On a mission to find some of Madison’s young chefs eager to make their mark on the city, the Young & Hungry series spotlights three chefs ready for the challenge.
By Elizabeth Geboy
Jacob Wolf, a 26 year old UW-Madison graduate, has a “centralized position” between the three branches of the Underground Food Collective. He had been the co and sous chef at Forequarter restaurant. Now, with a few other passionate bakers, he bakes all the breads and pastries for the Forequarter restaurant and Underground’s catering business. They also do much of the canning and fermenting of foods for Underground’s butcher shop.
Wolf graduated from UW Madison with degrees in Geology and Environmental Studies and had also been a part of Slow Food UW. Jonny Hunter, proprietor of Underground Food Collective, learned about Wolf’s talents through Slow Food’s Cafe and a dinner with Vice President of Slow Food International Alice Waters. Hunter asked Wolf to do a working internship or a stage at Forequarter.
“I did that [the stage] during finals week… [I told them] I can stay until four, but then I have an an exam review at 4:45 I have to get to!” Wolf declared.
He got the job at the restaurant days after. Wolf commented on the bits flour and dough stuck to his arms, result of having made bread dough before the interview. I asked him if he had a go-to food when studying at the university, before his cooking career took off.
“I was really into risotto… no recipe necessary! [I’d make] risotto if I had time, or chili and chicken noodle soup to have around for the week,” Wolf said.
Being a current student and a graduate, we agreed that eating is often ‘on the go’ and it can be difficult to spend a lot of time cooking. When I asked about how Madison has fostered his love for cooking and helped him develop as a chef, he immediately highlights the accessibility of the farmers markets and the farms. He loves the ease of driving “15 minutes out of the city, to be in the countryside and at a farm.” Wolf compares it to Chicago, where a multi-hour trip is necessary to escape the the concrete and houses.
“[Madison is lucky to have] proximity to farmers and food, and having so many different markets in the summer, and they go year round,” Wolf said. At Forequarter, Wolf and the kitchen crew were willingly “seasonally restricted.”
“We made it a mission to have vegetables only from Wisconsin, year round. We change menu as things come in and out of season,” Wolf said. “How long are we going to have broccoli? We can have it for two weeks constantly, then it can be a special as we get it here and there, then we have to replace it.”
The seven tables at Forequarter allow them to be specific to the seasons and flexible with what is available at the market. He describes his experience at the food collective as more of a “do-it-yourself” path than a directed mentorship, and with this he’s been able to start programs and pursue his passions for cooking. Wolf finds that even beyond the restaurant and cooking, the most important thing is being precise.
“Attention to detail. Do that with anything you do. How things are organized and how things are put away. Details make a big difference,” he said. “It’s the difference be being mediocre at something, and good it, and then being better…That’s advice I’ve reached mutually in discussion with people.”
Outside of work, his cooking is influenced with Southeast Asian flavors, but still using local vegetables. Summer grilling is a must, making grilled steak salads with market produce. He says a potato and leek frittata is also a go-to for dinner at home.
“Curry, or fried rice, sometimes bún…” Wolf was thinking about dinner. “I think I’m going to make curry tonight.”
He shared a few of his favorite cookbooks, and showed me the diverse collection of books lined up in Underground’s kitchen where he works.
“On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, Tartine Bread, and The Art of Fermentation [by Sandor Ellix Katz]. The last two are textbook-y, they’re pretty dense. It’s really learning the science based side of it,” Wolf said.
He also mentioned a book titled The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez, which happens to also be one of my favorite cookbooks. It, too, is a more scientific approach to cooking.
In the near future, Wolf and his friends Tim, Michael and Megan are teaming up with a woman who lives on a farm outside of Madison. She’s invited them to live, cook and manage the land on her farm and he seemed excited about the pursuing the idea.
Wolf has been “wanting to grow the vegetables for so long…waiting for an opportunity to be able to grow produce, where it makes sense. [I want to] Learn how to grow things, grow good things, vegetables. [I want it to] come full circle; cook seasonally, knowing how to grow food, knowing how to cook food, learning how to ferment it, process it, preserve it. And in time, keep baking bread!”
After three years of experience as a line cook, making pastries and baking bread, he’s now learning the methods of growing vegetables, how to serve and be front of the house. He wants to “be well-rounded in understanding the dining experience,” and use this collected knowledge to eventually open his own restaurant. I asked if he wanted to stay in Madison, or move away to a different city to continue cooking.
“I’ll be an hour outside of it! [Madison is] a place I will always come back.”