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Dan Fox is Madison Magazine's chef of the year

Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:57:51 AM CST
Updated On: Sep 04 2013 04:31:08 PM CDT

By Grace Edquist

The entrance to the most highly anticipated restaurant of the year is surprisingly modest. Quietly tucked off the Capitol Square on the corner of Mifflin and Webster, Heritage Tavern occupies a space with a stillness unusual of downtown. The red brick exterior bears an understated black awning, and its name is scrawled in simple type on a petite, setback front door. It would be easy to walk past the place without a second glance if not for the string of media reports and traveling pop-up dinners over the past few months, all foreshadowing its opening.

Inside, Heritage Tavern (which opened to the public Sept. 3) feels rooted in the traditional but with a clear penchant for creativity. The same dichotomy could be said of the restaurant’s owner and chef, curly-haired and bespectacled Dan Fox, who has been dreaming of opening a place of his own ever since he arrived from Chicago eight years ago. You see it in the food he prepares, like beef tenderloin alongside mushroom marrow foraged from nearby, or with a scallion-infused syrup drizzled on top. The food mirrors Fox's eclectic culinary past, which has taken him from a white-linen French restaurant to the Austrian Alps to a punk-rock kitchen in Chicago to a farm field in central Wisconsin. Just when you think you have this guy figured out, he surprises you.

"I like the style where the guy in a mohawk and the guy in a business suit can sit down and have the same experience," Fox says.

Wise beyond his thirty-three years, Fox shows a serious dedication to cooking, local foods and, most recently, pig farming. In addition to this new restaurant, he runs separate catering and meat-sale businesses using heritage hogs he raises himself. He takes a researched, intellectual approach to his work in the kitchen and in the field, but he also takes risks and places a premium on creative freedom. From the front door to the back of the kitchen, he's brought it all to bear at Heritage.

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Nowhere is Fox's signature balance of traditional and modern more evident than in the flow from Heritage's bar to its open kitchen. Enveloped in earthy hues and rich mahogany wood, the bar area conjures up images of Prohibition-era speakeasies. The bar top, stools and tables are custom-made by an Amish craftsman in Norwalk, Wisconsin, and your drink comes in an antique glass with etching around the sides. Behind the bar, tap lines dispense craft sodas made in-house or sourced from Madison's own Wisco Pop. No Coke or Pepsi soda guns here.

But if you look down the bar to your right, the feeling is much less nostalgic. The bustling kitchen is completely exposed, an increasingly common approach in modern eateries intended to offer transparency and connect the consumer to the cooking process. Stainless steel dominates most surfaces and the shiny black subway wall tiles remind you this place is brand-spanking new. "I'm in love with the relationship of the bar to the kitchen," Fox professes.

He took just as much care in designing the more intimate dining room, separated from the kitchen and bar by a brick wall that runs down the center of the restaurant. That wall will be familiar to patrons of Underground Kitchen, the previous tenant of the desirable location before a devastating fire in 2011. "We really wanted to keep identity to that space," Fox says, referencing the legacy of both Kitchen and Cafe Montmartre before it. "But we also wanted it to look like our place."

Vintage butcher knives and meat splitters hang on the walls. It's less horror movie, more rustic-cool, in homage to what has become Fox’s newfound agricultural interest and culinary specialty—pork. Fox purchased his first heritage breed pig, a Mangalitsa, in 2009 and has since increased his stock to more than 170 animals on three different farms. Heritage breed pigs are animals with bloodlines that date back hundreds of years. They fell out of favor with large-scale, commercial pig farming in the 1980s as preferences swayed toward lean, white meat and away from the dark, fatty stuff. To get that rich, melt-in-your-mouth flavor back, Fox employs pre-industrial farming techniques to rear his pigs. They're given pasture space to roam and fed diets high in monounsaturated fats. And the proof is in the pudding: his pork creations are heavenly.

But he doesn't stop at pork. The frequently changing menu at Heritage has a tailored selection of five to eight entrée dishes with a mixture of beef, seafood and vegetarian fare, many with a classic French undertone but in the context of what's available in Wisconsin (save for the fish, which often isn’t possible to get locally). Creations range from pub-style sandwiches to elaborate spreads, like the broken-down whole rabbit and lobster dish, served family-style on a rustic wooden board. On it you'll find both animals fully utilized, each and every edible part creatively cooked to highlight its unique assets. It's a sight to behold.

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A Dan Fox original restaurant has been a long time coming. "I've been wanting to open up a business pretty much the entire time I’ve been in Madison," he says. "The reason why I came here was to be an entrepreneur."

The venerable, members-only Madison Club is where Fox really cut his teeth as executive chef from 2006 until just last fall, with another year on the front end as lead line cook. But that’s not where his culinary journey starts.

While he was growing up in Dundee, a Chicago suburb, Fox's family valued good food, but he wasn’t one of those whiz kids in the kitchen. "There was no stirring-the-pot-with-Grandma kind of thing," he says. But he did get a taste of the food industry when he was still young, manning the fryer at a local French fry joint at fifteen years old. It was the first in a string of service industry gigs for Fox.

After high school, Fox bounced around to five colleges in three and a half semesters, showing scant interest in his studies. He now realizes that he had been developing an affinity for cooking throughout those youthful, wanderlust years. Instead of studying, he’d bake blueberry pies, trying to perfect the recipe. While in Arizona he preferred cooking at his fraternity house to going to classes.

So Fox moved back to Chicago and enrolled in a culinary program at Kendall College. Something clicked. "It hit all the points that I liked—working in a fast-paced environment, working with people," Fox recalls. He was particularly drawn to studying the various cultural approaches to food and the differences among growing regions, two concepts that still heavily influence his methods today.

His next breakthrough was scoring a coveted internship at Everest in Chicago, working under Thierry Tritsch, a celebrated but discerning chef who still runs the kitchen at the Michelin-starred French restaurant. He takes on only one apprentice at a time to ensure he can coach him or her properly. "I need to feel a connection [with my interns]," Tritsch says with a thick French accent. "Daniel came in very professional … in a suit and tie, well prepared. [He] was very intimidated … he was young. But he was very driven, very motivated."

Fox worked as a line cook, rotating through the various positions—starting with pot-au-feu, then onto meat, pastry and vegetable stations. Working directly under Tritsch, Fox honed his French cooking skills, perfecting traditional techniques and absorbing the impeccable presentation of fine dining establishments—polished silver, spoons for caviar, the whole nine yards.

Fox remained at Everest as a line cook beyond his six-month internship, spending a total of two years there, participating in culinary competitions and learning from Tritsch every step of the way. "Dan is the kind of guy who wants to know it all," Tritsch says. "If you show him a technique, he wants to know it from the beginning."

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Photo by Nicole Peaslee. 

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