This weekend, Charlottesville is one of the stops on a celebratory culinary tour to the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.
Richmond’s Underground Kitchen will bring its latest experiential dining event to town for one of eight stops on the way to the Beard House visit on June 25 and 26. The tour, which is visiting Underground Kitchen’s top eight most-visited cities, already has stopped in Columbia, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina; future dates await in Richmond on May 4, Washington, D.C., on May 18; Baltimore, Maryland, on June 1; and Arlington on June 15.
When you make your reservations for Saturday’s dinner at theundergroundkitchen.org/event/ugk-retrospective-charlottesville-va, remember that the location will be kept secret until 48 hours before the meal. The materials from Underground Kitchen offer only a hint that “the dinner will be at a landmark cultural locale in the city.”
One part of the secret, however, is out of the bag: the name of Saturday’s chef. Chef Taz will be cooking in Charlottesville for the first time, and she enjoys the sense of adventure that Underground Kitchen experiences bring.
“I love to introduce new things and new ways of thinking about food,” Chef Taz said. Cooking gives her “the freedom to be artistic. With this, I can be artistically creative. That’s why they call it ‘culinary arts.”‘
Chef Taz grew up surrounded by complex flavors from the foods of her mother’s German Jewish heritage and her father’s Caribbean background. She earned culinary degrees from J. Sargent Reynolds Community College and the Culinary Institute of America and has worked with chefs in Richmond, including Walter Buddy at Lemaire and Chris McCandless at TJ’s, and other chefs in Spain, Germany and France.
“My style is Jewish German, to kind of link up with my heritage,” she said. “I do a lot of French techniques with Israeli seasonings and German fermentation.”
That German fermentation brings in the tang of sauerkraut and red cabbage, for instance, but although the European comfort-food flavor will be there, the presentation is elevated. Her classical French training allows her to “upscale the way it’s done, so it’s not a blob on a plate,” she said.
Deconstruction and imagination connect to evoke familiar flavor profiles in fresh ways. Chef Taz enjoys sharing sauerkraut with her diners, for instance, but the snappy, tart taste one associates with the cabbage dish may take a less familiar path to the plate than they may expect.
“The juices from the sauerkraut, I may use that in the sauce,” she said. “This has vinegar; that has fennel seeds. It could be that the fennel seeds are crushed on the plate. You’ll pick up all the flavorings, but it won’t necessarily be sauerkraut. You’ll feel it.”
She likes to find creative ways to express her Israeli heritage as well.
“It’s still developing its cuisine,” she said. “It’s still a mash of Middle Eastern and trying to find its way.”
Part of the fun of the Underground Kitchen events is a sense of discovery enjoyed by chefs and diners. The idea that a meal is something to be shared — something that nourishes the soul as well as the body — can be recaptured for an evening.
“I think we’ve lost that, and Underground Kitchen allows us to go back to that,” Chef Taz said.
From the first bite, everybody wins. For the chef, “this is everything I’ve got, and I’ve put it on a plate for you,” Chef Taz said. From a diner’s perspective, it’s “two hours spent really enjoying my meal and conversing with people I’ve never seen before.”