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Monday, May 20, 2024

UW-Madison alumnus Jonny Hunter started by selling $2 lunches to fellow students and now runs the Underground Food Collective. 

UW-Madison alumnus becomes Madison’s Chef of the Year through anarchy

Don’t call Jonny Hunter a chef.

Sure, he won Madison Magazine’s 2015 Chef of the Year award and founded four food companies, with several more to come. But to him, the label just doesn’t feel right.

“Chef to me means boss… [But] that’s not necessarily how I do things,” Hunter said. “My role here is much more empowering other people.”

Hunter, a James Beard Award nominee—a culinary award sometimes called “The Oscars of Food”—carries that mentality into his workplace. Motivated to develop a culture of accessible farm-to-table food in Madison, Hunter incorporated the Underground Food Collective into his many projects: Underground Catering, Underground Meats, a fine dining restaurant called Forequarter and a new restaurant set to open within the year, Middlewest.

The menus are designed to be challenging, Hunter said. His mission is to provide ample opportunities for his employees to build creative meals. Rather than set a tone of authority, he provides them with tools, ingredients and freedom.

“That’s really become the driving force behind the collective—just bringing in good people and giving them the opportunity to take Underground in the direction that they want,” said Underground’s business manager Bethany Jurewicz. “He’s not someone who you feel intimidated by because he’s your boss. He feels like an equal, really, and he treats everyone like an equal, so everyone treats each other that way, too.”

That creativity manifests itself in what they call the commissary, a 6,000 square feet warehouse with a hodgepodge of molecular gastronomy equipment, refrigerators filled with aging meats and shelves stacked with containers of culinary experiments—dehydrated beet powder, fermenting fish bellies and even wood chips and leaves—just in case.

They work in jeans, T-shirts and hairnets. Hunter, with unruly hair from biking to work hidden under brightly colored beanies, walks from kitchen to kitchen, messing with equipment and shouting out ideas as they come to him. He tested out an ultrasonic homogenizer, a tool that uses piercing sound waves to infuse flavors together, and as he did, the ideas kept coming.

“We should really use this more. We could do something cool with some oak,” he told the collective’s beverage director, Mark Bystrom.

Magnets cover most surfaces: “Restroom” on a stainless steel cupboard and “Life is better when I’m with my dog” on a stove. The fluidity of the business is clear, and the lack of hierarchy works; new creative ideas develop as different individuals brainstorm while rolling pasta, curing sausages and creating new liquors with infused oak—from the wood chips—and stored orange peels.

“He’s just being weird in the kitchen,” Jurewicz said.

He doesn’t think of himself as a businessman. Hunter called his success an accident; accomplishments that just fell into place. His beginnings, he said, were “very loosely organized, like almost an anarchist structure.” That anarchy, he said, was a product of his upbringing. The son of ultra-religious Christian missionaries, Hunter said he has distanced himself from the rigid structure of the eastern Texas cult he grew up in.

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“I never meant to stay here. I always imagined that there would be a next step, but being here has just informed so much of who I am. My understanding of the world is really filtered through what Madison is,” Hunter said. “Getting to know the farms and seeing how inspired it is, I’m just continually impressed by the food community here and the access to really amazing ingredients that you just don’t find in other places.”

It all started out selling $2 lunches. In his senior year at UW-Madison, Hunter and his brother, Ben, started selling locally sourced vegetarian meals in the basement of what is now Pres House, a student-run church on campus. The lunches took off, with crowds of nearly 200 waiting for their meals. Hunter saw the opportunity for business success, and grew the program into what the collective is today: no hierarchy or power, just a cohort of individuals looking to make good food.

“It’s just a sense of trying to explore what’s possible—where the limits are,” Hunter said. “Either that, or we’re hoarders.”

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