Deep in the American heartland, an unconventional answer to the modern food system is steadily gaining momentum. Breaking many conventions of the food industry, Madison, Wisconsin's Underground Food Collective (UFC) defies category. Originally a non-profit focused on local food events, UFC has grown into a restaurant, catering outfit, butchery and meat shop while continuing to serve the community. With pre-industrial, single ingredient-themed dinners in Chicago and New York, award-winning Madison restaurant Forequarter, a new butchery and meat processing facility, the group is making waves in the food industry.
"We started catering to fund our non-profit events and to employ us and our friends while we did them," says one of UFC's founders Jonny Hunter, who didn't intend to own a business or have employees. Part of UFC's success is its flat organization structure. There is no owner or traditional hierarchy, with a chef calling all the shots, often found in working kitchens. "I think it really changes the way kitchens run," Hunter says, "we are able to get people in who have more varied interests, who might not fit into most rigid structures and they really thrive here." This unique organization fosters UFC's collaborative environment, where employee input is paramount, making its multitude of projects not only feasible but successful.
UFC's commitment to its staff is matched by its pledge to quality and sustainability. The group only sources food from small local farms and has built its business on this principle. "I don't even know how to order from anyone else," jokes Hunter. Sourcing locally and purely in-season produce has driven the group's innovation and inspired much of their creativity. While Madison is located in one of the US's major organic food production areas, long winters make local-sourcing challenging. "I'm more proud of the food we have in the winter and early spring than in the summer because it takes so much more effort to pull together and to do it in a way that people appreciate," Hunter says.
While UFC features almost exclusively local, Wisconsin ingredients, there is never a sacrifice for quality. We recently visited UFC's restaurant, Forequarter, to sample their gastro-rustic fare. With an old-fashioned bar and cabin-chic decor, the vibe is upbeat yet casual with the focus where it should be—on the food. Behind the bar, drinks are expertly mixed using house-made bitters and seasonal infusions. To start, a charcuterie plate featuring UFC's meats offer rich, rosemary goat salami and French-style saucisson sec. UFC sources its pork products almost exclusively from nearby Roller Coaster Farms.
The streams that wind through the hills around Madison are renowned for their trout fishing. Taking full advantage of their nearby seasonal ingredients, UFC offered a wild caught rainbow trout filet with smoked roe and pickled peaches. The balance between high quality simple local ingredients and complex, innovative flavors along with precise execution are illustrative of UFC's values. But Forequarter's menu changes with the seasons as well as the availability of ingredients, making repeat visits a must.
Images by Emily Julka