For Itaru Nagano it was now or never to open his own restaurant

Nagano to open in former Jac's space
For Itaru Nagano it was now or never to open his own restaurant
Romulo Ueda

It’s now or never, Itaru Nagano told himself.

“Right now I feel like I only have one chance to do my own thing,” says Nagano, the 42-year-old former chef de cuisine at L’Etoile.

After six and a half years at L’Etoile, Nagano is opening a restaurant in Madison, using years of culinary experience — fine dining and otherwise in kitchens across the U.S. — to create his own concept.

On Oct. 22, Nagano picked up the lease and turned in the alcohol licensing for the new restaurant he’s opening on Monroe Street (in the former Jacs Dining and Tap House space at 2611 Monroe St.) with business partners Andrew Kroeger and Patrick Sierra.

“The planning was just absolutely perfect,” Nagano says. Kroeger was a sous chef at L’Etoile when Nagano started there, and was one of the reasons Nagano took the job. “I got along with him really well,” Nagano says. The two of them had always talked about opening up a small restaurant on Monroe Street. “It was kind of a dream of ours,” Nagano says. “We were always looking at Monroe Street.”

After working with Nagano at L’Etoile for a year and nine months, Kroeger, who has worked for Thomas Keller and in other Michelin-starred restaurants, took a job in Texas to open up an Italian restaurant. But when the space on Monroe Street opened up this October, Nagano gave Kroeger a call. “I was like, ‘We have to do this. You have to move back up to Wisconsin and we’ve got to open this restaurant,'” Nagano told him.

Sierra, a good friend of Nagano’s who worked at L’Etoile as a server and sommelier before getting into the real estate industry, also felt like the opportunity to be involved in the restaurant was something he couldn’t pass up. “He missed the restaurant industry and he missed working with wines,” Nagano says. But they also brought him on board because of his realty work. “We don’t want this to be our last restaurant,” Nagano says. “He can find new spaces and more opportunities for us to grow as a business and grow as people and chefs,” Nagano says.

The final decision on a name for the restaurant happened about as quickly as filing the final paperwork. When they went to turn in the alcohol licensing on Oct. 22 at noon, just two hours after picking up their building lease, Kroeger started looking through all the pictures at the clerk’s office when he came across Madison’s first mayor — Jarius C. Fairchild, elected in 1856. They had thought long and hard on a name before that day, but then found it right in front of them — Fairchild — in a moment that felt like fate. “It’s the first mayor of Madison, and also our first restaurant,” Nagano says. “Everybody loved it.”

Nagano’s Path
While the process of signing on the dotted line to open a restaurant happened in quite the whirlwind fashion for Nagano, his journey to getting to this point is a much longer story.

“He’s such a talented guy and he has worked so hard to get to where he is,” says Tory Miller, who owns L’Etoile and two other Madison restaurants, Estrellón and Graze. “He deserves so much success.”

Nagano only took his first job at a restaurant — Wasabi on State Street — to relearn Japanese. “I forgot how to speak Japanese, and my sister’s boyfriend at the time was making sushi there and they needed a dishwasher for a month,” he says. The language came back pretty quickly, says Nagano, who was born in Japan and came to the U.S. at the age of 9.

From dishwashing he moved to the kitchen, then to the sushi bar. At 18 he moved to Arizona, came back to Madison for a while and then moved to Los Angeles. “Then I moved to New York because I got sick of LA,” he says. Nagano wanted to find a job in the skateboarding industry in New York, but had no luck. He returned to making Japanese food there before finding his way back to Madison.

Then someone offered him advice that would take his cooking career to the next level: Go to culinary school. “So that’s when I started saving up and then went to CIA [The Culinary Institute of America],” Nagano says.

After finishing the two-year program, he went to Washington, D.C., and then back to New York, where he staged (shadowed for a period of time) at many different restaurants, seeking out the notoriously tough kitchens. “I actually picked one of the hardest ones [with] the most screamers in the kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t want to go the easy route. I wanted to challenge myself.”

Along the way, Nagano’s desire to succeed in the most challenging environments developed into an admiration for fine dining.

“The decisions and the discipline — I love everything about it,” Nagano says.

He moved back to Madison, which is where his then-girlfriend (now wife) was living at the time. L’Etoile was looking for a sous-chef in 2013, and Nagano found a place to call home for the next six and a half years, being named chef de cuisine in 2014.

During his time at L’Etoile, Nagano put his own signature touches on the restaurant’s operations as well as its tasting menu. He admits he’s pretty strict in the kitchen, but he’s also the kind of chef who helps his team wash dishes at the end of the night. Miller says his strong work ethic is contagious. “I admire chef Itaru so much and I’ve loved getting to work with him.”

Nagano often thought it would be nice to finish out his cooking career at L’Etoile. “I feel like I’ve done a lot here,” he says. “I love being a chef, I love cooking and everything about the restaurant industry.”

But he says it’s time to open a new chapter.

“I want to bring fine dining back into casual,” he says. “I want to have really good food done the right way. But simple, very simple.”

Nagano, who will work side-by-side with Kroeger in a small kitchen, describes Fairchild’s menu as chef-driven with a focus on local produce. They want to create strong relationships with farmers and showcase local seasonality.

“We want to take a beet and make it the best beet you’ve ever tasted,” Nagano says. “That only happens if you get good beets from a local producer.”

Nagano and Kroeger have worked on an opening menu that’s still subject to change, but will likely include roasted chicken, cassoulet, a salmon dish and wintertime vegetables. Pasta will definitely be on the menu. “Andy loves making pastas, and that’s what he’s done for the last few years,” Nagano says.

Nagano says they don’t plan to do a ton of remodeling in the space, which is housed in a 100-year-old building. “We don’t want to change it too much,” Nagano says. “We love the interior.”

They plan to open in mid-February or March, which will mark the beginning of the next chapter for Nagano, a talented chef who finally has a restaurant to call his own.

“It’s exciting and gut-wrenching at the same time,” Nagano says.

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