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Jonny Hunter and Dan Bonanno opened their restaurants just one month apart, and less than a mile away from each other on Madison’s east side, in the summer of 2012.

Both Forequarter and A Pig in a Fur Coat buy beets, pork belly and pea shoots from local farmers. Both received nods from the prestigious James Beard Foundation last year for Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef, respectively.

Bonanno even uses sausage from Underground Meats, a Forequarter sister business, on his menu.

But until recently, the two chefs had never met.

“Madison’s so small, (but) there’s almost more distance,” Hunter said. “You see in bigger cities, the community of chefs and cooks is just a lot better.”

At a time when Madison’s reputation as a culinary destination is rising, local chefs have come out of the kitchen to form a collective of their own. The Madison Area Chefs Network, a loosely associated group of some 50 Madison area chefs, started with after-work drinks in November and has been gaining momentum for the past five months.

“One thing that’s been missing for me in Madison is that full culinary community where everybody knows everybody,” said chef Tim Dahl, who owns Nostrano with his wife, pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl.

“There are a number of great restaurants that have opened in the last five years,” Dahl said. “The quality has stepped up. Liquor people are bringing in better liquor, wine people are bringing in better wine. Farmers are growing more interesting varietals, communicating with the chefs to find out what to grow. Everything’s expanding.”

There’s no shortage of food-related organizations in Madison working to promote the scene here. Dane Buy Local counts restaurants and farmers’ markets among its members, Madison Originals is a marketing engine for local restaurant owners and REAP Food Group promotes sustainable Wisconsin-grown food in restaurants and schools.

The Madison Area Chefs Network, or MACN, is different primarily because of its members.

“This network is about connecting chefs in this city with each other as a point of strengthening Madison,” said L’Etoile and Graze co-owner Tory Miller, the founder and de facto leader of the group. “This is chefs, sous chefs. We aren’t selling advertising. It’s more about collaboration as a profession — for chefs, by chefs.”

MACN members include chefs from such disparate establishments as 4&20 Bakery & Café, the Weary Traveler, Sushi Muramoto and Heritage Tavern. They meet monthly, rotating among each other’s restaurants, discussing shared challenges and big ideas.

Perhaps most exciting for local diners, the group plans to host a food festival this fall at Madison’s new Central Park on the near east side. If approved by the city, the YumYum Fest will look a bit like a smaller, more local Taste of Madison.

The main event will be small dishes from at least 23 ambitious chefs, including Nick Johnson (1847 at the Stamm House in Middleton, not yet open), Michael Pruett at Cento, a new Food Fight Italian-themed restaurant set to open in June, Anna Dickson from Merchant and Brett Olstadt from Restaurant Muramoto.

“It’s a chance for the chefs to really show off,” said Tiffany Kenney, a Chefs’ Network collaborator and owner of marketing business Locavore Roar. “I’m hoping they challenge each other — that we get some really great food.”

Cooking up a network

Miller, arguably Madison’s best known, media-savvy chef, kicked off the group in part because he thought it was “weird” that chefs like Hunter and Bonanno didn’t know each other.

“Originally that was the whole deal — I’m just going to invite some people to come to L’Etoile after service and have some drinks and talk about the state of our industry in this city,” Miller said. He wanted also to “strengthen some relationships between us, with the back philosophy of strengthening our food system in Madison.

“It’s one thing to be in competition with each other for guests,” he said. “It’s another thing to be in competition with each other as professionals, which is just weird to me.”

Nostrano’s Tim Dahl was at that first meeting and noted that productive discussions came out of it.

“The whole idea was to get people talking, which is a great thing,” Dahl said. “’What are the problems you’re facing in your restaurant, what are the struggles you’ve had?’

“Everyone had the same exact issues ... everyone’s in the same boat. “

While not the leader or president — so far, the Chefs Network has resisted such structure — Miller’s role has been to keep the group focused and soothe ruffled egos. Unsurprisingly, chefs who run their own kitchens every day tend to have strong ideas about how to run everything else.

“The first thing I said in that meeting was, ‘First of all, I understand that everybody in this room at one point or another has talked s--- about someone in this room,’” Miller said. “Let’s just get that out on the table.

“We all have those moments. ... That doesn’t need to be a part of this organization.”

Soon after that first meeting, the group coined its name and started both a private Facebook page and a public jobs page, where chefs could share openings for line cooks, food porters and front of house positions.

“Staffing is the big one,” Miller said. “We have so many Madison restaurants and not enough people to work in them.”

Not enough cooks in the kitchen

What the members of MACN quickly discovered is that, with few exceptions, most chefs who don’t work for a national chain or franchise face the same challenges.

As the number of ambitious, farm-to-table restaurants in Madison rises, it’s hard for chefs to find and keep qualified cooks. Chefs compete for diners in an increasingly saturated restaurant market, and some struggle to handle media attention fed by a food-obsessed public.

“We have way too many restaurants for the amount of people who are in the service industry,” said Dave Heide, chef and owner of Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg.

Generally, Madison doesn’t attract lifelong servers like Chicago or Paris, where working in the front of the house could be a career choice instead of a paycheck during college.

Early on, Paul Short, head of the culinary arts program at Madison College, visited MACN to address the “disconnect between our students and their operations.”

Attrition is high among would-be cooks: of the 75 to 90 students who enter the Madison College program, only 35 to 40 complete the program in two years, Short said. Some extend classes; others simply drop when they “realize this is definitely hard work.”

“I love what the chefs downtown are doing,” Short said. “They have represented our city in so many ways in great light.

“(But) for us, we are a culinary program that provides opportunities at all levels of food. We have (an alumnus) at Miller Park, corporate chefs with General Mills. It’s not just about fulfilling the needs here in Madison.”

Another challenge is networking. Chefs work long hours in small spaces. They may be passionate and driven, but they may not have the time or energy to navigate social media or find as many local sources as they would like.

For Heide, joining MACN was “a way to be better connected,” he said. “Especially living in Fitchburg and having a family — I don’t get out much. I was looking for a way to get us all on the same page.

“Working with local farmers, there was no way to communicate — ‘Hey, Scott (Williams) from Garden to Be has 12 extra flats of spring mix, anyone else want some?’

“Or, ‘Hey, Black Earth Meats is going to slaughter 27 pigs, I’m taking the shanks, anyone looking for belly or rack?’”

A recipe for new events

Since MACN formed, a small group of leaders has emerged to plan the YumYum Fest, set for the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 7. Details are not set in stone, but the chefs are discussing an entrance fee for the festival, with an additional charge for food. If approved by the city, it will include beer, wine and live music. Carr Valley Cheese Co. has proposed creating a model of the Capitol building out of cheese.

Other collaborations are in the works, too.

“Once we started having these meetings, ideas started to happen, people started to work together,” said Patrick DePula, owner of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies in Sun Prairie. After meeting Miller through MACN, he invited him to take over his kitchen for a night for a charity event.

In April, the L’Etoile and Graze chef stopped by Salvatore’s to make an Asian-inspired pizza with bulgogi pork, Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, ramp greens and ssamjang (a Korean spicy dipping sauce). The collaboration raised $400 for Sherman Middle School’s classroom garden.

“It’s something different — you get a chance to create a little buzz, and you get two chefs collaborating,” DePula said.

Future Salvatore’s “kitchen takeovers” are set to include Jonny Hunter from Underground Food Collective on Thursday and A Pig in a Fur Coat’s Dan Bonanno on an unspecified date in June.

Shinji Muramoto wants to make a Japanese-inspired pizza, and DePula may soon find himself in the Graze kitchen, designing his own special.

Dahl loves this idea. He and other chefs have suggested going to Madison College as guests, to teach a single class.

There’s also interest in creating a Madison Chef Week in the winter, like the recent Craft Beer Week with its beer pairings and tap takeovers.

While many look forward to Restaurant Week for fine dining at a set price, some chefs have a love/hate relationship with the twice-annual event run by Madison Magazine.

It can help bring in business during a slow time of year, but some chafe at the price restrictions — $15 for a three-course lunch or $25-35 (the price jumped in January 2013) for a dinner appetizer, entrée and dessert.

Some also don’t like that they have to serve wine from large California and South American producers, whether or not they fit the menu. Chefs also object to “sponsor fulfillment” which in the past have included promoting unrelated businesses, according to Kenney, who used to work at Madison Magazine and was one of the originators of the local event.

“Ultimately I think it’s good for Madison, the more people who do it,” Dahl said, but “I don’t like any kind of restaurant week, in any city. I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s such a lower-end experience of what everybody’s trying to do.”

An alternate, Dahl said, could be a week where each chef highlights what he or she does best, whether it’s with a pairing dinner or a more informal event. Each restaurant could find its own sponsors.

“When you’re not working with such parameters, it’s more a reflection of what the restaurant does and what the chef does,” Dahl said. “Restaurant Week is about what the magazine wants you to do. That’s what makes it so hard. I don’t think you get a good reflection of the restaurant in any city.

“So how do we fix that, and make it really positive for the restaurant as well? I don’t think anyone has an idea yet of how to do it.”

At A Pig in a Fur Coat, Bonanno would like to see chefs working together to benefit local charities. The Food Fight restaurant group recently held such an event at Overture Center, Sweet Revolutions, to benefit Home Health United — Meals on Wheels.

“In Chicago they do a lot of galas, that’s what I’m really into,” Bonanno said. “Let’s raise money for the community, do a nice chef auction, auction ourselves off to raise money for the school district or hospitals.”

If YumYum Fest is a success — and even if it’s not — the chefs network could branch out in any one of these directions.

“What it goes back to is making our local restaurants stronger,” Miller said.

“That’s the important thing,” DePula agreed. With the festival, “we’re looking to create something the city doesn’t already have.”

If the chefs can steer their group of strong personalities and busy schedules toward a common goal, who knows what could be next.

“Everybody’s working in the same direction, which is nice,” Dahl said. “Everyone has their own style and way of doing something but it is all kind of grounded in that local, seasonal, Madison way — the whole artisanal nature is just how it’s done in Madison.” 

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.

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