Chef's Table: Hometown Roots
Discover a culinary sense of place at Raleigh’s Mandolin.
By Alex Dixon
Banner photo by Felicia Perry, Food-Seen Photography
Chef Sean Fowler’s career has taken him all across the country, but he wasn’t able to stay away from home. Growing up in Raleigh, Fowler developed a passion for the Southern food of his youth. And as he worked for more than a decade in acclaimed kitchens from Wyoming to Manhattan’s Le Bernadin to Pittsboro’s Fearrington House, Fowler internalized refined techniques that he could apply to his native cuisine.
“I always was drawn to Southern food and food of my youth: cornbread and collards, and rice and hoppin’ john and things like that,” Fowler says, adding that he was inspired by chef and historian Edna Lewis’ traditional cookbooks and the innovative approach of Alabama chef Frank Stitt. “My interest lay in bringing in some of those French techniques, some more refined aspects of European food, and working that around the bounty of ingredients we have in the state of North Carolina.”
The culmination of this approach was the 2011 opening of Mandolin, in the same Raleigh location where Fowler ordered grilled cheeses and limeades as a child at Johnson’s Pharmacy. But even as the restaurant approaches its eighth year in business in the Hayes Barton neighborhood, it continues to evolve as a neighborhood spot in its focus on simplicity and locality. Gone are the white tablecloths from when the restaurant first opened. Now, there’s a bar menu and brunch service. And the restaurant has even launched its own garden to increase the bounty and quality of the local ingredients it highlights on the menu.
“With all of the phenomenal food coming out of New York City and a lot of cities, their technique is unrivaled. Being cutting-edge trendsetters with flavor combinations … I think all that stuff is going on in these large markets,” Fowler says. “But where they lack is in an access to ingredients. We have ingredients at our fingertips that a lot of those restaurants in those bigger metropolitan areas would pay a lot of money to get.”
Mandolin’s garden began as a way for Chef Fowler to increase access to ingredients that complement the local bounty he receives from farmers: produce like cucamelons, chervil, and Espelette peppers, which are expensive and hard to find. After incorporating the fresh Espelette peppers into dishes in the spring and summer, Mandolin’s kitchen staff dries the excess and grinds it into a powder to season dishes in the fall and winter. Dishes like Mandolin’s heirloom tomato salad showcase produce and herbs from the farm that are supplemented by a local cheese from Goat Lady Dairy.
As the garden—set on a parcel of land in North Raleigh inherited from Fowler’s family—has grown, so has the portion of ingredients it supplies to the restaurant. In addition to herbs and produce, chickens on the land now supply eggs for brunch service, and the restaurant is working on building a hydroponic system so that it can grow its own lettuce.
While the traditional route is from farm to table, Fowler wants to take advantage of bringing the table to the farm by hosting dinners there. “That’s always a fun connection where our guests and friends and family can experience the farm and where the food is coming from,” he says. “And I think that has a big impact on my staff, to make that connection.”
As Fowler continues to enhance a connection to the land and region, Mandolin is cementing itself as a neighborhood establishment, much like Johnson’s Pharmacy decades before. “In the way that years ago [Johnson’s] was a meeting place for young people after school, now those kids are adults. It’s still a neighborhood meeting place with a lot of familiar faces,” he says. “We really feel like we’re a part of this neighborhood and a part of this community.”
Heirloom Tomato Salad
with Cucumbers, Castelvetrano Olives, and Sherry Vinaigrette
2 medium-sized, fresh, unrefrigerated heirloom tomatoes (about 1 pound), cut into wedges
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes (about ½ pound), cut into halves
½ pound sliced cucumbers, cut into half-moons
¾ cup sliced Castelvetrano olives
2 Tbsp fresh, chopped chives
1 ½ Tbsp fresh, chopped dill
¼ cup basil chiffonade
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 oz sherry vinegar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
½ cup grated Goat Lady Dairy Providence cheese (Parmesan or Grana Padano are suitable substitutes)
1.) Combine all of the ingredients—except the cheese and some of the herbs for garnish—in a
medium mixing bowl.
2.) Gently toss the ingredients until they are thoroughly dressed.
3.) Strain out the salad onto serving plates with a slotted spoon, leaving the excess liquid in the bowl.
4). Garnish the salad with the cheese and the reserved herbs. Serve immediately.
2519 Fairview Rd, Raleigh, NC 27608