Chef Sean Fowler returns to his roots at Mandolin Farm, where he grew up, and now hosts feasts for a crowd.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Juli Leonard
Sean Fowler doesn’t cut corners when it comes to the food he serves. The chef-owner of upscale restaurant Mandolin, near Five Points on Fairview Road, is plating elevated Southern cuisine with fresh produce, some from his very own farm. He’s lived in Raleigh since he was a toddler, and now grows produce on almost an acre of land at his childhood home in north Raleigh. “My family always had a garden, so I kind of had that in my repertoire from the beginning,” he says. In 2013, Fowler launched Mandolin Farm on the same land, starting small and expanding over time. He laughs that he probably wouldn’t be considered a farmer by most, but he says that by trial and error, the farm yields over 20 percent of the restaurant’s annual produce.
Fowler eventually purchased the house from his parents and the reason is twofold, he says. He wanted to share the upbringing he experienced with his three-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Clementine, as well as dig in to the restaurant’s farm initiative. “My wife, two daughters and I moved out there this year. I wanted to be a little more involved and expand what we’re doing. Every year it grows, and we’re expanding the scope with things like greenhouses.”
Fowler believes that growing your own produce is beneficial from many angles. In some cases, it saves money. For example, Fowler says his favorite ingredient at Mandolin Farm is the espelette pepper. A French variety similar to cayenne, the peppers can run $40 per jar at a grocery, but he can grow dozens from seed at the farm for just a few dollars. The peppers harvested at the farm are made into hot sauces and ground pepper, which serve as seasoning in the restaurant throughout the year. Fowler says what they choose to grow is focused. “My goal by the end of this year is that all of our lettuces come from here. The vast majority of our tomatoes are coming from here. We are growing with the restaurant in mind.” The farm also lends to staff education and higher morale, Fowler says. “In most of the restaurants I’ve worked, there has been some sort of garden or farm component. I saw the value in it.” Fowler says that it’s crucial to have a healthy relationship with your ingredients. “People genuinely want to know how their food is made and where it comes from.”
He’s bridging that gap even further with his farm dinners, a ticketed event that happens quarterly at Mandolin Farm. “We’ve been increasingly detached from our food sources, and I see that pendulum swinging back,” he says. Fowler uses these dinners as a vehicle for storytelling, he says. “It’s one thing to say ‘We got this ingredient from this particular farm,’ but it’s another thing to take them to that farm and have them taste food made from what’s grown there.”
Join Sean Fowler at his next farm dinner April 18. For tickets and more information, visit mandolinraleigh.com/events/