The relationship between a restaurant owner and a chef can be the difference between a lovely, satisfying, aesthetic dining experience and that sense you’ve wandered into a variation of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland: nothing seems to fit. The good partnerships share aesthetic vision and values, working in true collaboration rather than two people pulling against each other. The relationship between Harvest restaurant owner Tami Lax and new chef Derek Rowe seems to be the genuine article.
The two worked together in L’Etoile’s kitchen some eight years ago. And in one of those wonderful, serendipitous moments, when Lax found herself looking for a chef at Harvest, one of Madison’s defining restaurants, Rowe literally showed up at the door. Says Lax, “With every dark cloud there is a silver lining. My silver lining is Derek Rowe.”
L’Etoile was thirty-two-year-old Rowe’s first job in the restaurant industry. “I always loved cooking. I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s kitchen. We had a big garden when I was growing up and I had an appreciation for food and cooking and the ingredients that went into it. I bounced around a few different career choices before settling into it.” The Wisconsin native and Sun Prairie High School graduate started at L’Etoile as a dishwasher but worked his way up to line cook. And a career was born, a career that would take him for the next eight years to work in some of the most famous restaurants in America. His first stop was Chicago’s Vong. From there he went to New York, where he worked at the James Beard award–winning Craft. That led to an opening at Mario Batali’s renowned Babbo, where he worked his way up to sous chef, and finally to a similar position at Batali’s showpiece, Del Posto: “That was like a dream job for those three to six months [before opening] when we were really just playing with food and with menu ideas.” But Rowe’s wife received a job offer of her own, and the opportunity arose to come home. He stopped by Harvest and left a message for Lax. She called back. “I can’t believe you’re back in town,” she said. “Call me, we have to talk.”
Rowe and Lax share a belief in “the seasonality and the locality of the ingredients and using that to dictate your menus.” But the transition from the restaurants of New York to Harvest is about more than the ingredients. “There are a number of challenges in the sense of the physical space. And I’m trying to read and react to the customers’ wants and tastes. It’s a very different market than New York. At Babbo you open the doors at five o’clock and you’d do the last seating at nine-thirty or ten o’clock and it’d be packed all night long. Here there’s that rush from six to seven, but there is not a demand for late tables.”
Rowe says he and Lax are thinking about ways to lower the price level a bit, perhaps through special tasting menus, to offset the perception of Harvest as just a special-occasion restaurant. And he says he’d like to explore “areas I think I’m strongest in, like the Italian cuisine, [especially] pastas.” But for the most part he describes his cooking style as “pretty straightforward, pretty simple flavors. I don’t like to have it thought of as precious. It’s uncomplicated but executed really well. There’s strong attention to detail, but it’s not fussy. The flavors, especially when you’re dealing with great ingredients, should be the big star.” Lax couldn’t be happier. “[Rowe is] a true gem. [He has] an unbelievable palate, he’s incredibly talented, humble, and he shares my passion for local, organic and sustainable food.” Thus we have a new collaboration on the Madison restaurant scene that, like all really good relationships, brings out the best in both partners.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to email@example.com.
|Madison Magazine - April 2008|