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August 16, 2015

A Q&A with Food Underground’s Ari Miller

Restaurants Culture
081715_foodunderground1 Kristen Terebesi/for PhillyVoice

Diners at the Cooks' Canvas counter interact with the chefs while they plate Sydney Hanick's scallop dish.

Under their multifaceted Food Underground brand, founders Ari Miller and Gary Burner cater private parties and events, host a monthly dinner club and teach cooking classes.

This summer they launched the Cooks’ Canvas series at Reading Terminal Market to give up-and-coming line cooks a chance to show off their talents to the public. The second installment tonight, Aug. 17, features Pete Bresnahan of Fitler Dining Room (formerly of High Street on Market).

Miller, a Bucks County native, transitioned from a journalism career in Israel to working in professional kitchens there. After returning to the U.S., he cooked at Percy Street Barbecue and High Street on Market before teaming up with Burner, a former banker and avid home cook. Here, Miller explains what Food Underground is all about.

Sydney Hanick and Ari Miller plate Hanick's scallop dish at the first Cooks' Canvas dinner (seared scallop, young coconut foam, mango gel, pickled shallot and spelt cake, from the menu exploring the relationship between French and African flavors). (Kristen Terebesi/For PhillyVoice)

What is Food Underground?

It’s like a roving dinner party, but we also do pop-up events, Cooks’ Canvas being one of them. Our main focus is the private dinner parties, but we love doing this other stuff where the format is different because it drives us in a different way. We’ve been at COOK. We do the food cart at Garage once or twice a month. We run a monthly dinner club that’s super chill and relaxed — we do that to be able to play around a little bit and develop ideas. We don’t have a restaurant, so we try to manufacture opportunities to cook and host whenever we can.

What kind of food do you cook?

A whole host and array of things. We’ve done Spanish to Italian to Arab, Israeli and Palestinian food to whatever random mishmash of ideas we have floating around.

When did you start Food Underground?

Nov. 1, 2014. I finished my job at High Street on Oct. 31, and on Nov. 1, I was hired for a friend’s 40th birthday party. They asked me to do sort of a weird, trippy take on Old World Jewish food.

What happens at the monthly dinner club?

I cook, and Gary functions as a sous chef. We try to do dishes that we want to have in our repertoire but haven’t experienced enough. We have a nice long table for 12, and you’re sitting with people who might be regulars at the dinner club or might be new, and there’s this really cool, dynamic vibe. And by the end you have this cohesive unit that has experienced this event together, and it’s small and intimate enough that everyone sort of feels like there’s this new extended family.

Is the dinner club open to the public?

To a certain extent. It’s not a formal event, so it’s really word-of-mouth. We’ll put it up on social media, but it’s not aggressively marketed or polished.

What about Cooks’ Canvas?

It’s more for the public eye, and it’s a collaboration. Everyone’s always focused on the chefs and the sous chefs. Having worked as a line cook and with line cooks, I know that the grind is insane. And I’m able to tap cooks like Sydney [Sydney Hanick of Kensington Quarters] and Pete [Pete Bresnahan of Fitler Dining Room] and say, ‘Hey, I’m in the position where I can make this happen — let’s have a lot of fun.’ One of the cool things that we do is the cook gets to bring a guest and we also reserve some seats for industry at a very reduced rate so that the cook can invite friends.

How does this fit into the food scene here?

When I moved back to the States, it was quite serendipitous that I ended up in Philly, and it was such a blessing that I did. One of the things that most impressed me about Philly is that there’s this sense of communal success. One person can’t be successful in an unsuccessful environment, there has to be this community that supports what we’re all doing, and I love that notion. I love to be able to take advantage of it as much as I love to be able to contribute to it — it’s special.

Tonight’s installment of Cooks’ Canvas featuring Pete Bresnahan of Fitler Dining Room has sold out. Check Food Underground’s website and Facebook page for information on upcoming events, like the Aug. 25 collaboration with Amanda Feifer of at Fourth & Cross.