Anna Sanders lost more than a workplace when the popular restaurant Underground Kitchen shut down last summer.
For Sanders, a member of the waitstaff and a regular on her off-hours, Kitchen was “a home away from home.”
“It was a huge gap,” said Sanders, who now works at Harvest and Sardine. “You could so clearly see the connection between farm and food … you could see the process from start to finish.
“Everyone was really passionate. It was a very familial atmosphere, unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever worked at.”
Underground Food Collective seemed to go literally underground after a fire in the Capitol Hill Apartments above their East Mifflin Street restaurant caused $215,000 in damages.
Eight months after the blaze, UFC is closing in on a new restaurant space, though they have not officially announced where. Meanwhile, Underground has kept its ethical food ethos alive through catering weddings and nonprofit events, sustainable meat processing, hands-on classes and pop-up (one night only) dinners.
“I went to work the day after the fire,” said Jonny Hunter, a founding collective member. “I had a lot to do still. I just changed the docket of things I focused on.”
The Underground Food Collective — brothers Jonny and Ben Hunter, Garin Fons and Mel Trudeau, with a half-dozen contributing employees — has spent the last five years promoting a sustainable food culture through use of seasonal, local ingredients.
The collective has solidified its reputation for being willing to try anything, from homemade, alcoholic root beer to pop-ups centered around junk food and toast. (Last week on Twitter, @jonnyhunter wrote: Carbonated rice is a huge success. #wecancarbonatethat).
So it’s not surprising that they’re a bit cagey about their future plans. One collective member predicted a new restaurant could be open by mid-summer; another estimated 2013.
They’ve also received offers to move to New York, and the way Jonny Hunter discussed it, that option may still be on the table.
“I’d be really careful to talk about how the new space is coming along, because it’s not defined at all,” Jonny Hunter said. “We don’t even know what it’s going to look like.
“I don’t want people to be expecting something’s going to happen and then we do something totally different.”
Whatever it is, the new restaurant won’t be a rewarmed version of Kitchen. “Kitchen was an honest expression of how we cook and what we did,” Hunter said. “What we do will be that as well. But it’s not like I’m going to try to recreate the environment we had there. We’re going to keep on pursuing our passions.”
Though the bricks-and-mortar Underground restaurant may be gone, the collective has been far from idle.
As an outgrowth of the meat processing they do in their near east side kitchen, Underground launched a meat CSA last year. For $300, participants receive a three-month share and 24 pounds total of pork, lamb, duck and sausage. The current one is sold out with 80 participants.
Underground picked up the pace with classes as well, most of them meat-oriented: sausage, bacon and whole hog butchering (see pg 16).
“One of the things we’re interested in doing is offering more chances to learn,” said Garin Fons, a collective member. “That’s on really detailed cooking stuff, but also on things as broad as how do you pair things, what cheese goes well with something … and doing more community-oriented workshops with nonprofits.”
When it comes to harnessing digital media, Underground is one of the most savvy food entities in the city.
Collective member and photographer Emily Julka created a series of video podcasts with subjects like chicharr—nes (fried pork skins, also known as cracklins), a back-alley dinner and yogurt. Like the collective members themselves, the short videos are quietly focused and unpretentious, with an indie pop soundtrack and little (if any) narration.
Pop-up dinners and mini-events announced on Facebook and Twitter, including a sorghum-whiskey-themed event at Old Sugar Factory in late January, have all sold out.
“I’m a fan of Old Sugar. I love their whiskey,” said Caitrin O’Shea, who came to try choucroute garnie, made of pork belly, sausage and sauerkraut. “I’d never been to the Underground restaurant, but I really wanted to … then the fire happened, and I was so sad. This was the perfect blend of a thing I know I liked and a thing I really wanted to try.”
Madisonians Phil Rydzewski and Deborah Lee used to visit Kitchen about once a season. They came to the Old Sugar pop-up after reading about it online.
“It was nice to see the creativity and the use of natural products, the things you find in Wisconsin, especially the seasonal things,” Lee said.
That night was no exception, featuring beet/sweet potato latkes, braised kale with lentils and sausages, and a fresh carrot/radicchio salad.
Underground has hosted several pop-ups downtown, in places like the Corral Room, Genna’s Cocktail Lounge, Bradbury’s and, right after the fire, Graze and L’Etoile. UFC recently announced a series of spring dinners at Madison Sourdough Co. beginning Sunday, March 4.
It has also begun to establish itself nationally. A Brooklyn dinner in 2009 garnered attention from Gourmet and The New York Times’ “Diner’s Journal” blog (“The lovely meal was served family-style ... the dishes were flavorful and interesting”). Last May they scored a write-up in the Chicago Reader, which called them “proof that the (collective) model — like food trucks, shared kitchens and pop-up restaurants — can serve as a low-cost springboard to larger legitimate businesses.”
UFC has traveled to Brooklyn for several years, collaborating with Sweet Deliverance (a prepared-food weekly CSA) on a series of pop-ups. And on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 27-28, UFC went to Chicago for two impromptu dinners with The Stew Supper Club.
Adam Frizzell, sipping some sorghum punch at the Old Sugar pop-up, said the changing location is part of the fun.
“It’s an interesting test of the chefs, to put something together that may be tied to the environment they’re serving in, because it’s not theirs,” said Frizzell, a former pastry chef.
And that is what the Underground Food Collective will continue to do, with or without a restaurant of their own.
“We’re going to play it by ear and see what opportunities come forward,” Hunter said. “That’s our plan.”