Ditching the blizzard in New York and being delayed twice thanks to frost on the planes, I finally arrived in Madison, Wisconsin Friday evening, well-fed from my carry-on meal. I was picked up at the airport by Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective, and from that point on, taken on a whirlwind tour of one of the most inspiring food destinations I’ve been. It was also at this point that I decided to let things happen as they may — to eat, out or in, whatever was on the menu, so to speak. To be sure, my trip had a few eaten-in missions: I would be cooking for a collaborative dinner between three supper clubs, and leading a guest chef menu at Slow Food UW‘s Monday night dinner series, too. It turned out I was the only member of Hapa Kitchen who could make it to Madison, but I knew that I was in capable hands.
Throughout the weekend, I was reminded of one of the reasons why I gave up “not eating out in New York” strictly in the first place: the food community I was becoming involved with was too close-knit to draw such divides. And in Madison, too, community is the operative word when it comes to consuming. Every other shop seems to be a co-op: there’s Nature’s Bakery, worker-owned and managed for decades; Rainbow Books, where I was thrilled to give a book reading Saturday (and whose food politics book section was massive); Just Coffee, which goes beyond fair trade by innovating ways to empower its farmers afar; and the Willy St. Food Co-Op, so vast it has everything one could need. At the Saturday farmers’ market, which is thankfully held indoors during the winter, volunteers organize a guest chef brunch series served right in the market, for peanuts compared to the proper restaurant plate. There’s Bradbury’s Coffee, a cafe that serves espresso and crepes by day, and every once in a while, supper club dinners to an RSVP-only crowd. The cooks of this series, called Glass House Supper Club (for Bradbury’s tall panes of crystal-clear wall) are cafe workers with a knack for home cooking, and the owners, Josh and Jill, were eager to let them run it and lend a hand at the cooking, too. In other words, drawing a distinction between “professional” and “amateur” cook was thorny during my time here in Madison, nor was it my utmost concern.
Then there is the Underground Food Collective, a group that I’m not sure what to call anymore. A supper club, food consultants, caterers, underground chefs, and soon-to-be owners of a new restaurant and a meat processing business in town — let’s call it a cooking community with a passion for creating really good, unique food, from the region’s best sustainable-minded farms.
Backing up: I attended a dinner that the UFC hosted last winter in Brooklyn, called “The Pre-Industrial Pig.” The group brought along a farmer whose pig was the focal point of the dinner, featured in each of the family style-served courses in numerous ways. I would attend dinners each time the UFC came again to Brooklyn, teaming up with local food institutions in New York such as Added Value, Sweet Deliverance, and most recently, the Meat Hook and The Brooklyn Kitchen.
I was fairly aware before arriving in Madison that I’d be getting the best guide to local food by tagging along with the UFC. But I didn’t know quite the extent that brothers Jonny and Ben Hunter, in particular, were heroes of a certain food scene. Immediately, it became clear: the greetings and intimate chatter with every single farmer at the market, the fact that every food in the group’s commercial kitchen space seemed to have an origin not so far from Madison, and a name attached (“those are so-and-so’s chickens”). Using all parts of whole animals in their cooking, the members have recently expanded the meat processing part of their work and plan to make much more cured, preserved, aged and offal delicacies for the community in which they’ve been a hit so far. And that’s not such a small feat, educating consumers to eat all the nasty bits of an animal by making them delicious.
Elsewhere, I would find touches of UFC’s influence: at Ironworks Cafe at Goodman Community Center, Ben oversees the farm-to-table menu and helps train the teens that play every role at the restaurant. The cafe has a partnership with a local high school’s alternative program, and the kids are excelling at cooking, according to the Hunters. The pastry program is practically run by a fourteen-year-old girl named Zola, who’d stepped up to the plate and really found a passion for baking. We went there for breakfast the next morning, and Ben stepped outside the kitchen to sit down and chat.
I ordered a short rib hash entree from a small handful of choices on a blackboard, from one of the kids at the cash register. Served with a salad of spicy mustard greens, pickled radish and dripping with a conspicuous red wine braise, the dish was delicious, and just the perfect portion for brunch. I also grabbed a day-old cookie, sold at discount at the counter, and was given a tour of the kitchen, where I met everyone who’d just made my meal by name. Somehow, I didn’t end up paying for any of it, and I’m guessing that Ben made our table gratis. So if that counts as eating out this Week of Eating In, a farm-sourced breakfast made by kids who were connecting with food, and friends who were teaching them, free, no less, then I’m proud of breaking the rule.
I paid visit to the Saturday farmers’ market that day, where Jonny and I loaded up for the dinners. Held in a seniors center, the winter market was packed thanks to the brunch special of the day, a tomatillo sauce-drenched fried egg platter with some crisp greens and cherry cobbler prepared by Tory Miller, Executive Chef of L’Etoile. We stepped into the kitchen to say hi to the chef, and watch his operation a moment. The kitchen was expansive, and it was bustling with volunteers (“there are always volunteers to help cook” they explained). We also met some of the organizers of the brunch series, and I began wondering if there wasn’t a seniors center — or some sort of place — where a copycat project could take place for Greenmarkets in NYC.
After gathering crates and recycled boxes full of produce, eggs, meat and dairy, we made a few last stops at the market to meet and greet. At the table for Fountain Prairie Farm, Jonny bought a ruby red strip of dry-aged hanger steak, for a homemade family dinner that night. I got some goat milk soap from Scotch Hill Farm; Jonny picked up a precious 15-year aged cheddar for me to deliver especially to Anne Saxelby (who’d hooked him up big time at UFC’s last NYC dinner); and I grabbed a bag of “squeaky cheese” curds, a true Wisconsin treasure, for my plane ride back home, if they’d last that long.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent prepping in the Underground Food Collective’s kitchen for the next night’s dinner. It would be the Hapa Kitchen-written menu at Bradbury’s, with the Glass House Supper Club co-hosting. Our menu had finally been pinned down, after making final choices based on what was at the market. We’d start with three appetizers: a Chinese soup dumpling with lamb, mint and cilantro, and jellied pork aspic to make it explode, a Hong Kong-style steamed bun stuffed with a confit of kidneys and other organs on hand, and Korean barbecue sauce-drenched chicken wings served with a silken and fermented tofu “blue cheese” sauce (pictured at top). The first course would be a salad, of fresh, yet slightly leathery (at this time of year) spinach, cut into chiffonades and served with a bacon vinaigrette, lardo strips and one of my Taiwanese tea leaf eggs. The main course was a handmade udon-style noodle dish, with duck sausages, soy-pickled shiitakes and a meaty, black peppery sauce. For dessert, we decided on sweet cream ice cream with apple and candied ginger tempura pieces, a take on the classic a la mode.
Once prepwork was done for the day, Jonny, his partner Sarah, and their newborn and I headed over to Ben’s place for dinner. After checking out the chickens, ducks and geese pecking away in a coop in the family’s backyard, we entered the kitchen, where Ben had a bunch of half-cooked things and some stock bubbling away on the stove. Probably the best meal I’d enjoy during my entire trip here was this one. With Ben’s three toddlers scurrying about below our knees, I watched as the brothers held various conversations amongst themselves, about their business, classes (Jonny was completing a graduate degree in public affairs), and other goings-on of the day, simultaneously and nonchalantly making a magical meal appear before eyes. They cut up chunks of a beautiful loaf of sourdough rye baked by their friend Jeff, of Cress Spring Bakery, to crisp on a pan as huge “croutons.” I almost gasped when a piece of the hanger steak fell off the butcher block of a kitchen island, but the brothers, assured by the quality of the meat, brushed it off and smeared it with a garlicky lemon marinade with a shrug. I pitched in by making dressing for a salad with warm chicken and shiitakes that were leftover, slicing a shallot thinly and whisking it with homemade mayonnaise, red wine vinegar and oil. With a tray of roasted carrots and parsnips warmed up, and a couple bottles of red wine uncorked, we all sat at the table to dig in. Halfway through the meal, their sister, her husband and their baby appeared, as they happened to be driving by, and made good use of the extra food at the table. It was a packed table, what with the three siblings, their partners and children gathered ’round, a friend of the family’s, Stina, sitting in, and me, and it was a comforting meal far beyond the great food.
The next day, and the last day of the Week of Eating In, was spent cooking virtually all day, making dumplings and noodles all morning with members of the Glass House Supper Club. By the time five o’clock had rolled around, we were serving a special friends-and-family meal at Bradbury’s, to friends and family of the cafe and UFC who didn’t get a seat to dinner (it had sold out weeks ago). By seven, we dropped the first dumplings into the steamer, and with all the hands we had helping in the kitchen, continued to serve the six-course, collaborative dinner without much delay between any one of them. It was the most streamlined supper club event I’ve ever helped pull off, and it’s all thanks to the great folks at Bradbury’s, Glass House and UFC — as well as the kindly guests, who were more than eager to eat things they had never seen before nor really knew what they were. Explaining the tea leaf eggs, and how they were so common in Taipei that every 7-Eleven sold them as snacks, the guests nodded appreciatively and clapped after we spoke.
Though my time here in Madison is not yet over — there’s going to be a dinner for 150 at Slow Food UW tonight, apparently a record attendance number for the Monday night feasts — the Week of Eating In is. It’s funny that I seem to be leaving this eating in-only period with much the same feelings as I did back in 2008: some things, like cooking with and for the community, and supporting small farms going against the industrial agricultural grain, are just more important than choosing sides, eating out, or in.