A magical farm dinner in Avoca, Wisconsin
Jonny Hunter and two close friends host a...
Winding county roads quickly turn into gravel paths in Avoca, a small farm town about an hour west of Madison. A brood of friendly chickens greet you near the farmstead’s coop, and you pass a small tomato hoop house on a grassy hill before finding the place where Madison chef Jonny Hunter and two close friends visiting from New York will serve tonight’s special farm dinner. You walk into a small, light-filled house and see Hunter kneeling over a steel basin in a cloud of liquid nitrogen smoke. He looks up from under his signature flower-print cap with a warm acknowledgement, not missing a beat as he swirls his spoon in the rose granita that’s to appear atop cherry galette and soft-serve ice cream in the meal’s eighth and final course.
It’s about two hours before the first round of guests arrive. Hunter, Sam Kanson-Benanav and Shamus Khan dance around each other in the sweltering July heat as they assemble workstations for the night ahead. They know what needs to get done without so much as a word to each other.
“It’s almost unnecessary to communicate verbally, just because we can all anticipate each other’s moves so well at this point,” said Kanson-Benanav, a close friend to Hunter and the opening chef at Forequarter.
This event acts as a sort of reunion between friends–three people who had a lot to do with getting the Underground Food Collective started in its early years. Being in the kitchen together feels as natural to them as anything, and it doesn’t feel like work. For Hunter, it’s also a special night because he’s returning to a place that’s always felt like a second home.
The three send the first couple of courses out: chicken liver mousse with a cherry gel, pretzel and boudin blanc with mustard, grilled bread and schmaltz, grilled chicken and crudite served with mayonnaise–a meal in itself.
The next couple of courses are well underway, and Hunter steps out of the kitchen for a moment to take a look at his guests. Rag in hand, he leans his shoulder against the pealing paint of a pocket French door leading out to the quiet hum of joyful diners. He surveys the scene: ivy-covered trellis laced with strings of twinkling lights overlook mismatched tables and chairs. Small parties clink their sweating wine glasses lit up by a hot, waning sun. This is a special place for Hunter. It’s where influences take root, mentors are made and friends reunite. It’s also where meals include ingredients sourced directly from the farm where dinner is served.
“It’s pretty magical,” Hunter says.
The courses keep coming, the next somehow a little better than the one before. Fried chicken and vegetables; cold soup with a poached egg; panzanella with chicken, tomato fennel and baby gem lettuce; pasta and pistachio pesto, ricotta, koji and chicken.
Back in the kitchen, Hunter slashes the neck of a champagne bottle and serves up glasses to his busy kitchen crew.
Toward the end of the night, before attendees make an effort to find room for a refreshing cup of watermelon with chicken skin and jalapeño and the grand finale cherry galette, Hunter introduces himself and his fellow chefs.
“This is always fun to do with friends, especially in a space like this,” Hunter tells the group. “That means so much to me.”
Hunter’s address all but skips his own introduction and goes straight to the acknowledgement of Kanson-Benanav, the opening chef at Madison’s Forequarter and Khan, who is now a Columbia University professor in the Sociology Department and helped start Madison’s Underground Food Collective alongside Hunter and his brother.
The moon bright and the night idyllic, you find that their friendship is a small but savory course that completes the perfect dinner.
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