Every time Garin Fons dreams up a new piece of meat to cure, stuff, or process—say, nduja or goat bacon or pistachio- studded mortadella—he sends the ingredient list and the processing notes to Wisconsin state meat inspectors and waits for the go- ahead. If they don't like something about one of these formulations—say, too many nitrates in the recipe, or a fermentation period that's too long—they reject it.
"Then we can send them some kind of academic paper or some kind of proof that we think this is a safe step," says Jonny Hunter, 32, Fons's confederate in Madison's Underground Food Collective. "We've had to do that a lot, because the inspectors have never seen anything like this before. We're doing it on a smaller scale, and we're complicated."
The UFC is a nonhierarchical group of cooks founded by Hunter, his brother Ben, and five others in the early aughts, just on the cusp of the underground dinner trend that had begun to proliferate around the country. In some circles those are now considered a little stale—another shallow food gimmick riding on an exaggerated presumption that its participants are engaging in a clandestine or illegal event. But the UFC is proof that the model—like food trucks, shared kitchens, and pop-up restaurants—can serve as a low-cost springboard to larger legitimate businesses that cut paychecks, contribute to the tax base, and occupy previously cobwebbed real estate.
"Last year at this time I had four employees," says Hunter. "Right now I have 40." That's because in the last year the collective has opened Underground Kitchen, a brick-and-mortar restaurant and cocktail bar just off Madison's Capitol Square. That's in addition to Underground Meats, which they operate next to the restaurant's prep kitchen in an old industrial space on Madison's east side. This burst of activity has been in the offing for a long time now, and though they make it look easy, it wasn't so simple to get the meat business off the ground.
The Hunter brothers grew up in Tyler, Texas, the sons of Christian missionaries who relocated the family to South Africa in '93. Jonny came back a year later, eventually starting college at UW, and Ben followed him in 2000. Both found work among a group of volunteers that cooked locally sourced vegetarian lunches in the basement of a Presbyterian church. In 2003 the brothers and others in their circle began the catering business that occasionally staged relatively well-publicized underground dinners; they subsequently took it out on the road to Chicago and New York.
When I first encountered the UFC two years ago at a dinner in a Rogers Park apartment, they were just beginning to dabble in charcuterie, working with heritage Red Wattle hogs whose meat was processed under circumstances the state likely wouldn't have approved.
Raised on pasture by UFC member Henry Morren, the first animals were slaughtered, scalded, and scraped on Morren's farm. "We really didn't really didn't know what we were doing," says Hunter, who has since earned his masters in public affairs, specializing in food safety. "We had a book and a video. We were like 'We have a scalded, gutted pig—what do we do next?' We literally sat there with our computer, hit play, paused, and cut. I remember going home that night and looking at the Internet and going, 'Where did I make all my mistakes?" Most of those first pigs were served fresh or as simple processed meats like terrines, patés, ham, and rillettes at dinners titled "In Celebration of the Pre-Industrial Pig." But the group soon began experimenting with more complicated recipes for fermented and cured meats.
"We had the Paul Bertolli book Cooking by Hand," says Hunter. "But we didn't have any starter culture, and my friend Andy was like, 'Well, I made all this sauerkraut.' So we used sauerkraut juice as our fermentation culture, and we tested our pH and it worked out all right. We did just some little saucisson secs. Now, some 75 pigs later, we've figured it out."
As the group's reputation spread, they were approached by an official at the Wisconsin State Department of Agriculture's new Specialty Meat Development Center, whose aim is to grow and promote Wisconsin's small meat-processing businesses. That led to a $25,000 grant toward infrastructure and brand development. But navigating the labyrinthine regulations made the process slow going, not to mention the cognitive dissonance between some ag bureaucrats who wanted to encourage small meat processors and others who were used to dealing only with big, industrial-scale plants.
"One side of the building thinks we are going to kill someone; the other one is investing in seeing this project get off the ground," Hunter e-mailed me back in December 2009.
A year ago things hadn't progressed very far beyond that. Then Fons, 29, came into the picture. He was working at the University of Michigan, where he'd earned a masters in information science, when he attended one of the early Preindustrial Pig dinners in Madison. He stayed in touch with the collective, cooking at one of their events in New York and helping to teach a hog butchering class back in Wisconsin. "That's when I decided it was time to change careers," he says. While the collective was busy opening the restaurant, Fons dedicated himself to shepherding the meat business though the bureaucratic maze. "Everyone was quite intimidated by it, having seen plans and heard horror stories of how difficult it was to get through," he says. "But after sitting with the inspector and figuring out what was required, I figured out how to write the plans and submitted all the formulations for our recipes."
Given the green light last July, Fons started hanging soppressata, goat salami, and whole muscles like coppa and pancetta in the dedicated walk-in coolers they installed in the back of the prep kitchen. When the restaurant opened in October they supplied it with their labors, and last December they started a meat CSA in which 36 subscribers paid $300 for six weeks' worth of four-pound deliveries. For this the collective sent a total of 60 recipe formulations to the ag department. "Most plants in Wisconsin never put more than 12 in," says Hunter.
The CSA has allowed the group to experiment with preparations as varied as lardo, headcheese, fresh sausages, and porchetta di testa, and to narrow down a 14-item product line that they've just begun to offer wholesale to restaurants and retailers.
Currently the collective owns its own breeding stock of six sows and one boar, along with 40 feeder pigs spread among several local farmers—though even this helps supply just a portion of their pork needs. They don't harvest them themselves anymore, though, instead using small licensed slaughterhouses or the facility at the UW's school of agriculture. Eventually—due to changes in the farm bill that allow interstate commerce in state-inspected meats—some of their products may make their way into Chicago stores. And Fons estimates that within six to eight months individual customers from anywhere in the country will be able to buy Underground Meats through the collective's website. If you can't wait that long for a taste, they'll soon be setting up a small retail operation in the front of the restaurant.
E-mail Mike Sula at email@example.com.