The Hog Wild World of Dan Fox
Whether he’s whipping up traditional pork dishes with innovative interpretations, tending to his heritage pigs on a farm in rural Wisconsin or opening the most high- profile new restaurant of the year, Dan Fox has mastered the art of old-meets-new
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Elaborate as this broken down lobster and rabbit dish is, it contains surprisingly few ingredients, thanks to Fox’s preferred technique of using whole animals. Market vegetables and fingerling potatoes round out the unique offering.
PHOTO BY NICOLE PEASLEE
After a couple years at Spring, Fox got married and moved up to Madison, landing here in 2005. He applied to the usual suspects: Harvest, L’Etoile, the Concourse, the Edgewater Hotel and the Madison Club. When the latter offered him the role of lead line cook, Fox admits he did not foresee the success he would eventually have there, but it weighed in as his best option in terms of upward mobility and creative autonomy.
His marriage didn’t last, but his sense of place in Madison did. He stayed on at the Madison Club, landing the promotion to executive chef when his predecessor left less than a year after Fox started. He was just twenty-six years old.
“I think we did a lot of great work at the Madison Club. I was very happy with a lot of things that came out of the creative side of different dishes,” Fox says.
While at the club, Fox’s passion for scratch cooking and local sourcing grew. He and his chef de cuisine Jason Veal—who now assists Fox with farming and running both Heritage Tavern and his side ventures—created a bread baking and charcuterie program, and elevated the club’s status as a culinary destination.
“We became known for our excellent and inventive food,” says Mary Gaffney-Ward, the general manager of the Madison Club who worked with Fox throughout his tenure there. “Our dining usage definitely increased. We became more involved with the community. Overall, it just really helped with the reputation of the club. His food quality was excellent. He was good with people; the members really enjoyed him.”
The Madison Club was also Fox’s first connection to many of the farmers and producers that would later play a large role in his own foray into agriculture. Fox and Veal teamed up with a few other partners in 2009 to raise livestock and grow produce on Fountain Prairie Farm in Fall River, near Columbus, specifically for the Madison Club. It was around that time, too, that Fox took an interest in raising his own heritage pigs. In addition to the Priskes of Fountain Prairie, Fox teamed up with Micah Nichols of Cress Springs farm in Blue Mounds, and it was on those two farms that Fox really started to dig pork.
As his time at the Madison Club wore on, Fox realized that he wanted more freedom to pursue his other interests, namely the heritage pig farming and opening his own place where he could be a bit more experimental. The members-only nature of the club meant that part of the gig was to prepare dishes that had a broader appeal.
“But I have to say they really did give me a lot of creative freedom, more than I ever expected.”
So Fox decided to make his move last November. His departure was understood, even expected, by his co-workers, including Gaffney-Ward. “I knew he wouldn’t stay there forever. I could tell he would want to open his own place,” she says.
But not before putting his mark on the club.
“The club changed quite a bit under his influence,” says Andrew Wilson, who took over as executive chef after Fox left. “He really did a lot for this place—making it more dynamic, more modern.”
With more time to dedicate elsewhere, Fox’s heritage pig farming became an even greater presence in his life. In the earlier half of 2013, he was spending a few hours just about every day on one of the three farms where he keeps his pigs. His pig-rearing had already turned into a business of its own, and he now sells whole animals to Osteria Papavero, a Pig in a Fur Coat, Brasserie V, the Madison Club, Milwaukee’s Buckley’s and Wolf Peach and Chicago’s Sixteen, among others.
But not many people understood the heritage breed thing, especially not back in 2009 when he started. So Fox did what he does best—he got creative, putting on old-school, Wisconsin-style meat raffles and launching his hallmark event, SloPig, in 2011.
Jon Rosnou, Grant Hurless, Dan Fox, Jason Veal and Amy Lukken of Heritage Tavern
PHOTO BY NICOLE PEASLEE
“SloPig started out of pig sales and finding a way to educate people on the pig side of what I do, as far as the heritage breeds and the fat content,” Fox explains. The event has become one of the hottest culinary events of the year, held in both Madison and Milwaukee and bringing together farmers, chefs and foodies from across the Midwest in celebration of heritage pork and other artisan food and drink.
Steadily, Fox’s profile began to rise. Magazine and newspaper articles followed. And that’s how Carl Blake entered the picture.
Blake is an Iowa farmer who claims to have created the tastiest heritage breed pig out there: the Iowa Swabian Hall. The original Swabian Hall dates back to nineteenth century Germany, but it’s so rare these days that no German farmer would sell one to Blake. So he bred his own rendition by crossing an Ossabaw with a Chinese breed called a Meishan, adding “Iowa” to the name. Blake read about Fox’s heritage pig farming endeavors in a 2010 article in Madison Magazine and offered Fox one of his Iowa Swabian Halls at no charge. A typical price would have been close to $300, Fox says.
“He believed in it that much and he really wanted us to try it,” says Fox. He took Blake up on the offer and started buying more pigs from him.
Maybe you’ve seen Blake. He’s hard to miss—a big guy always sporting signature denim overalls. He has been the subject of a New York Times article and has made appearances on the Colbert Report and, this past February, Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern. Fox appeared alongside Blake in the Bizarre Foods episode. He prepared an Iowa Swabian Halls for Zimmern, which the host dubbed “a magical pig species” and “one of the truly great, great pieces of pork you’ll ever eat.”
And it’s gotten even better. Since then, Fox has pinpointed a proper diet of pasture, rye, barley, wheat, spent grain from Death’s Door Distillery and Karben4 Brewing and expired dairy from Sassy Cow Creamery, a blend that ups the fat content for the rich flavor heritage breeds are known for. His stock now includes nearly ten different breeds and cross-breeds. He’s learned what a pregnant pig looks like and how to build a proper fence. He strives to keep a rotation of twenty pigs per acre and will rotate them to new pasture every month. Fox might be a chef from the Chicago suburbs, but he’s determined to become every bit as much a farmer.
“He’s definitely more of a farmer today than he was a couple years ago,” says Andy Fisher, who raises pigs with Fox on his family’s Lonely Oak Farm in Rio, Wisconsin. “You can go to the farmers’ market and meet the farmer, but to actually get your hands dirty and be part of the whole process—there’s a lot more risk. I’ve never seen anybody jump over barbed-wire fences as much as [Fox] has to stop a pig or catch one if it’s running away.”
Back at Heritage Tavern, all of Fox’s experiences come to a head. He wants this to be some of the best food you can get in Madison, but he doesn’t want it to feel intimidating.
“My approach to food is very much the way that I want to eat it: sitting down. Whether it’s just radishes with butter and sea salt or something really composed,” Fox says. “We definitely want people to feel like they’re going out for dinner, but we want the food to be very inviting, very approachable.”
Bar manager Grant Hurless echoes Fox’s sentiment when it comes to the drinks. Although the restaurant has what he and Fox call an aggressive bar program—heavily influenced by farmers’ market offerings and what’s on the menu any given night—Hurless maintains that a bar with locally sourced ingredients and house-made tonics can avoid pretention with the right balance and attitude. That’s why you’ll see Miller High Life on tap next to a kegged artisanal cocktail. “It’s not supposed to be serious,” Hurless says. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
Once the place opens and has its kinks worked out, and any new restaurant will almost certainly have a few, Fox plans to introduce weekend brunch service, then lunch. But what he’s really looking forward to are imaginative late-night options, including a menu tailored to industry folks: “Like fried lamb testicles and shit like that that’s kind of off the wall,” he says with a grin.
It’s that kind of off-the-cuff style that Fox has been craving all these years, and Heritage Tavern is his chance to do it.
Grace Edquist is associate/web editor of Madison Magazine.