On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Governor Jim Doyle announced a pretty sweet gesture in support of the Wisconsin local food movement. Thanks to the state's "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" grant program, nine entities across the state are receiving over $220,000 to foster community-oriented agriculture. Among those nine, four are based in Madison, including the Dane County Institutional Food Market Coalition, the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, and the Underground Food Collective.
The press release states that Underground Catering, LLC, will receive "$25,000 to develop artisan meats that will help fill Wisconsin's need for more pork products." Yes, that's what it actually stated, and I'm not going to argue. My first thought was, 'ooh, I wonder what kind of bacon-y wonderment will result from that little windfall.'
"We are going to start a meat processing business," explains Jonny Hunter, one of four full-time members of the collective, along with his brother Ben, Kris Noren, and Jon Atwell. Jonny says that the group will continue operating out of its existing near-east side kitchen. But that is only the half of it.
Underground is also planning to renovate the vacant restaurant space at 127 E. Mifflin St. -- most recently home to Cafe Montmartre -- and open a restaurant there by mid-summer. The work will start as soon as Feb. 1, with attention paid to recycled building materials and sustainably-harvested wood. No name has been selected yet, but expect it to fall under the Underground Food Collective brand.
"Obviously, cured meats will be a huge part of it," Jonny says, "along with ptés, rillettes, and small shared dishes." Underground plans on a simple seasonal menu, one that's "lighter than a lot of the other pub options on the Square." If you're not sure how to interpret that, I suspect the philosophy at Ironworks Cafe, organized under the guidance of Ben Hunter, will inform the choices they plan to make with this menu. Current plans are to launch the restaurant with a series of meals "similar to the Brooklyn dinners and the Pre-Industrial Pig."
The creative minds at the Underground Food Collective have become more ambitious in their vision for local food over the last year, having branched out from its pork-oriented dinners to put on broader themed meals focused on spring and winter seasonal ingredients, and from a deer-hunters' perspective on venison. Expectations for these new ventures will surely be high -- between the buzz over The Coopers Tavern, and the recently-announced redevelopment of L'Etoile, the level of competition for diners will be just as high.
Downtown denizens and slow-food fans may very well have reason to celebrate come summer.