Chef of the Year 2015: Jonny Hunter is breaking all the rules

Hunter uses recipes for more than just cooking
Chef of the Year 2015: Jonny Hunter is breaking all the rules

Jonny Hunter looks like a kid in a candy shop when he’s around all his gadgets at the Underground Meats processing facility. They call it the commissary, and it’s home to an endless number of soon-to-be realized ideas and works in progress and a brood of curious cooks to tend to all of them. It’s gadgets galore here, where you might hear the loud woosh of a centrifuge extracting a single flavor from an herb oil, or the prickly screech of an ultrasonic homogenizer using sound waves to disturb particles in a glass beaker. You might notice the row of clipboards hanging from a nearby shelf, keeping record of the date and time that jars of split pea miso, kimchi ramps or fish bellies have been left to ferment.

Consider Hunter the headmaster of ideas, and the Underground Food Collective his laboratory.

“He’s almost like a shark; if he stops swimming, he’ll die. Once we finish one project, he’s already three steps into another one,” says Charlie Denno, head of production at Underground Meats.

This motivates Denno. It motivates everyone who works for the collective. Hunter’s innate lead-by-example personality and curiosity for making interesting food have shaped the Underground Food Collective’s anarchist business model that’s built on a solid foundation of talented people and ethical food practices.

But Hunter’s not interested in solely building his own food empire in Madison, a directive for which he’ll quickly give credit to the Underground Food Collective’s other doers and thinkers. No, what Hunter wants to do is transform Madison’s food culture into one that is sustainable, conscious and recognized for its potential. Sounds like a tall order, sure. But Hunter has proven many times he can do things that seem impossible.

He’s a James Beard Award-nominated chef with no formal culinary training.

He’s started a food business by disregarding traditional routes so he could set his own path.

He’s building community by sharing ideas and best practices with competitors.

“He’s basically been community organizing for the last fifteen years around food and a new food economy in Madison,” explains Sam Kanson-Benanav, the opening chef at Madison’s Forequarter and current New York resident. “He’s working really hard behind the scenes, not just on his own businesses, but on making sure all businesses in Madison are represented and supported, and that Madison is known nationally as one of the best food cities in the country, because it is.”

The unassuming thirty-six-year-old is the face of the Underground Food Collective. He’s a man who wears many hats (and not just the playful ones he dons over a mop of disheveled hair), which makes sense when your business is actually four businesses. The collective includes a catering business, a meat processing facility, a fine dining restaurant and a butcher shop. He and his brother Ben Hunter and business partner Mel Trudeau own the businesses that all have separate identities under the Collective brand. The collective creates its own internal supply and demand by curing and fermenting meat and other products at Underground Meats–the processing facility that supports the Underground Butcher Shop, Underground Catering and Forequarter. It’s a food business model that’s unique in Madison, and it’s working. The business’s annual sales revenue is close to $4 million. They return nearly $1.5 million to local producers every year.

Chef of the Year 2015: Jonny Hunter is breaking all the rules

Click here to read about Forequarter.

Hunter’s journey to becoming a butcher, chef and business owner is unusual, to put it lightly, but makes sense once you realize he’s got a natural ability to bring out the best in others, see the big picture and let his unrelenting creativity prove his prominence–all in an understated way. When you meet the laid-back man in a short-sleeved dishwashing button-down, hair windblown from riding in on his bike, it’s easy to forget the responsibilities he bears.

“I think he’s pretty much the most patient, flexible and understanding human being that I’ve ever met in my life, which is surprising for a chef … but Jonny’s approach is very different,” says Kanson-Benanav.

The son of Christian missionaries, Hunter was raised in the small town of Tyler, Texas, a place he says was hard to grow up in. “It’s a pretty closed-off religious environment in east Texas, which is about as closed-minded and conservative as you get,” Hunter says. His parents relocated Hunter and his four siblings to South Africa, where Hunter spent part of his adolescent life before moving permanently to Madison in the summer of 1998. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a wildly different atmosphere that was revelatory to him at the time.

“I just wanted to go to a big school and be invisible,” says Hunter.

An academic then and to this day, Hunter pursued a degree in English without focusing on what kind of job he would find after graduation. He knew he would gain a valuable skill set in exploring the humanities. For him, it was about soaking up as much information in all of the classes he took. The same goes for when he eventually went back to school for his master’s degree in public affairs. “I was learning professional skills from really smart and talented people,” he says.

While an undergraduate, Hunter and some friends took over Catacombs Coffeehouse, located in the basement of a Presbyterian church on the campus’s Library Mall. They sold vegetarian lunches between $2 and $3.50 to a crowd that eventually grew to two hundred people a day. As a vegetarian himself for five years, Hunter looks back at serving those lunches and says it was an important process–not just because he was building community and learning how to run a business, but because it set the creative standard for his approach to all food that Hunter seems to surpass with each new venture. The collective is less about meat than one might think–the focus is on using less meat in more interesting ways. “The foundation of what we wanted to do and what we still do is learning how to cook without crutches,” Hunter says.

This was the beginning of what became the business’s first meaning of “collective”: a group of co-contributors and -owners determined to find success by not following the rules of capitalism. There was no single owner, no set hierarchy. They were starting up a food business following their own self-guided blueprint.

“We did it to kind of prove that other ways are possible. I don’t think it was a new idea, but when we were twenty-year-old kids, it felt pretty different,” Hunter says.

Climbing the stairs from its church basement roots, the Underground Food Collective eventually started hosting under-the-radar pop-up dinners in Madison, Chicago and New York City as well as catering events and weddings. It was a good model for them at the time–they could provide high-quality food without having to handle the day-to-day rigors and overhead of operating a restaurant. Without many people with traditional culinary training, the collective relied on academic research and sincere personal curiosities to push the business forward.

What’s a pop-up?
Pop-ups are one-time dinners that often happen in an unexpected location and feature a specific chef or menu. According to Eventbrite.com, a ticket-selling platform, the website saw a forty-seven percent increase in food and drink events in 2014 compared to the year before. Pop-ups are the new version of the underground dinner, and they’re helping startup chefs build businesses without the brick-and-mortar costs tied to a traditional restaurant. The Underground Food Collective was doing pop-up “pre-industrial pig” dinners before the business got off the ground, and even before pop-ups became prevalent, Jonny Hunter says. “It allowed us to take small steps into the food business without necessarily having to take on all the infrastructural parts of opening a business.”

“Coming from where I was coming from with hard training in New York … you have such a rigid idea of what this profession is or needs to be,” says Tory Miller, another pack-leading chef in Madison and close friend to Hunter. “And then you met people like Jonny and all those UFC guys who are able to change the attitude a little bit.”

When the collective slaughtered its first pig, Jonny admits they didn’t know what they were doing, even after extensive research. That was back in 2006, and Internet tutorials and access to information was not readily available for something like this.

“It was really difficult and didn’t go super well. But now that I’ve processed a few thousand more, I feel pretty good about it,” he says.

Hunter’s curiosity–and keeness not just for a final product, but also for people–is how the business has thrived. Hunter wasn’t afraid to take risks, challenge traditional systems and start from scratch to learn how to do things, like cure and ferment meat. And in his success, Hunter finds value in sharing best practices to not only strengthen the team around him, but also help other producers increase efficiency and learn how to meet federal regulations.

That same mentality is applied to the idea behind the fairly new Madison Area Chefs Network. Hunter and Miller are driving forces behind the network that’s focused on bringing Madison chefs together to create a stronger community through the sharing of ideas and resources.

“We want to have this great dining community of chefs that all took steps to make each other better,” Miller says. “That’s the whole name of the game for Jonny and I. We see potential and the greatness that Madison has as a food city and dining city.”

By 2007, the collective was fermenting and curing meats, focusing on charcuterie. A $25,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture led to the building of a meat processing facility, and in 2010 they opened their first restaurant, Underground Kitchen.

Anatomy of The Underground
Food Collective
Underground Meats
931 E. Main St., 467-2850

Underground Butcher
811 Williamson St., 338-3421

Forequarter
708 ¼ E. Johnson St., 609-4717

Underground Catering
338-1527

Middlewest
809 Williamson St., opening soon

The momentum was strong, and Jonny and his team were still hungry. Not even a fire in 2011 that forced the Kitchen to close was much of a deterrent. “I immediately was like, ‘Okay, we need to figure out how we’re going to function and move on from this,’ and try to solve the problems that were ahead of us both in the long term for the business and also the immediate,” Hunter says.

Only a year later in 2012, the collective opened Forequarter, the fine-dining restaurant, and the Underground Butcher Shop soon followed. Since then, four thriving businesses that collectively employ seventy people–upward of one hundred, counting catering employees–has become Hunter’s vehicle to put Madison on the culinary map.

The Underground Food Collective works with more than thirty local farmers and focuses on creative solutions to limiting waste. But Hunter is uninterested in talking about food politics as much as he once did. Madisonians should now come to expect local sourcing and ethical food standards, he says. The allure of the collective, he says, is best described as being both exclusive and accessible at the same time.

“I’m always torn because accessibility is one of the foundations of what I do, but then I know that in order to build this business, we have to sell products. In order to support farmers and support people who work for me, we have to charge certain prices. And so, at least if we have to do that, let’s do it in a way that focuses on people being happy and not trying to make it about an expression of my own creativity or the expression of my personality. I don’t want people to view what I do as the most important part; I want them to see it as a process that they’re participating in.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find many traditional structures within the collective. Hunter is the farthest thing from the stereotypical chef tyrant or power-crazed boss. He even jokes about his title, saying he’s not really a chef. But what you could call him, what you could call everyone in the kitchen at the collective, are perpetually curious food scientists. “We’re all kind of nerds here,” says Denno, who’s worked for the collective for more than five years. “Everybody has a firm grasp of the science behind everything. That’s exciting for us to understand the process to a point where we can manipulate it to our standards even more.”

Chef of the Year 2015: Jonny Hunter is breaking all the rules

Click here to read about dinner in Avoca, Wisconsin.

That’s what further elevates the Underground Food Collective above its competition. They’re creating products you can’t find anywhere else–products that took thoughtful time and effort to develop. Hunter puts an unfailing faith into his employees and their ability to carry ideas through. “A lot of the reason I enjoy what I do so much is because one of Jonny’s strengths is that he gives everybody a lot of room to breathe and a lot of creative freedom,” says Denno.

Denno, who developed the summer sausage recipe that is now Underground’s only USDA-approved product on the national market, remembers the first time Hunter gave him the green light for a goat porchetta recipe Denno had come up with. Hunter liked it so much, he put it on the Forequarter menu the next day. Denno says that unlocked the hatch for him to foster his own creativity, a freedom he hadn’t found in previous meat processing jobs.

Underground Food Collective beverage director Mark Bystrom remembers an idea Hunter threw at him one day for an in-house blue corn syrup to serve in a cocktail. The idea sat on the shelf for a while but then debuted on the Forequarter menu in a spicy margarita drink called the Taqueria.

“Regardless if it’s in the office, in the front of house or in the back of house, people at Underground want to do things for Jonny,” Miller says. “And when you don’t have to ask, and people just want to do things, it’s pretty unbelievable. That, to me, is the definition of a good chef–one who can teach people what to do and then actually motivate them to want to do it.”

As projects grow and responsibility heightens, Hunter doesn’t seem to show an ounce of declining enthusiasm. If he’s not cycling from the commissary to the restaurant to oversee production, solve problems or make connections with sources, he might be setting up for a special event like Yum Yum Fest or organizing a MACN meeting. On a day off, he might ride bikes with Marlo, his five-year-old son, or hang out with his two-year-old daughter, Issa. He’s been with his partner, Sara Cohen Christopherson, for eleven years, and she works sixty-plus hours a week as a consultant. “She’s pretty extraordinary and supports not only me but our family and the emotional well-being of our children,” Hunter says.

And things are only getting busier for him. Later this year he’s set to introduce Middlewest, a seventy-seat restaurant on Willy Street. A new food truck is ready for use at Underground events and catering. Construction is taking place on a butcher shop in Minneapolis, which Hunter is working to open along with Trudeau and a Minneapolis chef and butcher. The collective has already permeated multiple markets with its products and pop-ups.

“Jonny is a tireless networker … it is because of him that we can compete on a national level,” Trudeau says.

Click here to get excited about The Underground Food Collective new restaurants.

In Madison, the collective is moving forward to open another butcher shop, on Monroe Street, next summer and a new meat processing facility might be in the cards, as the current one keeps outgrowing the space. Hunter and Miller also are developing a startup idea for a culinary center they’d like to bring to Madison. While nothing is finalized, they hope to bring kitchen-job training to the area through a number of programs. “We are trying [to help solve labor issues] by connecting people who want jobs with training,” Hunter says.

Hunter is doing exactly what he wants to do, working off the blueprint he and his like-minded cohorts continue to create. And the lines he draws have every potential to build the Madison food culture he envisions so clearly.

“I’m here to try and connect the dots,” he says.

Chef of the Year 2015: Jonny Hunter is breaking all the rules