Madison’s reluctant chef Jonny Hunter captures the culinary spotlight with Underground Food Collective

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Jonny Hunter moved to Madison 18 years ago in search of intellectual freedom and an environment that embraced a love of learning. After he found all that, he found something else: an opportunity to establish an alternative model for fine dining that has propelled him into the culinary spotlight.

Hunter is the co-owner of Madison’s Underground Food Collective, a multifaceted enterprise with catering, meat processing and fine-dining components. He serves as the chef at the restaurant, Forequarter, a recent venture that has been named one of the country’s top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine. And on Feb. 18, the 35-year-old was revealed to be one of four Wisconsinites on the shortlist for a prestigious honor: the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest.

Hunter was joined on the list by fellow Madison chef Dan Fox of The Heritage Tavern and Milwaukee chefs Justin Carlyle of Ardent and David Swanson of Braise. Hunter wasn’t ultimately selected in the final round, though Carlyle earned one of five slots.

Hunter’s response to the nomination — “It’s great to be recognized individually for what we do, but it really is the people I work with who are doing this every day. The job they do is more important than what I do” — is so modest it’s tempting to assume he’s a native Midwesterner. But he was raised in Tyler, Texas, where he was brought up in a strict Christian household. It was that repressive environment that Madison marked an escape from, when Hunter moved in 1998. 

After a year of random jobs, he registered for classes at UW-Madison, majoring in English with a certificate in integrated liberal studies and eventually earning a master’s degree in public affairs from the university. 

The building blocks of the Underground Food Collective came in between. In 2001, Hunter and a group of friends took over Catacombs Coffeehouse, a Christian coffee shop located in the basement of Pres House, the historic Presbyterian church on the campus’s Library Mall. The group served students $2.50 vegetarian lunches and promoted a communal atmosphere. 

“Community was the most important thing here,” says Hunter, who before running Catacombs had worked in a variety of Madison restaurant kitchens and food carts. “I learned a lot about the role food plays in a community and how to cook for that community using vegetables and produce grown by people I came to know and respect.

“I never really call myself chef,” Hunter adds. “When we were working at Catacombs it was all about collaboration, being kind to each other, and for the experience itself to be good.”

The Catacombs years colored how Hunter looks at life and his chosen profession. In 2005, the reluctant chef and his Catacombs companions set their sights on applying their approach to food service outside of the religious environment of Pres House. 

“Since Catacombs was in a basement space, we named our food collective ‘Underground’ in homage to that experience,” he said. “We started to work with nonprofits to bring in food as part of their activities.”

The Underground Food Collective immediately set off in a unique direction, launching a series of pop-up dinners — not only in Madison, but also in Chicago and New York City. Hunter says the group would create its menu first, then rent out a restaurant space to execute the meal.

“People embraced the concept as a way for us to pursue culinary careers without taking on full-time obligations,” Hunter says. “We just wanted the opportunity to cook for people and do something creative and fun.”

The success of the dinners led to the formation of Underground Catering, which added structure and opportunity to the pop-up concept and set the collective on its current trajectory. The enterprise, the first of several owned by Hunter, his brother Ben Hunter and business partner Melinda Trudeau, involved the same organic and local produce with which the collective had been working, while adding locally raised meats.

It was the first in a string of additions, some more successful than others. The collective’s first attempt at a restaurant, the Underground Kitchen, opened in 2010 and closed nine months later after a fire (the space is now occupied by Heritage Tavern). More successful was Underground Meats, a wholesale meat processing facility opened in 2012 that offers charcuterie, sausages and salami, and Underground Butcher, a retail meat store that offers fresh cuts from humanely raised animals. 

Hunter’s culinary talents have shone brightest at the collective’s permanent home, Forequarter Restaurant, also established in 2012. “Forequarter is a tiny restaurant, but the food there is really driven by the creative process and is very typical of where we are in Wisconsin and that we have fresh vegetables available for only a limited time each year,” Hunter says. “We’re limited in many ways, but those limitations help us to make something unique.”

Hunter says the restaurant isn’t themed beyond that description, although root vegetables are prominent in menu items and many dishes are made using fermentation processes borrowed from Asian cuisine. It’s a process that lends a unique character to such dishes as a salad of pickled trout with smoked trout roe, celeriac mayonnaise and shaved vegetables ($14) or fried mushrooms with black garlic, black radishes and caramelized shallot vinaigrette ($8), two of Hunter’s favorite menu items.

The collective will expand sometime in 2015, when Hunter opens his next restaurant, Middlewest, at 809 Williamson St., next door to Underground Butcher. He says the restaurant will be larger than Forequarter, with a focus on Wisconsin culture, but resists getting any more specific than that, except to say it’ll retain a commitment to sustainable foods.

“I think that we run a different kind of kitchen than a lot of other restaurants. The structure has changed from the early days, but the principles stay the same,” Hunter says. “The team that works there is responsible for the food coming out. The menu is not an expression of a single individual, but the expression of the team.”

Hunter’s expression of the collective ethos is one embraced by many Madison consumers. And the more well-known his name becomes, the fewer the limits on how far the Underground Food Collective can spread its influence and further its cause.

IF YOU GO

Forequarter Restaurant: 708 ¼ E. Johnson St., 608-609-4717.

Underground Meats: 931 E. Main St., 608-251-6171.

Underground Butcher: 811 Williamson St., 608-338-3421.

For more details, visit undergroundfoodcollective.org.