now ask guests to prepay for their reservation. (After all, when you’re serving dinner in your home, there are no walk-ins to fill empty places at the table.) “It seems like there’s good interest in what we’re doing,” Dennis says.
So far, the Kercher’s enterprise seems to be the only one operating in Sacramento, though another local cook is considering launching a similar enterprise. The man, a state-government official, says he hasn’t made up his mind—though he recently ate at The Hidden Kitchen to check out the operation. He says he’s not sure he can make the time commitment, given the demands of his job, but he also acknowledges that the unpermitted status of an establishment like The Hidden Kitchen is a concern.
“It’s an issue that would probably weigh more on me than on others, because my job is writing and analyzing law, so I’m aware of it,” he says. “I haven’t really legally researched it; I just know there have been issues raised in other jurisdictions.” (At least one such operation in California has been busted—Berkeley’s now-legit Digs Bistro grew out of a shutdown underground restaurant.)
Would The Hidden Kitchen would ever go legit, as a full-scale restaurant? Not very likely, says Mary Kercher. “I don’t know how they do it,” she says.
Marina is more interested in someday opening her own place, but she says, “It’s a hard business to go into. Blood, sweat and tears.”
“If we did it, we’d want to do something different,” says Dennis, “and I think we’re doing something different now. The novelty of going to someone’s house and being served dinner is still pretty fresh.”
They all acknowledge that the every-night, work-every-holiday commitment of having a restaurant is daunting. “I think we appreciate restaurants more than we ever have in our lives,” Dennis says. “Doing it this way, it’s fun. We get to try different things, pick and choose.”
Mary continues: “Anytime, we could just pull the plug, decide we’re not going to do this anymore. It’s just us—our family, our house, our stuff. Someone asked me, ‘Where do you get your linens done?’ And I said, ‘Well, the washing machine.’”
For now, then, The Hidden Kitchen will stay hidden.
That said, dinner there hardly feels transgressive. It’s more like a very nice dinner party at the home of your fanciest friends, except the friends don’t sit down to eat with you. Unless you find a restaurant serving endangered species or something, though, it’s as close to illicit as a Sacramento dining-out experience is likely to get.