Tag Archives: culinary

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

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.

Go For the Food: Bourbon in Louisville

In Kentucky’s bourbon country, the classic American whiskey isn’t just for sipping anymore.

Restaurants stretching along the Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville are creating bourbon-inspired sauces and glazes to jazz up main courses, side dishes and desserts. The 6-year-old bourbon cocktail and culinary experience has grown to 34 establishments, adding more zest to the city’s nightlife.

The trail’s growth is part of a bourbon revival both nationally and in Kentucky’s largest city, where whiskey-making dates back to the late 1700s and where a portion of Main Street known as “Whiskey Row” was once home to as many as 50 distilleries before Prohibition.

Louisville touts itself as the gateway to bourbon country, and for many visitors the restaurants and bars are part of a day-night bourbon experience.

During the day, they tour distilleries about an hour or less away in rural Kentucky, where iconic bourbons such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Four Roses are crafted. At night, they flock to Louisville’s bars and restaurants where bourbon is a main course.

“It’s a perfect complement to our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, since you get to savor the authentic distillery experience by day and then enjoy the cosmopolitan allure of the Urban Bourbon Trail at dusk,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “Many of our guests use Louisville as their home base to enjoy their unique hotels, nightlife and culinary scene.”

The bars are well-stocked — many establishments are typically stocked with anywhere from 50 to 150 varieties of Kentucky’s signature spirit — and the bourbon-inspired dishes are as varied as the whiskeys crafted by Kentucky’s master distillers.

At St. Charles Exchange, there’s an appetizer dubbed Elvis on Horseback — bacon-wrapped, peanut butter-stuffed dates with bourbon-banana vinaigrette. The Brussels sprouts at Marketplace restaurant feature bourbon-sorghum hoisin and almond. Lilly’s serves up pork rib-eye with pork shoulder, summer succotash and grilled peach bourbon coulis. At Sidebar at Whiskey Row, the “Hung Jury” burger is layered with bourbon mushrooms and onions.

For dessert, options include Derby Cafe’s Kentucky bread pudding with bourbon sauce and whipped cream. The “Wilbur sundae” at Doc Crow’s includes brown butter praline ice cream with a bourbon caramel ribbon atop cinnamon pork rinds, sprinkled with candied bacon and topped with a bourbon cherry.

The vast array of bourbons offered at the bars includes hard-to-get whiskeys. Bourbons Bistro, a founder of the Urban Bourbon Trail, features an average of 125 regular bourbons, 20 to 25 reserve bourbons, and 35 rye whiskeys.

The Vernon Club, a bourbon bar housed in a bowling alley, keeps 300 bourbons on the menu. Its offerings of rare bourbons include Michter’s 20 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, the cultishly popular Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, and Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Four Wood.

At the Old Seelbach Bar, customers can sip a smooth single-barrel bourbon or a classic cocktail at a restored bar from the early 1900s. The bar is a big draw at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel, a stately fixture in downtown Louisville. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald used The Seelbach as a backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby,” and the hotel was a favorite hangout for Al Capone.

Many of the restaurants and bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail are a short walk from some of the city’s main attractions, including the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is a short drive away.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the trail has spiked the city’s status as a year-round tourist attraction. A half-dozen new downtown hotels are either planned or being built, and several micro-distilleries will start production in the next couple of years, he said.

“It’s been great for the economy, and good for the spirit of the city,” the mayor said.

If You Go…

URBAN BOURBON TRAIL: Louisville, Kentucky; http://www.bourboncountry.com/things-to-do/urban-bourbon-trail/index.aspx

ST. CHARLES EXCHANGE: 13 S. Seventh St., Louisville, 502-618-1917, http://stcharlesexchange.com/

MARKETPLACE: 651 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 502-625-3001, http://www.theatersquaremarketplace.com/

LILLY’S: 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville, 502-451-0447, http://www.lillyslapeche.com/

SIDEBAR AT WHISKEY ROW: 129 S. Second St., Louisville, 502-384-1600, http://www.sidebarwhiskeyrow.com/

DERBY CAFE: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, 502-637-1111, http://www.derbymuseum.org/derby-cafe.html

DOC CROW: 127 W. Main Street, Louisville, 502-587-1626, http://doccrows.com/

BOURBONS BISTRO: 2255 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, 502-894-8838, http://www.bourbonsbistro.com/Bourbons/home.html

VERNON CLUB: 1575 Story Ave., Louisville, 502-584-8460, http://www.vernonclub.com/

OLD SEELBACH BAR: At the Seelbach Hilton, 500 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 800-333-3399, http://www.seelbachhilton.com/03_b_dining.php