Underground Eats

Fundraising dinners are nothing new, and chefs who care about the way things taste have always leaned toward fresh ingredients from local growers. But put them together, add a dash of civil disobedience, and you get something entirely its own -  a local underground dining movement that's not only tasty, but feels good, too.

"Part of [the attraction] is the idea that we can work together to do something," said University of Michigan graduate student Brad Wicklund, who along with girlfriend Riva Jewell-Vitale,  launched Soup Stock – a volunteer-run soup lunch that raises money for micro-loans to support creative projects.

 "Also, its just sort of more like a party. It's a great reason to get together with friends and their friends. In some ways it feels like it breaks down barriers to conversation and exchange," says Wicklund. "If you go out to dinner in a restaurant you're not likely to strike up a conversation the length of your meal with the person sitting (at the table) next to you. At these events there's a high likelihood that you're going to walk away having had a conversation with someone you've never met before."

In December 2007 Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb hosted a fundraiser dinner for Growing Hope in their Ann Arbor home. A trio of local chefs put together a lovely meal for 25 lucky people who ponied up $125 a plate.

"It was a really big success," Gottlieb explains. "We had a silent auction and a beautiful, high-end dinner and we raised $5,000 for Growing Hope. It was fun and elegant, but Jeff and I both felt like if someone else had done this, we wouldn't have been able to afford to go. [The price] limited who could come out."

Still determined to use their home and their kitchen to support the local food movement, McCabe and Gottlieb put together another fundraiser about a year later. "Diner for a Day" helped support the work of filmmaker Chris Bedford, and this time about 160 people chipped in 10 bucks apiece for a hearty breakfast made with ingredients from local farms, enjoyed in the relaxed comfort of friends.

It was so much fun that, when McCabe turned 50 the following Friday, he decided to celebrate with another breakfast (and use up the Diner leftovers.) Friends volunteered to work the kitchen, and they called it Selma Cafe in honor of their Old West Side neighborhood's Soule, Eberwhite, Liberty, Madison Affiliation.

One thing led to another, and a network of friends and friends-of-friends has evolved into a burgeoning underground dining scene. It's staffed by volunteers, stocked with local food, and raising money to build hoophouses, help people in need , fund creative endeavors, and support entrepreneurs.

Word of Selma Cafe spread fast through Ann Arbor's many intersecting social circles, eventually spreading – via an anonymous letter of complaint - to the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Division. The letter-writer contended that McCabe and Gottlieb were running an unlicensed restaurant.

Interested in staying on the right side of the law, Gottlieb and McCabe changed the name of the gathering to Friday Mornings @SELMA and began working with the county to find a legal way to carry on.

"I'm really proud to say we had a really creative and effective conversation and we worked out a plan," Gottlieb says. "We're under the fundraising arm of Slow Food Huron Valley, and (the county) sent us a letter saying as much. They really embraced it. I'm excited for us, but I'm also excited for anyone else who wants to do something like this."

Within a couple of months, someone else was.

In Chelsea, Jane Pacheco and Janice Ortbring pitched the the idea to a community of people  involved in the local food movement. Ortbring and her husband, Todd, agreed to host a SELMA-like  "breakfast salon" to benefit the Chelsea Community Kitchen, an incubator for food-based businesses. Yellow Door invites local chefs – with an emphasis on anyone who has a food-based business in Chelsea – to prepare the menu of their choice on Thursday mornings. Guests drop by, donate $10-$15 and chow down.

"There were so many people just looking for something like this to do," says Janice. "Within a month we had everything. Lots of different people from different backgrounds said, 'I'd be happy to volunteer and do this part or that part.'"

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the foodshed, a couple of Selma regulars (and occasional guest chefs) known as Wonder Woman and Bad Fairy were doing something a little different – Bona Sera Supper Club.

Bona Sera actually traces its roots back to some of the cornerstones of the underground dining movement. While living in San Francisco, Wonder Woman was introduced to Ghetto Gourmet, a supper club that started in an Oakland, Calif. apartment basement in 2004. Through Ghetto Gourmet she met chef Efrain Cuevas, who started Clandestino Supper Club in Chicago a few years later. Wonder Woman was a regular in the kitchen at Clandestino dinners.  When Wonder Woman moved to Ann Arbor in 2008 it didn't take long for her to find a way to scratch her guerrilla cooking itch. She teamed up with Bad Fairy, once a saute chef at The Earle and a food writer in San Francisco. (Because Bona Sera is neither a 501(c)3 organization nor an official affiliate of one, Wonder Woman and Bad Fairy choose to keep their identities secret.)

"When I came here it was a great way to meet new people," she says. "People thought it was fun and interesting, and Bad Fairy, she thought I didn't have a lot of experience and she could one-up me."

Now, along with a handful of other volunteers (that frequently include Gottlieb and McCabe), they combine their skills and creativity to put on half a dozen themed dinners a year at various secret locations. Diners join their mailing list online and pay $50-$60 for a multi-course meal, paired with fresh, local entertainment. Guests learn the secret location by email a few days before the dinner.

The first Bona Sera dinner in December 2008 raised money for equipment, but now all proceeds go to charity. Past beneficiaries have included Alternatives for Girls, AIDS Partnership Michigan, HIV/AIDS Resource Center and the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. On April 17 they'll put on a dinner to benefit Jazzistry. Bona Sera volunteers Wicklund and Jewell-Vitale started Soup Stock this spring. It's based on a model borrowed from a Chicago group called InCUBATE.

Soup Stock works like this: People submit proposals for creative projects the month before the event. A month later they show up at the predetermined time and place to enjoy a bowl of soup (cream of potato, roasted butternut squash, grass-fed beef chili, vegan chili and curried carrot at the March event) for a suggested donation of $5.

The previous month's proposals are presented to the group and everyone gets one vote. The winning proposal receives the donations – minus the cost of ingredients. In March a proposal for a campaign to raise awareness of the wastefulness of shopping bags (paper and plastic) netted $149 in seed money.

"It's kind of a transparent and instant grant," says Wicklund, who's still looking for a site to host the next Soup Stock event. "Some people were like, "Wait a minute, if I invite more friends, then I'll win.'Well, this is grassroots fundraising; if you can rally enough people behind your cause, yeah, you might win."

"The idea is, when people are sitting around and enjoying their soup, some conversations might be spurred and who knows what might come out of it?"

Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, Crain's Detroit Business and Michigan Today, and you can find her online at www.activevoicemedia.com. Amy's also a regular contributor to Concentrate and Metromode. Her most recent story was MASTERMIND: Todd and Janice Ortbring.

All photos by Dave Lewinski



SELMA-Name Tag Wall


SELMA_Breakfast Service

Yellow Door

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