Recently we got the chance to attend one of local chef Alvin Schultz’s Eat. Drink. Experience! Underground Dinners, entitled “Vietnam Underground.” What exactly is an Underground Dinner you ask? Schultz, an alum of MasterChef's second season, picks a nationality, cuisine or theme, then develops a tasting menu of 10 or more courses inspired by his travels and food memories. Each dinner lasts two or three hours, at a location that's announced roughly one week before dinner is served.
Dinners cost $125 per person with $75 up-front to reserve your space and $50 due upon completion of the evening. That might sound pricey, it pays for the high quality of the courses, plus two alcoholic beverages (the evening is BYOB and Schultz is always available to assist with recommendations) and a take away gift. As an opportunity to have a unique experience in a group of a dozen food lovers, it’s actually quite a good deal. With the next dinner already being plotted, be sure to follow Schultz’s Instagram to look for hints. In the meantime, we decided to grill him a bit on just what makes the Underground experience a true labor of love.
Most of us know you from your MasterChef days, but what led you to launching Underground?
In 2016, after 15 years with my corporate job, I was laid off and began cooking full-time. Along with consulting and private chef work, I launched the Underground concept in June 2016. A year later, we've served over 2,500 plates of food and we're excited what the next years will bring in terms of new diners to the experience and new dishes.
How do you create the menus?
The menus at each underground dinner are heavily influenced by season and the very best products available from both local and global purveyors. Beyond ingredients, flavors come from each corner of the globe, but diners at any random dinner will see heavy influence from both Vietnam (my childhood comfort cuisine) and regional Mexican cooking. The food of Mexico—especially Oaxaca—has captured my attention in recent years and I've been delving into both books and in-country research to learn the techniques behind rural Mexican flavors. The food at Underground is labor-intensive and technique driven. Because we only have 12 diners a night, we can focus attention and time into intricate preparations that are not feasible in traditional restaurants. It’s important to note that we never repeat a dish on Underground menus. Once it's been on the menu it's forbidden to be served again, with one exception: our sourdough blue corn tortillas get served at every meal.
What was your favorite Underground menu?
That's a toss-up: We did a 14-course/eight-cocktail menu inspired by the movie Pulp Fiction where every course and drink were taken from a quote from the movie. I consider that my favorite menu because I spent literally years thinking about the dishes! Honestly, we have so many Pulp Fiction dishes we could easily do three more unique menus based on my favorite movie.
The other menu that ties Pulp Fiction is the fundraiser for SACRED (Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development). That was a 13-course, modern Mexican inspired menu paired with mezcals donated and hand-carried from Mexico. We raised over $1,400 for SACRED, which funds development and education for communities in rural Mexico. That dinner was close to my heart and I think those dishes are some of the most composed/refined that we've ever produced.
What's next for Underground?
The staff and I have joked about a "Disney Princess Champagne dinner" but perhaps that's because two-thirds of us are single! In all seriousness though, Little Mermaid was my favorite movie (until I saw Pulp Fiction) so "Under the Sea" is a possibility. We have also been toying with the concept of "Brunch Underground." Odds are it will happen at some point soon as one of my favorite sayings is "Brunch is a state of mind."
I'd also love to do a "Houston" dinner with some guests of honor hailing from or calling Houston home. Bun B: If you're reading, HMU! I would love to collaborate with a street artist to do a mural during the Underground dinner experience. The staff is always collaborating, so we have a ton of ideas to work with moving forward.
Since we like to keep things fresh, no dates/themes [are] set in stone for the next one, but prospective diners wanting the inside scoop on up and coming events can always email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out when dinners are announced.