Madison’s Chef of the Year 2022: Itaru Nagano is the chef and mentor
He’s proven himself in kitchens all over the country. Now at his own restaurant, Fairchild’s Itaru Nagano is still "the hardest worker in the kitchen," and he’s training a new generation of chefs.
It’s a couple hours before dinner service at Fairchild on Monroe Street. The restaurant’s dining room effuses the same elegant coolness it did when it opened on Feb. 29, 2020, two weeks and two days before the state’s Safer at Home order. If not for the plants cradled in hanging baskets — small and freshly potted then, now extensively unfurled with some leaves grazing the floorboards — you might think no time, or takeout-only era, had passed.
Through the swinging door to the kitchen, a quiet group of six prepares for 50 to 80 expected guests. On a Wednesday in pre-COVID-19 times, that number would have probably been closer to 120 guests. They’re down a third cook tonight. The two here — Kyle Kiepert and Autumn Fearing-Kabler — have been with Fairchild for six months each. Kiepert plucks the leafy parts from a container of mixed local greens and tends to a warming pot of water for pasta. Fearing-Kabler places sweet potato chorizo puree and gastrique for a pork dish among the other pint containers in a warm water bath above the stove before turning to chop root vegetables.
Co-chef and co-owner Andrew Kroeger shuffles back and forth from the basement cellar to the bar with bottles of wine tucked in the crook of each elbow.
Itaru Nagano, co-chef and co-owner, is washing dishes.
“Itaru dishwashes probably more than any other chef I’ve ever worked with,” says Jackson Gundlach, former sous chef at Fairchild and current sous chef at The Harvey House.
It’s a task, along with sweeping and mopping, that Nagano could easily assign to someone else, but he does it himself and treats it with the same importance as anything else he takes on.
Another important task: teaching. On this Dec. 1 night, Kroeger pulls Kiepert over to show him how he browns butter while Nagano demonstrates knife skills to Fearing-Kabler, who earnestly watches as Nagano carves diminutive cross sections out of an orange.
Fairchild’s kitchen is many things: It’s a training ground for future top chefs; it’s one of the most sober kitchens in town; and it’s where Nagano — one of Madison’s most talented and respected chefs — is setting the bar higher for himself, his kitchen and all of Madison’s dining scene with every night of service.
“He’s always been the hardest worker in the kitchen,” says Gundlach. “And I think I always wanted to push myself to try to be at his level. That’s what you’ve got to do as a leader in that role — lead by example and show the cooks how hard you can work. He’s always done that.”
From Madison and Back
Nagano’s hands have been in the sink since his first kitchen job as a dishwasher at Wasabi on State Street. Nagano moved with his family from Japan to Madison at the age of 9. The Wasabi job helped him relearn his native language and also set him on a culinary career path that would lead him across the country — from Arizona to Los Angeles to New York to Washington, D.C. — as he sought out the most cutthroat kitchens he could find.
“I just wanted it to be hard,” he says. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
He staged (shadowed without pay for a period of time) for a day at Craft in New York, where he was hired by Executive Chef James Tracey. Nagano loved the environment. “Everything had to be perfect. Everyone was hustling. There were no cutting corners. Everyone’s very focused. I just liked it,” he says. But after the first couple months, he remembers calling his older sister saying he didn’t think he had it in him. “But then I just put my head down,” he says. He eventually became a sous chef.
“The amount of care and effort — of course he became a really great cook,” says Tracey, who is now a partner and executive chef at Isabelle’s Osteria in New York. Tracey says it was Nagano’s work ethic that really put him over the top. “Frankly, at one point I was like, ‘If I had all Itarus in the kitchen, I’d be happy and it’d be a great kitchen.’ ”
Later on, Nagano attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he picked up technical training to go along with his work ethic. He was often forced to take vacations because he was in the kitchen nonstop, but he used the time off to come back to Madison. “I just never felt like I belonged [anywhere] like I did in Madison,” he says.
In 2013 he interviewed at L’Etoile with Executive Chef Tory Miller. Nagano’s girlfriend (now wife) Nancy Gill was living in Madison at the time. Nagano showed up for the interview and made a lasting impression with the small staff, which included Patrick Sierra, who was working front of house. Nagano moves with purpose, Sierra says, and he was covered in tattoos.
“I was hesitant to talk to him at first because he was just so quiet and looked so serious,” Sierra says. Years later, Nagano’s intimidating concentration would be on display when Nagano was supporting Miller in the kitchen during an episode of Iron Chef Showdown, in which they defeated resident celebrity chef Bobby Flay. “Now knowing him, I know it’s because he is such a perfectionist and he cares about his craft.”
Nagano was hired as a sous chef at L’Etoile, joining sous chef Kroeger, who began his first stint there when he was 20. Kroeger went to culinary school straight out of high school, then interned with a James Beard Award-winning chef in Minneapolis (Tim Mckee at Solera). After that he worked at L’Etoile, then moved to California and worked at Michelin-starred restaurants (Bouchon Bistro and Solbar) before coming back to Madison to rejoin the L’Etoile team. Kroeger and Nagano hit it off, and together helped add a tasting menu to Madison’s top fine dining destination in the year and nine months they worked together there. They talked back then about a shared dream — opening a restaurant together. But the timing wasn’t quite right.
Kroeger decided he was ready for more than what Madison could offer and moved to Austin to help open an Italian restaurant. Nagano stayed and became chef de cuisine at L’Etoile in 2014.
Then in 2019, Kroeger, who had just quit his job in Austin, came to Madison for a visit with his girlfriend, Marlee, and stayed with Nagano, who was also about to leave L’Etoile.
Kroeger thought he might open another place in Austin but was open to Madison, too. “I was like, ‘We could move back here if you find something — let me know,’ ” Kroeger recalls telling Nagano.
Two days later, Nagano’s mom drove past a 100-year-old building that had most recently housed Jacs Dining and Tap House. It was up for rent on Monroe Street, where the chefs had always wanted to be.
Nagano texted Kroeger. “Should we check it out?”
Reenter Patrick Sierra. The L’Etoile expat had found a second career in real estate; he sold Nagano the house he’s in today with Gill and her son (Nagano’s stepson), Dmitri Ubach. Sierra was helping sort out the details for the restaurant space, and it became clear Nagano and Kroeger would benefit from a financial backer. Sierra, who missed having a small hand in the restaurant industry, asked if he could invest.
“[Nagano] supported me when I was new in my industry, and he’s a great friend of mine and great person — the best chef I ever worked for. There’s no one I believed in more,” Sierra says.
The three became business partners and opened Fairchild, named after Madison’s first mayor, Jairus C. Fairchild, who was elected in 1856.
“We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant, but also a destination place,” Sierra says. “We wanted to do fine dining on a casual level.” With two seasoned chefs in the kitchen — and a prolonged takeout-only stretch in between opening day and today — Fairchild quickly redefined what a neighborhood restaurant could be in Madison.
Nagano and Kroeger know how to work together without speaking much. “During COVID, we could cook for a week and never talk to each other,” Kroeger says. “We just know what the other person is doing.” There’s a lot of trust between the two, as well as similarities. They balance an easygoing energy with consummate professionalism when hard at work. Kroeger, who oversees Fairchild’s pasta program, has taken on more front-of-house duties in addition to being in the kitchen. He’s also gotten more hands-on with the wine program. Kroeger and Fairchild bartender Matthew Heinen are looking to get sommelier certification. Nowadays Nagano typically runs the line in the kitchen while Kroeger helps expedite and deliver dishes to tables. When each stands on opposite sides of the pass during service, tandem motions show their unspoken chef bond.
“I knew, cooking-wise, having cooked with so many people, that he and I just kind of have the same palate,” Kroeger says. “I know what he would think about something even if he didn’t try it or eat it.”
They don’t cook the same exact things, but the way they cook is fundamentally similar, Kroeger says. They’ll both go to farmers’ markets and strategize menu items based on what produce they can find. And Kroeger favors whole-animal butchery. “The whole menu design is set up so that we can use everything in a variety of ways,” Kroeger says. The inspiration for most of Fairchild’s food starts at the source, and you’ll see local farms celebrated on the menu — it’s not just beef carpaccio, it’s “Cates Farm Beef Carpaccio” (from Cates Family Farm in Spring Green), “Vitruvian Turnips” (from Vitruvian Farms in McFarland) and “Crossroads Farm Carrots” (from Crossroads Community Farm in Cross Plains).
“All the farmers become our friends and it’s really important to us to keep that connection,” Nagano says. The high-quality ingredients speak for themselves in many cases. Nagano remembers a roasted foie gras dish he was serving with Moody Blue cheese ice cream and moonglow pears from Ela Orchard in Rochester, Wisconsin. “At first we were poaching [the pears] in a red wine. Then I was like, ‘OK, we’re just going to eat it raw, because it’s perfect,’ ” Nagano says. “It’s a very simple approach to food … but also kind of complicated at the same time.”
The ingredients may be simple, but when it comes to preparation, Nagano is particular about precision, taste and presentation. “He has a certain aesthetic,” says former Fairchild sous chef Gundlach, who also worked for Nagano for about two years at L’Etoile. “I love his plating style. And he’s a classically trained chef with all these French techniques, but he has a Japanese background, so he uses a lot of ingredients from different cultures. We could be cooking a Mediterranean dish for a red snapper dish one day, but then the next day, the octopus dish could be influenced with kimchi.” He opens up your palate, Gundlach says, and forces you to think about ingredients in new ways. And he has a good eye for what food can look like on the plate. “He’s very artistic in that sense, but never over the top where it’s ridiculous,” Gundlach says.
There’s a particular dish Nagano created while at L’Etoile that Sierra will never forget. Nagano made him try octopus with olives and grapefruit. “He knows I love octopus, and he knows I don’t like olives or grapefruit. He was like, ‘I know, the two things you hate.’ But I remember just absolutely loving that dish even though it had these elements I don’t like. … Itaru impressed me as such a great artist, not even just a chef. It’s art matching these flavors.”
A Stepping Stone
While Nagano’s dishes often look almost too pretty to eat, he tires of them quickly and is his own biggest critic. The menu varies daily, printed just hours before the first customer is seated.
“I can’t look at the menu we opened with,” he says.
This illustrates why he loves the industry so much and doesn’t mind putting in 80-hour weeks. “You’re never perfecting anything,” he says. “There’s always something you don’t know. There’s always a new flavor combination. There’s always different techniques. If I’m not growing and I’m staying stagnant as a person and as a chef, it would bore me.” He’s constantly changing within an industry that’s doing the same. He knows what working in kitchens with “screamers” is like, and admits he used to do a lot of yelling himself. It’s not like that anymore, he says. “I feel like if I’m yelling at somebody, I didn’t communicate properly what I wanted done, and I didn’t train somebody well enough. The problem is my communication that’s not being understood by them.” While Nagano still holds his chefs accountable, he’s described very simply by those who have worked with him: He is kind. “He’s the most generous person I’ve ever met or worked with,” Heinen says.
Another change Nagano is championing: less alcohol and drug abuse, which have long infiltrated the restaurant industry. Nagano says he doesn’t judge anyone who does drink, but going sober has worked for him. He was never a big drinker to begin with, although he admits he did his fair share of partying and getting drinks after work. He’s been sober for a year, and several of his current staff members say Fairchild is the most sober kitchen they’ve worked in, and that’s important to them. It’s another instance where Nagano leads by example.
Since his time at L’Etoile, Nagano has quietly assumed the role of mentor.
“He’s been training these young cooks and chefs that have gone on to work at world-renowned restaurants,” Sierra says.
Adair Canacasco Rubio worked for Nagano as a line cook for a year and a half at L’Etoile starting in 2016. “He basically opened my eyes,” Canacasco Rubio says. “He was like, ‘Hey, you can go work for a three Michelin-starred restaurant. Explore more than just the Madison area.’ ” Nagano offered to rewrite his resume and call whomever he needed to in order to help his line cook get to the next level. “I want people to use me as a stepping stone,” he says. Canacasco Rubio went on to become one of three sous chefs at the Chicago restaurant Alinea, which received the Michelin Guide’s highest rating of three stars.
“I felt like working under Itaru really prepared me to work in that type of environment,” says Canacasco Rubio, who has since taken a chef’s job with Alinea’s sister restaurant, Roister. “He’s someone who challenges himself, but can also challenge someone else.” Nagano encouraged the then-20-year-old chef to come into the kitchen on his days off to work on new dishes. The chef de cuisine’s creativity and leadership inspired Canacasco Rubio. Nagano gave him advice he still carries with him: Anytime you go to work somewhere new, always look at the people you’re going to be working with, because those are the people you’re going to learn from. “There were like six of us at the most [at L’Etoile], and a lot of young people,” Canacasco Rubio says. “We weren’t necessarily the most experienced, but we were all willing to listen and work hard and invest time into the restaurant. We did it because we knew Itaru and the leadership he brought to that restaurant. We were like, ‘I want to be like Itaru.’ ”
Grayson Altenberg is another young chef Nagano gave a boost to, helping him get a job at Lincoln Ristorante in New York City. Altenberg went on to work at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry as well as Shun, a contemporary Japanese restaurant. Nagano also mentored Kurtis Konrad, who is now a sous chef at Alinea. Scott Garthwaite was a sous chef at L’Etoile when Nagano was chef de cuisine. Garthwaite went on to become executive chef at Highlands Detroit in Michigan. Helen Carey, another one of Nagano’s sous chefs at L’Etoile, now works at Boka in Chicago.
When Shaina and Joe Papach from The Harvey House called Nagano asking if he knew of any good sous chefs for their soon-to-open restaurant, Nagano offered his own.
“We told him he should go,” Nagano says. Gundlach, who was the opening sous chef for Fairchild, had gotten as much out of the Fairchild experience as he could have, Nagano says.
“I care about him as a person and I care about him growing as a chef, and I care about the Madison food scene,” Nagano says. “If I keep somebody like that, I’d feel like I was holding them back. I think he can learn a lot at Harvey House.”
Gundlach was about to leave Madison before Nagano approached him with the Fairchild opportunity. Gundlach stayed because he couldn’t pass up the opportunity and wanted to work with Nagano.
“In the cooking profession, it’s really important to have mentors and good leaders,” Gundlach says. “It’s really impactful to young cooks.” But chefs also need to understand that there are millions of restaurants out there, he says. “I think Itaru understands that. All he wants to do is train a cook until he’s taught them as much as he can. I feel like he thinks it’s his responsibility to push that cook onto the next place where he’ll become even better at that point. And he does that all the time.”
Nagano knew The Harvey House had more to offer Gundlach than Fairchild did. “That’s not to say Itaru couldn’t have taught me more,” Gundlach says. “But I think as a cook and as a chef that’s growing up, you have to work in different environments and see other people’s cuisine and other techniques and other ways to go about things.”
And Itaru is still mentoring.
“Right now, he has three cooks he’s really excited about, because he tells me about it all the time,” Gundlach says. “I think it’s just going to be another example of him mentoring another young cook who probably goes on to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant. That’s happening right now.”
It’s happening right now at Fairchild, where Nagano’s genius and dedication as a chef and mentor translate into beautiful and delicious plates of food — served both on Monroe Street from the Fairchild kitchen and across the United States from the kitchens of former cooks he helped turn into chefs.
Andrea Behling is the editor of Madison Magazine.
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