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In the kitchen of the Goodman Community Center on Madison's east side, the Underground Food Collective works to craft another event meal they call A Celebration of the PreIndustrial Pig. It's meant to bring back a bygone era of food production. Ingredients are supplied, grown, raised, processed and cooked locally. Invitations to the meal are informal at best; news is often spread by word of mouth and social networking websites like Facebook and Flickr.
Typically, the venue goes unannounced until days before the event. And when the diners buy their tickets, they are making a culinary venture investment by doing so without knowing any of the specific dishes that will be served.
The investment pays off every time. The PreIndustrial Pig meals have been wowing crowds in Madison, Chicago and New York for the last few years. The Chicago Reader hailed one such dinner as "fantastic...pure, honest, expertly handled, top-quality food." The New York Times' Mark Bittman covered a 2008 event, writing that the "lovely meal was served family-style, in pitch with the feel of the night; the dishes were flavorful, and interesting...." Gourmet's Ian Knauer called the culinary and philosophical clarity of the collective "magical."
The Underground Food Collective represents a trend in American cuisine that's been influencing foodies and aspiring chefs alike: the secret restaurant. The non-restaurant. Chefs without a shingle, or chefs who want to escape the constraints of their restaurant day-jobs. There's Guerrilla Cuisine in Charleston, Vagabond in Seattle, Ghetto Gourmet in San Francisco, Clandestino in Chicago.
The innovators share a willingness to shed convention and challenge diners to approach food in new ways. Some underground chefs work with ingredients of dubious provenance or legality - fresh raw milk cheeses smuggled in from France, for example. Others employ the Mr. Wizard-esque techniques of molecular gastronomy, in which chemicals and extracts are added to make food do what it wouldn't do under nature's guidance. Many simply take the opportunity to do what they want to do, expectations be damned. The two brothers who are the driving force behind the Underground Food Collective, Jonny and Ben Hunter, operate on this end of the spectrum.
The Underground Food Collective isn't illegal - or even that hard to find. It's a loose affiliation of collaborators and contributors involved in food advocacy and catering, along with the event dinners. For some of its members, it's a major percentage of their annual income. The collective's efforts are indeed communal, but the public faces - and driving forces - are Jonny and Ben.
What the Hunters aim to do with the collective is draw a clear line between the usual and the exceptional. What's not clear is whether they really intend to change the way things are done in Madison or remain independent innovators on the local food scene.
At a March 2008 dinner at the Goodman Center, Jonny and Ben debuted an aged prosciutto, to be served with citrus fruits and golden beets - a tweak on the familiar pairing with melon or pear. The prosciutto hailed from the first pigs acquired by the collective in 2007, raised by Orfordville farmer and honorary collective member Henry Morren.
Everyone gathered around to sample the ham - collective member Kris Noren's sober analysis was, "This pretty aggressively fails to suck" - and the Hunters joked about serving it with liver foam. But molecular gastronomy tricks are not their game. Jonny and Ben cook with earnestness and efficiency, serving over 400 people by fastidiously utilizing every part of the four pigs they finished (livestock-speak for the last life stage before slaughter) on apples and sumac at Morren's farm.
The Hunter brothers use a heritage pig breed called the Red Wattle both to aid in the preservation of the breed and to take advantage of its size compared to other more commercialized breeds. (See sidebar.) Using this larger pig, says Jonny, aids in developing a deeper flavor through fattiness. "I like fat," he concludes.
Lee Davenport, founder of Pamplemousse Preserves and contributing member of the collective, describes working with the Hunters as "very seat of the pants...but it all works out." With the exception of an apple tart, all the desserts for the dinners have been made by her but designed by the Hunters. She's a talented pastry chef, but it's the Hunters' gig. "That's okay," Lee assures me. The food proves her point.
Jonny, 30, and Ben, 28, were born into a strongly religious household. Both parents were missionaries, and church functions took up three days out of the week. It was in this setting that the Hunters received their initial exposure to the communal meal and collective effort. After attending parochial school in Tyler, Texas - a school at which their father taught and a small community that was basically built around the church - the brothers and their family decamped to South Africa.
Jonny returned to the States first, enrolling at the UW-Madison. Ben stayed in South Africa for five years before returning to Texas to attend junior college.
The oft-held expectation that children raised in ultra-religious communities will champ at the bit and eventually break loose largely holds true for Jonny and Ben. Despite the "super-social" atmosphere of Tyler, "We're not very connected to where we grew up," says Ben.
The value of shared effort and communal meals came back into play when the brothers reunited in Madison in 2002 and began working at the Catacombs Coffeehouse, a Presbyterian church-sponsored social hub and housing space for UW students, located underneath the Pres House on the Library Mall.
"Running the Catacombs with Kaleen [Enke] and Ben is the thing I'm most proud of doing in my life," Jonny says. This might seem odd, given the way the Hunters split with their heavily religious youth. The Catacombs community was indeed similar to the religious community they left in Tyler, but Ben makes an important distinction. Here, they found "a community of individuals."
The people working the café weren't beholden to the Pres House ideology, and Ben says they all strived to "make it feel more like a home for people" than a church basement. The brothers liked the idea of a living-room atmosphere, which appears to have shone through in good ways and bad, as evidenced by the mixed reviews the café garnered. The food was inexpensive, comforting and creative, all by design. But the perceived hippie/ Christian dichotomy made the Catacombs' atmosphere uncomfortable for some patrons.
When Jonny and Ben arrived, Catacombs was serving Sysco food, "straight off the truck." They realized that for $2.50, the food wouldn't have to be perfect, but it should at least try to be something. Ben focused on the kitchen, Jonny on event management. (Catacombs hosted musical acts as well.) Ben's culinary skill and vision became clear as he crafted the menu at Catacombs.
In a relatively short time, they transformed Catacombs into a haven for the vegetarian, the foodie, the locavore and the social activist. What started with six volunteers ended with almost 60. They weren't profit-driven, giving employees and volunteers their coffee for free, and meals at half- or no-price.
"We had people who tried to come to shifts with no shoes on," Ben says.
But having grown into atheism in the years since they left home, the Hunters were faced with a frustrating turn of events in 2004. The Pres House hired a former pastor to hold court in Catacombs, both in a supervisory and evangelistic capacity. Ben left almost immediately; by May 2005, Jonny was gone, too. By September of that year, Catacombs was no longer serving lunch. It later became a Subway sandwich shop.
The brothers had inspired a dedicated following, serving 125 lunches a day by the end. But having that pastor sitting there, asking each patron "are you a Christian?" was too much for them. "Our goal was not religious," says Ben.
Still, Jonny has no regrets: "It was horrible toward the end...but I would do it [again] tomorrow."
The Catacombs experience defined Ben and Jonny Hunter's food ethos even more clearly. Jonny cooked as a vegetarian then, and even with the porcine focus of their current endeavors, he holds the vegetable in high esteem: "We don't want to be known as 'meat people,'" he says. Instead, the brothers are interested in focusing on local and responsible sourcing for all foods.
That willingness to be true to their personalities permeates the collective's business model. A potential collective client once expected servers to work sans facial piercings - "no metal" was the demand. The Hunters refused. Footwear, piercings, shirt color (a sticking point with a different recent client) - these are not important aspects of the Hunters' operation, not at Catacombs and certainly not after. It's the food.
The collective makes very specific choices in ingredients and sourcing. Trying to get Jonny to clarify his thoughts on fostering a sense of responsibility in his diners - or in the larger restaurant scene - would seem like an easy task; they're food activists, after all. Right? Like Rage Against the Machine but with more meat. His response is...complicated: "We're not super-interested in changing the way other people do it."
But they don't support industrial pig farming operations, and think it's better to know the source of your food than not. Not everyone can have a Henry Morren, Jonny continues, "but there's a better way to do it." That better way doesn't include what the Hunters see as strident evangelizing.
Ben and Jonny acknowledge that the PreIndustrial Pig dinners won't effect much change; smarter food legislation would do more. Jonny, currently pursuing a graduate degree in public affairs, goes so far as to acknowledge that he's "starting to think about running for public office." For now, Ben is happy to lead by example.
Whatever reticence they have about effecting immediate change in Madison, the Hunters are impressing the right kind of people. Terese Allen, chair of REAP Food Group's board of directors (and contributing Isthmus writer), notes that people respond positively to the collective and its food, regardless of any food politics. She thinks the collective will spur restaurants to see that it's "not just about making a profit, but making a difference."
Originally, the collective was only going to raise four pigs, just for private use among family and close friends. "But if you're gonna do four," Jonny explains with a smile, "you might as well do eight." Ben brought the idea to Morren, and over bottles of wine they came to an agreement. Morren's farm offerings have become the guiding force in crafting the collective's event dinner menus. That's the importance the Hunters put on seasonality and timing - what's good versus what's in the recipe.
Although food advocacy drives the philosophy of the collective, it makes most of its money from catering weddings 20 weekends per year. Public speaking and verbal persuasion aren't as important as getting back into the kitchen and making sure the next course kicks ass. The Hunters are advocates for food in the most direct sense.
Also under the advocacy banner, you'll find Jonny's "Bike the Barns" fundraiser, a cycling tour organized with the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition to support local food producers. 2009 marks the third year of Bike the Barns, with each year more successful than the last.
You will also find the well-received Ironworks Cafe, where Ben - the general manager - serves a rotating menu of simple and delicious menu items out of the Goodman Community Center. The café employs East High School students participating in vocational training for food service, and in many ways it's the second coming of Catacombs. Things are going very well; they have expanded their hours into the evening and are publishing their menus on Twitter. Jonny and Lee Davenport are often seen working the kitchen alongside Ben.
The Hunters showed some pig independence with their set of New York meals in April of this year. The theme was spring forage, featuring veal, lamb and "roots and shoots." But they've acquired 10 pigs for this coming season, anticipating version 2.0 of the PreIndustrial Pig in the fall - whether it bears that or some other evocative title. In the meantime, Ben will continue meeting with catering clients while Jonny plans for more dinners.
"We move slow," Jonny tells me, acknowledging that they've been shopping for years for their own kitchen with deli counter potential - or even an independent restaurant space. Despite the Catacombs experience, Jonny feels he's "never worked in a 'restaurant,'" and he hates being called a chef. But they eyeballed the space vacated by RP Pasta before Babs' French Quarter Kitchen remodeled it - "ruined it," as Ben puts it - and reconsidered it for a moment when Babs' shuttered. (It is now home to Ha Long Bay Bistro.)
At this dream restaurant, they want to cut meat, maybe utilize some hearth cooking, and Ben would most definitely be in the kitchen every day. But as Jonny said, they move slowly, so don't call for a reservation just yet.
For now, beyond the collective, there's bike polo, the Hunters' frequently self-injurious pastime. They travel almost as much for bike polo as they do for the collective. If you really want to see the Hunters open up, ask them about their next polo tourney.
On his Facebook page, Jonny writes that "if given the choice I would drop out of [graduate] school and quit UFC to play bike polo full time."
Really? Would he quit the collective for professional bike polo? Ben just smiles, and Jonny clarifies. They wouldn't stop advocating for their causes, and they'd do collective events for fun.
"But do it for a living?" Jonny asks. "Without a doubt."
At last, an unequivocal response.