Culinary Warrior: Jonny Hunter ’05, ’11

UW Majors: English; Master of Public Affairs
Age: 35 | Madison
Founder, co-owner, and chef of the Underground Food Collective

It’s hard to believe that Jonny Hunter, who has made a career out of meat, was actually a vegetarian for five years. But as an undergrad, Hunter worked at what was then the Catacombs Coffeehouse, under the Pres House on the Library Mall, and turned it into a lunchtime haven for Madison’s vegetarians. And those years have seasoned Hunter’s approach to his life and work as an omnivore.

“I do think that being a vegetarian has affected me,” he says. “I’m a lot more conscious of consumption and waste now. My goal is to work with meat that is better, but to make it so people eat less of it and eat different cuts and use the whole animal more efficiently.”

Eventually Hunter found himself raising pigs with a farmer friend, taught himself how to slaughter and butcher them, and then hosted what he called the Pre-Industrial Pig Dinners. Soon, his Underground Food Collective, as it became known, grew into a flourishing catering business in Wisconsin that also hosted pop-up dinners in Chicago and New York, where Hunter’s team served pickled trout, bison jerky marinated in maple syrup, and other creations.

Today, the Madison-based company includes Underground Butcher; Forequarter Restaurant, which was nominated for best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and named among the nation’s 50 best new restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine; Underground Meats, which has won three Good Food Awards for its charcuterie; and Underground Catering. The collective works with more than one hundred small Wisconsin farms, returning around $800,000 to producers every year.

Inspired by his public affairs degree, Hunter is generous about sharing what he has learned. In 2013 he attracted national press when he crowd-funded an open-source guide to meat-curing safety standards to make life easier for other aspiring artisan meat producers. He founded Bike the Barns, an annual fundraiser that benefits FairShares’s Partner Shares, a program that helps low-income families buy fresh, locally grown vegetables. He also helped launch the Madison Area Chefs Network (MACN) and was lead organizer for MACN’s YumYum Fest, a new food and music festival.

“Jonny Hunter, with a local, national, and international reputation, is an inspiration to all locavores,” says Terry Shelton, outreach director for the La Follette School of Public Affairs. “He has blended his degree in public affairs with real, grounded policy issues involving economics, production, safety, and sustainability of the food chain.”

Although Hunter started his first business soon after graduating with his English degree, he thought he might be more interested in food policy than running food businesses. That led him to back to campus for his master’s degree.

“The University of Wisconsin has been the defining institution in my life,” Hunter says. “As an undergraduate in the humanities, it challenged my limited perspective of the world. My graduate studies at the La Follette School of Public Affairs not only augmented my newfound curiosity with the analytical tools critical for decisionmaking, but provided me lasting mentorships that have supported me through my career as a small-business owner.”

Hunter, who grew up in Texas and South Africa, has put down deep roots in Madison, though he’s had job offers in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

“I wanted to stay here and build something in Wisconsin,” he says. “What we have built is a company with a national profile for excellence and innovation, both in the products and in the manner in which we produce them.” Meanwhile, the Underground Food Collective continues to grow. Hunter is working on a second Madison restaurant called Middlewest, and he’s opening a store in Minneapolis.

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