Vancouver is often lauded as a foodie city, with diverse restaurants, acclaimed chefs, and good food. In homes and apartments across the Lower Mainland, however, there’s a secondary restaurant scene emerging—underground restaurants that operate on a hearsay basis without restaurant licensing. This is the focus of Secret Suppers of Vancouver, an hour-long documentary airing on CBC on July 19 at 7 p.m. PT.
“I found out that a friend of mine does this in Richmond. He ran an underground restaurant out of his home,” director Jordan Lee told the Georgia Straight during a recent phone interview. “It was just his rental suite, so he didn’t even own the place, but he had people over, took their money, and made nice, gourmet meals.”
The film produced by Vancouver-based Georgia Street Media explores the world of Vancouver’s underground restaurants through four chefs.
“When I talked to people about underground restaurants, a lot of people had a very vague idea—if any idea at all—as to what it was,” Lee said. “So I wanted to make this documentary to say, ‘Hey, here’s a cool thing going on in Vancouver that you probably don’t know about. Let’s showcase it a little bit.’”
One of the underground restaurants featured in the documentary is Tom’s Kitchen, a small operation in Richmond. The owner and chef, Tom—who goes only by his first name in order to remain anonymous—is a recent graduate of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. He creates French-style tasting menus for up to six diners several nights a week.
“It’s amazing watching somebody like Tom. He’s super young, he’s relatively inexperienced, and yet I’ve never met anyone who can talk about food as much as he can,” Lee recalled. “He’s just one guy doing this out of his basement. He didn’t want his address or last name used in the film, so we kept that out.”
Nicolas Hipperson, who is also featured in the film, is less concerned about anonymity. The executive chef of Raincity Grill creates fine-dining meals at his underground restaurant Farm 2 Fork in Gastown.
“Chef Nicolas is quite open about what he does, and he wants to see underground restaurants grow and expand in Vancouver,” Lee said, adding that Farm 2 Fork operates with a catering licence. “Underground restaurants are in a legal grey area. Some of them are more legitimate than others, and some are shadier than others. That’s kind of the fun aspect of it as well.”
For the film, Lee interviewed a representative of Vancouver Coastal Health, who asserted that because many of the city’s underground restaurants operate without restaurant licences, health regulations don’t apply and the onus is on the diner.
“It’s one of those situations where until someone actually makes a mistake and gets in trouble, you’re pretty safe in terms of running these things,” Lee said. “As far as I know, there haven’t been any major issues with health violations or any sicknesses.”
The two other chefs featured in Secret Suppers of Vancouver are Robin Kort and Mérida Anderson. Kort runs culinary company Swallow Tail Canada, which stages elaborate pop-up dining events called the Culinary Circus. Anderson, who's now based in Montreal, started Vegan Secret Supper in her apartment in East Vancouver.
Lee, who is a recent graduate of the TV Broadcast and Video Production program at BCIT, acknowledged that while underground restaurants aren’t for everyone, they can provide a unique dining experience for adventurous diners.
“The idea of being able to bring a bunch of strangers to a table over food and getting to bring community together is an important thing,” Lee said. “It’s pushing the boundaries in a good way.”