“The restaurant is fast-paced and high-stress. When I’m out in the garden, I have to slow down and be in tune to the natural world. … It’s meditation, a relief.” – Sean Fowler, chef and owner of Mandolin restaurant
by Jessie Ammons
photograph by Travis Long
Sean Fowler knows the chef-farmer concept is not a novel one. “It definitely goes hand-in-hand with what I do,” says the owner of Mandolin restaurant in Hayes Barton. But his time spent growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the 5,000-square-foot plot at his parents’ home in North Raleigh goes beyond producing fresh ingredients. “Doing the manual labor, the planting and the harvesting and the weeding and moving dirt – there’s a physical outlet that fills a void for me.”
It’s also Fowler’s way of returning to his roots. The land he tills on Durant Road was a horse field when he was a child. “It’s a pretty big chunk of land for that area, so it made sense,” Fowler says. “It’s where I grew up. We used to have a garden when I was young. At the time I hated it; the last thing I wanted to do was weed a garden. But my dad said one day I’d thank him. Fast forward 20 years and here I am, thanking him.”
Fowler’s Southern-inspired menus have always emphasized local and seasonal crops, and now his garden provides a “small but noteworthy” portion of the restaurant’s produce. It also provides an important dose of beauty: A large part of the Fowler farm is now dedicated to flowers. These are Lizzy Fowler’s doing. When Mandolin opened in 2011, Sean’s wife Lizzy began making arrangements for the restaurant’s tables. Soon, customers were asking her to create arrangements for their homes, too. The word-of-mouth business she generated turned flowers into a thriving side project. Today, Lizzy has stepped back from arranging to focus on their 7-month-old twin daughters, Clementine and Grace, but she still grows flowers for the restaurant year-round.
“There is a 3-4 month period in the summer where we rarely order flowers from other providers,” Sean Fowler says. “Lizzy and our team grow and cut what we need.”
This year, the couple added a chicken coop to the mix. By the end of the year, they expect to fully supply both the restaurant and their household with eggs. He hopes the future holds goats and even more vegetables.
Regardless, Fowler’s biggest priority is raising his twin daughters in the garden right where he grew up. “Being on this land – things come full circle. We can’t wait to involve them in that.”