Inside Madison’s Underground Kitchen

When I met Jonny and Ben Hunter three years ago, they were rebel caterers keen on cooking adventurously with locally grown food, but without the trappings of tradition. Their work was fine art, but customers wouldn’t know the exact menu until the day of delivery. That’s how serious the brothers were about using in-season ingredients.

They also refused to wear uniforms or, at one customer’s request, tuxedos. They cemented business deals with a handshake, not a contract. They cooked $300 per person meals for corporate execs and $5 per plate at Milwaukee’s nonprofit Growing Power, an urban agriculture lab.

Now the brothers lead a team that has opened the Underground Kitchen in downtown Madison, a dinner-only restaurant that stays open until midnight. The chefs wear T-shirts and baseball caps, working in view of customers, who sit on wooden folding chairs, typically at simple tables of eight that are shared with strangers.

Forget the white tablecloths, kitchen hierarchy and fancy cocktail names (drinks are simply numbered, with descriptions).

Meals are designed for sharing, and a part of the menu (“sandwich plate,” “meat board,” “vegetable board”) is intentionally vague, so the kitchen stays quick on its feet, improvising as necessity or inspiration dictate.

Appetizer choices, during my visit, included veal tartare, topped with a raw egg and red onion – a reminder of long-ago New Year’s Eve buffets in small-town Wisconsin, where cold ground sirloin was spread onto slices of rye.

An order of shaved kale, with crushed hazelnuts and ricotta, was enough to share as a side with a couple of friends. SarVecchio cheese, parsnips, shiitake mushrooms and a sherry cream sauce enriched a serving of tagliatelle, similar to fettuccini – only wider and thicker.

I dropped $25 (including wine and a tip) for my part of the meal, which was enough to leave me satiated.

“We wanted some family style elements on the menu,” Jonny explained, before the restaurant opened. Expect roasts, root veggies and hearty soups as we head into winter. Also to come: in-house sausages and cured meats, because the business secured a meat processing license.

Some of the numbered cocktails also involve seasonal ingredients, and unique flavors from fruits preserved in alcohol. “We’re making our own bitters,” Jonny says, “by steeping, say, peaches in a beet and sugar alcohol” that also contains a mix of herbs.

It’s their own recipe, as is the herb-infused vodka used in a lighter version of the Bloody Mary. “Classic cocktails, but with a Wisconsin (ingredient) twist,” Jonny says. Also watch for global influences – from Spain, Argentina, France, Germany, Italy – on the food menu.

Underground Food Collective (the caterer) already has performed for sold-out crowds in Chicago and Brooklyn, gained positive reviews from the New York Times and Gourmet, prepared private meals for food activist-author Michael Pollan and Organic Valley farm cooperative CEO George Siemon.

Once grounded into a Madison restaurant routine, the owners hope to add a deli case and hands-on butchering classes.

Underground Kitchen, 127 E. Mifflin St., Madison, is closed Sundays and Mondays. For more:, 608-514-1516.

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