Chefs to Watch 2017: Jonny Hunter, Forequarter, Madison, Wis.
Texas-born, Madison, Wis.-based chef Jonny Hunter has a propensity for keeping things on the down-low. The chef got his start in 2000, serving $2 vegetarian meals from a church-basement coffee shop on the UW-Madison campus called the Catacombs until “the church realized we weren’t a religious organization,” he recalls. In 2005, he carried his subterranean theme over to his pop-up dinner and catering company, Underground Food Collective.
“We worked alongside nonprofits and tried to bring food into the conversation, and talk about sourcing and ethical eating,” says Hunter, who was working on his English degree and liberal arts certificate and studying food policy as the business grew. “I went back for a master’s degree with the idea that I would exit doing food from the production and cooking side, and would move on to the policy side. But I didn’t stop working with Underground, and it just got more successful.”
Working with local farmers and meat processors also convinced Hunter to start eating and cooking with meat. “We got to know small meat processors through working at markets and meeting people, and we were really glad to be using their product,” he says. “That’s how I stopped being a vegetarian, through better relationships with them.”
From there, he launched Underground Meats, which opened alongside his restaurant, Underground Kitchen, in 2010, and retail shop, Underground Butcher, in 2012. “We take consumption of meat really seriously, and part of why we do meat is to help people eat less of it,” Hunter says. “If you process meat the way we do, it necessitates being more thoughtful, but also not having as much. When we wanted to learn how to butcher, it started with sourcing pigs, doing the slaughter ourselves and processing everything. That was a pretty eye-opening experience.”
A fire shuttered Underground Kitchen about a year after it opened, but eight months later, the team unveiled Forequarter (named for both the butchery term and its obscure street address of 708 1/4), where meat and charcuterie from the butcher shop are paired with ingredients sourced from nearby farms and enhanced with modern techniques you’d never guess were brewing behind the restaurant’s rustic wood interior and original tin ceilings. “We’re modernist without it showing,” says Hunter, who makes fish sauce and mustard in-house, and uses a centrifuge to make tomato water for cocktails. “We use a lot of techniques and equipment and experiment with bacteria and mold growth, but it’s sometimes years of development before it hits the menu.”
And when it does, the delicious result is worth the wait, as with a miso marinade that took a year before it was ready for a poussin with lovage, fennel, and honey-schmaltz vinegar, or dehydrated black garlic salami crumbled atop seared broccoli and reduced whey and garnished with lovage and sorrel (recipe). “Whey is my favorite ingredient; I use it in everything,” says Hunter. “The proteins and leftover sugars from the milk caramelizes into a super-savory delicious sauce.”
While modernist techniques stay in the background at Forequarter, nods to Wisconsin food traditions are front and center, including beer sausage, bison jerky, summer sausage with Cheddar cheese spread, and even retro hard-shell tacos on the happy hour menu.
“What I love about cooking in Madison is the access to quality ingredients,” says Hunter. “We have farms that are 20 minutes away producing incredibly high-quality product we get that day. A bigger city may have more buying power and diversity of products, which is awesome, but are you going to be able to get it? We have amazing farmers, amazing producers, all easily accessible, and people take it for granted.”
Q&A with Jonny Hunter:
What cookbook is most important to you?
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers taught me to think about how important it is to cook with precision and knowledge. Her essay on how to roast a chicken was really the first time I thought about how important it was to understand the interaction between ingredients and the steps you take to prepare it and how that could lead to something tasting so much better.
How do you describe your food?
Process-oriented but approachable.
Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
Small Wisconsin farmers and artisans like cheesemakers. I also have a ton of respect for my peers here in Madison and in the upper Midwest in general. So much awesome food happening right now in this area.
How do you find calm in your restaurant?
I love working with people and having fun and executing food like you envisioned it would taste.
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
I try not to be picky but I really think it is important to try the ingredients you’re cooking with constantly. I think when you work in a kitchen you forget that someone is actually eating the end product. When you taste your ingredients you see how everything is holding up and whether it taste good or if a mistake was made in the process of cooking.
What music is usually playing in the kitchen?
I listen to podcasts mostly, but if its music, then its probably Beyoncé. I listen to policy podcasts like the Weeds and Wordly, Bike Town, along with more entertainment types like The Nod, Mogul and Reply All.
What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
Policy analysis or traffic engineer. I've always been really interested in how government affects our lives and how we can make our lives better through policy. I'm obsessed with how we've designed our cities for transportation. I have my master in public policy and still keep up with politics and policy.
What restaurant is your dream stage location?
At Duna with Cortney Burns. Her use of ingredients and processing is amazing. I would love to see the way they make their spices and preserved fishes.
What’s your bucket list restaurant to visit?
Fäviken, because I love how they process and use ingredients from their region.
What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
We have been doing a lot with incubation of molds on ingredients, I would like to expand that out more and find more applications. We've been using Koji to make misos out of other ingredients like corn, chickpeas and leftover beef trim. I feel like you have so much potential in looking at how the breakdown of proteins develops delicious flavors.
What do you like to cook on a day off?
I make chicken soup every Sunday. I salt the chicken three days in advance or so, and then roast the chicken until the skin is crispy. I'll pick some of the meat off but I really like a flavorful stock and it's better to have more meat on the bones for that. I use a pressure cooker to make stock, add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, a Meyer lemon, parsley and bay leaves. I'll dice up carrots and celery and a bunch of parsley and strain the stock, add the new vegetables and put in some of the picked meat. We eat it as a family most Sundays. It's nice to cook for my kids as they tend to reject most of the food I make them. I'll be pretty sad when they decide to reject chicken soup, but for now, it’s a really satisfying thing to cook and relaxing to make.