by Felicia Gressette
photographs by Lissa Gottwals
The sun is slipping away on this crisp autumn afternoon, and a shadow begins to fall over the deck where a square table is beautifully set for six. Candles glow in oversize hurricane lanterns, flanking a squat, blue-gray pumpkin. The wine has been opened, the music is playing. The turkey awaits its star turn.
Sean and Lizzy Fowler are welcoming friends for Thanksgiving dinner, their first as hosts. It’s an opportunity they’ve embraced – a chance for Sean to apply his chef’s instincts, talent and training to bring new life to classic American fare and a new way for Lizzy to bring people together and invite them to be happy.
The year has been a whirlwind of change for Sean, 35, and Lizzy, 32. This night, they have so much to be thankful for.
The bowl of potato-leek soup that was their first connection.
Their marriage, celebrated in June.
Mandolin, the dream-come-true restaurant they opened in November 2011, and its early success.
Family, friends and good health.
Laney, their sweet and goofy Labrador.
The dinner they’re about to share with their dear friends, Ellen and Craig Thompson and Cheryl and Alex Kast.
The hard work, sweetness and joy of their life together.
The six friends take their places at the table and their hands form a circle as Sean says a brief prayer of thanksgiving. “God bless us all,” he concludes. The feast begins.
Finding their way to one another
Sean Fowler grew up in Raleigh, and remembers hanging out in the old Johnson’s Pharmacy at Fairview and Oberlin, the building that now houses Mandolin. It’s a nice circle to complete.
He graduated from Washington and Lee University and moved west to Jackson Hole, Wyo., skiing by day and working in restaurants at night, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be a chef, it turns out, so he enrolled in culinary school in Denver, graduated and started to work as a young cook, soaking up experiences and ideas. Matthew Secich, an early mentor, gave Sean his first exposure to high-end ingredients, first back in Jackson Hole and later at a small inn and restaurant in upstate New York. “It opened my eyes to the ideas of freshness, cooking what’s around you, seasonality,” Sean says. He detoured briefly through Manhattan, in the kitchen at the legendary Le Bernardin. His takeaway: “The technique is phenomenal, but they don’t have close to the ingredients we have at our fingertips here.”
Next stop: The five-star Fearrington House. That’s where his potato-leek soup caught the attention of a beautiful, bubbly young woman named Lizzy Fisher.
She was managing the Vietri shop at Fearrington Village, presiding over displays of Italian ceramic tableware and accessories. He was the chef for weddings and events. It was a rainy day, Lizzy remembers. “He came into my store and said, ‘Would you like some potato-leek soup and some sourdough bread?’ and it was the first moment I ever saw him.”
She was definitely not a foodie: “When we met, I ate the worst food and would love the worst food. Cans and boxes.”
Sean laughs and says: “I had my work cut out for me.”
Soon, they were a couple, planning their lives together. Instinct, market research and advice from family and contacts in Raleigh led them to the space that would become Mandolin. Restaurants had come and gone in the spot over the past decade; when Sean and Lizzy took possession, the tables were still set.
Lizzy jokes about “the curse of the space” and purifying it with sage sticks. She oversaw the restaurant’s new design aesthetic – modern, with a nod to the farmhouse – while Sean lined up farmers and fishermen, cooks and the kitchen operation.
Whatever their secret (hard work, good taste and vision), it’s working. Mandolin, opened the day before Thanksgiving 2011, has had a big year – excellent reviews, repeat customers – and, most fulfilling to the couple, an embrace by the neighborhood. A boy down the street raises quail and sells them eggs. A nearby woman gives them figs. Neighbors stroll in for drinks and dinner, offering, says Lizzy, “their two cents on how we can improve, which is good. We want to be the best for this neighborhood and we want to do our best.”
Sean expanded the kitchen into a generous space for a 90-seat restaurant. “You can tell a chef owns the restaurant because the kitchen is as big as the dining room,” Lizzy says. He laughs.
As the months have passed, the two have found a rhythm and routine in long days at Mandolin. Sean weaves his magic of creativity and technique over seasonal, local ingredients to turn out a changing, sophisticated menu, and Lizzy welcomes all with a smile and an easy laugh.
She says: “There’s one moment in the night, when I’ll just look around and we’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, we have a restaurant.’ The kitchen’s buzzing as it should be. I look around and there are smiley, happy faces.”
A knack for hospitality
Lizzy grew up mostly in Buffalo, N.Y., but spent her high school years in Vero Beach, Fla., when her parents moved there. She earned a degree in communications from Canisius College in Buffalo and started a graduate program in mental health counseling but found herself becoming too caught up in people’s sadness, so she stopped after a year.
She stumbled into the hospitality industry by attending what she thought was a job fair at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla. It wasn’t; they hired her anyway, she remembers, because she was quick to smile.
Lizzy was living in Portland, Ore., home to one of her three sisters, when she was offered a job managing the Vietri store at Fearrington. She turned it down, not interested in a cross-country move. And yet, she remembers waking a few nights later, somehow certain she had made a mistake. She took the job.
Enter the potato-leek soup and Sean. She calls it fate and says, smiling, “Ever since meeting Sean, it’s just been blessing after blessing after blessing.”
The past few years are a rush of events – falling in love, opening a restaurant, buying a house, getting married, spending 10 or more hours a day at Mandolin. “It’s been fun,” she says. “It’s been hard, but we’ve been laughing. We often joke that he’s the blood and sweat, and I’m the tears.”
Last year, Thanksgiving was a work day for the couple. They did take a break for dinner, but not where one might guess.
Sean says, “It’s kind of embarrassing. We went to Golden Corral for Thanksgiving. I’m serious. We’d just opened a restaurant the day before.”
(Golden Corral’s not so unlikely, given that Sean’s dad, Ted Fowler, is its chairman and CEO, a veteran of 35 years with the Raleigh-based company.)
This year, Thanksgiving will be different, and oh, so special. Their first as a married couple. Their first as hosts. The dinner in late September is a rehearsal of sorts, at Walter’s invitation.
Thanksgiving, they agree, is a wonderful holiday, and they’re excited about creating their own family tradition, blending their separate pasts into something new and meaningful. “So much of food is related to memories or experience,” Sean says. His grandmothers were terrific home cooks who would fill the family holiday table with turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, casseroles of various kinds. “From scratch, no recipes.”
He: “I’m like that to some extent.”
She: “Honey, you are like that.”
For Lizzy, Thanksgiving is a favorite. “When I go to Florida, even in June, my mom will make me Thanksgiving.”
They differ on the “right” time for the holiday dinner – his family gathers in the afternoon, hers at night. She’d like sweet potatoes with the meal; he likes sweet potato pie. They’ll figure it out together. Lizzy says, “We’re starting our future, following our passion, creating our life here, our home, our family.”
Welcome to the table
The Fowlers’ first Thanksgiving dinner is inspired by the traditional menu of turkey, gravy, dressing and cranberries, but it’s refracted through Sean’s commitment to fresh, local, top-quality ingredients and refined by his chef’s palate and technique. Consider:
The turkey itself, a 14-pound “Bourbon Red” heritage breed raised in a pasture at Cane Creek Farm in Alamance County by Eliza MacLean. He’ll brine it, smoke it and then finish by roasting in the oven. The bird will emerge bronzed, its flesh moist and tinted pink near the skin from the smoke.
Instead of stuffing or Southern-style “dressing,” he’ll make a savory bread pudding, based on buttery brioche loaves baked at the restaurant, and flavored with Honeycrisp apples, melted leeks and thyme, his favorite herb.
Potatoes will be mashed, but only after they’re sealed in heavy plastic and cooked in a water bath to set the starch, cooled and later boiled until tender. Then they’re passed through a potato ricer, blended with a rich mixture of cream and butter and then passed again through a fine-mesh sieve. (“I generally don’t worry about calories on holidays,” Sean says.)
Cranberries make an appearance, as does a Jell-O salad of sorts. The two traditional elements are combined into a gelatin salad made from fresh cranberries cooked in fresh-squeezed orange juice and studded with pistachio nuts and pineapple. This will be portioned into martini glasses, chilled and served with a rich mascarpone-honey-crème fraiche blend.
Green bean casserole won’t be forgotten, but it’s built from tender fresh beans, blanched and plunged into ice water, then combined with a savory mixture of sautéed shallots, shiitake and cremini mushrooms and chicken stock. On top, crispy fried shallot rings. “It’s a lot more work, but worth it,” the chef says.
Gravy is engineered in advance and gains its flavor from a spoonful of duck fat, giblets, reduced vermouth and a rich brown chicken stock.
For dessert, the chef stays closer to tradition with a smooth sweet potato pie but riffs on the pecan pie by adding bourbon and sweetening it with sorghum. The result is gorgeously deep brown and rich.
Sean will do as much prep work as possible ahead of time, because he’ll be working in the compact, very ordinary kitchen in their Raleigh home. No six-burner gas range here. He’ll make do with an electric smooth-top. (Lizzy doesn’t cook at all.)
As the evening approaches, he turns on music, a Spotify stream based on the Southern rock band Alabama Shakes, and opens wine. He’s pouring a 2010 Pinot Gris from White Hall Vineyards and a 2009 Cabernet Franc from Barboursville Vineyards, both in Virginia. (Both wines are on Mandolin’s list.) Lizzy puts a few finishing touches on the table outside. Laney wanders around, chewing on a long stick she found in the yard.
Soon, Craig and Ellen, Alex and Cheryl will arrive. The friends will greet each other with hugs, admire the style and sophistication of this first dinner party, share memories about how they met, muse about what lies ahead – travel, children, who knows?
At dinner, they fall silent, a compliment to the chef. Lizzy, Alex and Craig return for seconds.
The candles flicker, the temperature drops. Soon they’ll move inside and settle by the fire for huge slices of pie, with whipped cream, of course. Laney the Labrador will insist on being included, and before long, she helps herself to the last bites on someone’s plate. A tradition is born.
Sean and Lizzy Fowler’s restaurant, Mandolin, is at 2519 Fairview Road, Raleigh. It serves dinner nightly except Monday and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Reservations: 919-322-0365. Learn more at mandolinraleigh.com.
To learn more about Cane Creek Farm and its pasture-raised poultry and livestock, go to canecreekfarm.us.