Local and sustainably produced foods are enjoying a bit of renaissance across America. Surrounded by rich farmland and endowed with a long-standing tradition of agriculture the Madison area is no exception. A new restaurant called the Underground Kitchen aims to bring the bounty of Wisconsin farms to diners Downtown while supporting Capital Region charities that encourage good nutrition.
Located at 127 E. Mifflin Street, the new establishment is the community storefront for the Underground Food Collective. An organization that brings together food orientated professionals, the Collective works to produce and promote vegetables, bread, meat and cheese that are grown organically, are free of harmful pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives and hormones and are provided by small-scale growers usually less than 100 miles away.
“We have a lot of different projects,” said co-founder Jonny Hunter. “We have a meat processing company, a catering company, we do event planning and now a restaurant and bar.”
The Underground Kitchen is the physical presence of an outreach organization that has served the Madison community for several years. Many of the events planned by the Collective go to benefit area non-profits, including the Madison Children’s Museum, which also recently opened just around the corner on the Capital Square. In addition to providing free catering services and hosting a dinner to raise funds, the group offers classes on basic food preparation and will assist in the processing of vegetables grown in the museum’s rooftop garden.
With local farms, nutrition and healthy living as it’s primary focus the Underground Food Collective also presents an annual event called Bike The Barns. Working in conjunction with the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition the bicycle tour allows almost 800 area riders to visit nearby farms and have the opportunity to experience artisan delicacies of all varieties. Proceeds of the event go to subsidize half the cost of fresh produce delivered to low-income families.
“There are almost 100 people signed up for the program this year,” Hunter said. “And Bikes The Barns raised about $50,000.”
With this new venture, a Downtown restaurant, Hunter said the Collective is eager to now interact with the community on a regular basis. Bringing together the produce of area farmers with the tastes of local consumers the Underground Kitchen hopes to showcase what’s available fresh from the fields.
“They can prepare what’s local and make it delicious,” said Cassie Noltner Wyss, co-owner of Primrose Community Farms in Cross Plains. “A restaurant like Underground can open that door and make people realize that local food is out there and it’s yummy.”
Open Tuesday through Sunday the Underground Kitchen offers a very fluid menu that shifts regularly with the change of seasons and the availability of certain food items. But growers like Wyss sell much more produce to consumers directly through CSA deliveries and area farmer’s markets. “Restaurants are the gravy for us,” she said. “But they help us by providing an education to the community, that food can be sustainable as well as affordable.”
Hunter said the Underground Kitchen is dedicated to providing value as well as good food. “I think some of the methods we use in our purchasing allows us to sell it for cheaper,” he said. “We use everything. And we try not to have waste.”
When it comes to meat for example you won’t necessarily find items on the menu like tender loin or rib eye. Instead you’ll see shanks, organ meats and headcheese. “That’s just part of our commitment to use the whole animal,” Hunter said. “And in the end, that’s much more affordable because your price per pound goes down.”
This attention to detail makes for an over all dining experience that reveals the true nature of food preparation and the costs associated with it. While many restaurants in Madison offer sustainable dining options, most come with a premium price tag that moves them out of reach for most consumers. Andy Hatch, the master cheese maker at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, said the Underground Kitchen makes sustainably produced food more attainable to a broader audience.
“I appreciate their business ethos,” Certain elements of the local food movement can become exclusive. But what I like about Underground is that they’re not pretentious about their food. They make it accessible and they make it fun.”
The newly renovated restaurant space offers a relaxed environment where big tables encourage small parties dinning separate to share space communally. With prices most any customer can afford, the Underground Kitchen aspires to be a gathering place for Madison visitors and locals to enjoy.
“We’re presenting really great tasting food at prices that are reasonable,” said Mel Trudeau a partner in the business. “We’re called “Kitchen” and not “Dining Room” for a reason. We want to present this handmade cuisine in a more casual setting, so people can feel comfortable eating here any day of the week.”
The is story originally appeared in the December issue of the Capital Region Business Journal philanthropy feature “Good Works”