When the Underground Food Collective opened its Underground Kitchen in the fall of 2010, the restaurant threw down something of a culinary gauntlet in Madison. Organic produce and regional sourcing were already familiar locally, but Kitchen perfected an exciting, coherent menu that veered between house-butchered and -cured meats and a vegecentric approach that felt entirely fresh.
Of course, less than a year after opening, it was destroyed by fire. What the Underground Food Collective has launched since the fire is an evolving second act that may outdo the first one. Isthmus recently spoke with collective founder Jonny Hunter and general manager Mel Trudeau about the demise of Underground Kitchen and the group's new ventures.
How do you feel about Underground Kitchen in retrospect?
Hunter: When we opened the Underground Kitchen, everything just flowed. We had this fluid menu that was always changing, and the atmosphere was warm and comfortable, and what we did with vegetables was a new thing in Madison.
Trudeau: I was really proud of our food. We were doing our own butchering, and we were making dishes you didn't see in Madison at the time, focusing on full roasts and a real love of vegetables. Half of our menu was the cold side of vegetables, things like kale salad and mushroom salad and dry-roasted vegetables. The vegetable board was very popular.
So after that almost instantaneous success the fire must have been gutting.
Hunter: It was just surreal. Everything was just gone.
Trudeau: What helped us after the fire was that we all started concentrating on what to do next, trying to find jobs for all the people who had worked for us. And that meant focusing on the catering business, which has done well - we're booked for weddings through the summer - and our meat-processing business. Now we're selling our meats to a number of different local restaurants and grocery stores - Fromagination, Metcalfe's, Willy Street Co-op.
Hunter: And the other important thing that helped us keep moving were pop-up jobs in New York. We had a friend who had a kitchen space in Brooklyn, and we did three nights in a row of family-style dinners there. And then we were invited to cook dinner at a restaurant in the West Village. Gabriel Stulman, the chef who started the Little Owl and now owns a number of successful restaurants in New York, was from Wisconsin, and through contacts we were asked to cook three nights of dinners at the Joseph Leonard restaurant. That gave us the chance to create new dishes and perform to high expectations. We developed whole new techniques there: popped wild rice, maple syrup marshmallows, pickled trout, bison jerky marinated in maple syrup so it was crisp, crunchy and sweet all at the same time.
Were you tempted to just stay in New York?
Hunter: No. We love Madison. We have a comfortable life here and a relationship with suppliers that we can't have in New York. We can forge something new here in terms of food. And we can build a community here.
That brings us to your big plans for this year, the opening of what sounds like two restaurants, though the concrete timing seems to keep shifting.
Trudeau: Well, Forequarter, at 708 1/4 E. Johnson, is coming first. We have the lease signed. We just don't want to open prematurely; it will probably be this summer, but I don't want to give a definite date yet. But it will be a small, 32-seat casual restaurant.
And the food?
Hunter: It's going to be more collaborative, thoughtful cooking. There are 11 of us now in the Collective. Jen Kelly, who leads our catering, is a big part of everything.
So we all contribute ideas, and it will be comfortable neighborhood food that pushes things further. The preparation and technique will be intense, but the presentation will be as rustic as grandmother's house. We will only make a certain batch of each dish, and when it runs out, it will be taken off the menu.
The strong focus will be on salads, charcuterie, pickling, vegetables. And there won't be a single item carried over from Underground Kitchen. I think the dinners we did in New York are a precursor to what we will do. There will probably be some version, for instance, of bison jerky, and a pheasant sausage.
And the second restaurant? Is that really happening or is it an urban legend in the making?
Trudeau: Well, the lease isn't signed, so it's too early in the game to talk about that project. Hopefully, it will be on Willy Street, but even that's not definite. If it happens, it will probably be more like Underground Kitchen, a celebration of vegetables, more communal seating and family-style dishes.