The Hog Wild World of Dan Fox

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 officially opened to the public September 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.

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.

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.”

Training at a world-class restaurant set the tone for the rest of his career. Fox still looks back on the experience with a bit of awe. For any aspiring chef, landing that gig is an impressive feat. For a twenty-year-old without much prior kitchen experience, it’s quite remarkable—and indicative of the young Fox’s promise.

In describing Heritage Tavern, Fox often calls it a restaurant of global flavors. His time in Europe is to blame. After Everest, Fox journeyed abroad as a stage—a cook’s version of an unpaid intern, pronounced stahzje—in a typical move for an aspiring chef with his sights set on the world of fine dining. His first choice was  Spain (“Every other young chef [at the time] was going to Spain,” he says), but when he couldn’t get his foot in the door anywhere, he found himself at a restaurant in Provence, France. While the immersion into a new culture and the immediate access to olive groves were great, Fox says his memories of France aren’t all positive. He was mugged in Marseille and geographically isolated from the nearest town. When he met someone in Provence whose mother had a restaurant in Austria, near Salzburg, Fox took it as an opportunity for his next adventure.

He began working long, intense shifts side by side with teenage Austrian apprentices, learning what it meant to use local foods— not because it’s sustainable or ethical or pumps money into the local economy, but because the bordering Alps meant there were no other options. “It’s just what they did,” Fox says. “I literally had to go to a nearby stream to catch the trout I would cook and hit it over the head.”

The local-food approach had an impact on Fox, who returned to Chicago after his several months abroad grateful but exhausted from the one-hundred-ten-hour workweeks he was clocking in Austria. So burnt out, in fact, that he passed up the chance to stage at the Fat Duck, a prestigious French restaurant in London often considered one of the finest eateries in the world. “Which is too bad, I probably should have done that,” Fox says.

Even without the Fat Duck padding his resume, Fox found work back in Chicago at Spring, a now-defunct joint run by chef Shawn McClain in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood. It was at Spring that Fox discovered the wonders of combining traditional French food with modern interpretations, often by using Japanese, Korean or Thai ingredients. It’s an unexpected cohesion that Fox would later embrace in his menus at the Madison Club and even more so now at Heritage Tavern.

“One thing I like about Japanese cuisine is it’s very ingredient focused, and French cuisine is very technique-driven,” Fox says. “If you can master both, you’re pretty freakin’ good.”

While these Asian flavors can meld with French techniques, Fox is careful not to blend the two just because he can. “I think fusion, that whole revolution of food a while back, was very confusing. People would do shit just to try it. The whole wasabi mashed potato phase …” he trails off with a slightly furrowed brow.

But McClain’s Spring had the right East-West balance, and just as the food there added zest to Fox’s repertoire, so too did the atmosphere. 

“Everest was very militant … you just kind of kept your head down … the only thing you said was ‘Oui, chef’ or ‘No, chef.'” France and Austria weren’t much different. But at Spring, the cooks listened to heavy metal in the kitchen and tossed a Frisbee out in the alley on break. The food was still excellent, Fox makes that clear, but the approach was more relaxed with a bit of punk rock thrown in for good measure.

“It was hard for me to let go of [the formal side] and go over to the head-banging side,” he says. “It didn’t take me long, though.”

Elaborate as this broken down lobster and rabbit dish is, it contains surprisingly few ingredients, thanks to Fox’s preferred technique of using whole animals. Market vegetables and fingerling potatoes round out the unique offering. 

After a couple years at Spring, Fox got married and moved up to Madison, landing here in 2005. He applied to the usual suspects: Harvest, L’Etoile, the Concourse, the Edgewater Hotel and the Madison Club. When the latter offered him the role of lead line cook, Fox admits he did not foresee the success he would eventually have there, but it weighed in as his best option in terms of upward mobility and creative autonomy.

His marriage didn’t last, but his sense of place in Madison did. He stayed on at the Madison Club, landing the promotion to executive chef when his predecessor left less than a year after Fox started. He was just twenty-six years old.

“I think we did a lot of great work at the Madison Club. I was very happy with a lot of things that came out of the creative side of different dishes,” Fox says.

While at the club, Fox’s passion for scratch cooking and local sourcing grew. He and his chef de cuisine Jason Veal—who now assists Fox with farming and running both Heritage Tavern and his side ventures—created a bread baking and charcuterie program, and elevated the club’s status as a culinary destination.

“We became known for our excellent and inventive food,” says Mary Gaffney-Ward, the general manager of the Madison Club who worked with Fox throughout his tenure there. “Our dining usage definitely increased. We became more involved with the community. Overall, it just really helped with the reputation of the club. His food quality was excellent. He was good with people; the members really enjoyed him.”

The Madison Club was also Fox’s first connection to many of the farmers and producers that would later play a large role in his own foray into agriculture. Fox and Veal teamed up with a few other partners in 2009 to raise livestock and grow produce on Fountain Prairie Farm in Fall River, near Columbus, specifically for the Madison Club. It was around that time, too, that Fox took an interest in raising his own heritage pigs. In addition to the Priskes of Fountain Prairie, Fox teamed up with Micah Nichols of Cress Springs farm in Blue Mounds, and it was on those two farms that Fox really started to dig pork.

As his time at the Madison Club wore on, Fox realized that he wanted more freedom to pursue his other interests, namely the heritage pig farming and opening his own place where he could be a bit more experimental. The members-only nature of the club meant that part of the gig was to prepare dishes that had a broader appeal.

“But I have to say they really did give me a lot of creative freedom, more than I ever expected.”

So Fox decided to make his move last November. His departure was understood, even expected, by his co-workers, including Gaffney-Ward. “I knew he wouldn’t stay there forever. I could tell he would want to open his own place,” she says.

But not before putting his mark on the club.

“The club changed quite a bit under his influence,” says Andrew Wilson, who took over as executive chef after Fox left. “He really did a lot for this place—making it more dynamic, more modern.”

With more time to dedicate elsewhere, Fox’s heritage pig farming became an even greater presence in his life. In the earlier half of 2013, he was spending a few hours just about every day on one of the three farms where he keeps his pigs. His pig-rearing had already turned into a business of its own, and he now sells whole animals to Osteria Papavero, a Pig in a Fur Coat, Brasserie V, the Madison Club, Milwaukee’s Buckley’s and Wolf Peach and Chicago’s Sixteen, among others.

But not many people understood the heritage breed thing, especially not back in 2009 when he started. So Fox did what he does best—he got creative, putting on old-school, Wisconsin-style meat raffles and launching his hallmark event, SloPig, in 2011. 

“SloPig started out of pig sales and finding a way to educate people on the pig side of what I do, as far as the heritage breeds and the fat content,” Fox explains. The event has become one of the hottest culinary events of the year, held in both Madison and Milwaukee and bringing together farmers, chefs and foodies from across the Midwest in celebration of heritage pork and other artisan food and drink.

Steadily, Fox’s profile began to rise. Magazine and newspaper articles followed. And that’s how Carl Blake entered the picture.

Blake is an Iowa farmer who claims to have created the tastiest heritage breed pig out there: the Iowa Swabian Hall. The original Swabian Hall dates back to nineteenth century Germany, but it’s so rare these days that no German farmer would sell one to Blake. So he bred his own rendition by crossing an Ossabaw with a Chinese breed called a Meishan, adding “Iowa” to the name. Blake read about Fox’s heritage pig farming endeavors in and offered Fox one of his Iowa Swabian Halls at no charge. A typical price would have been close to $300, Fox says.

“He believed in it that much and he really wanted us to try it,” says Fox. He took Blake up on the offer and started buying more pigs from him.

Maybe you’ve seen Blake. He’s hard to miss—a big guy always sporting signature denim overalls. He has been the subject of a New York Times article and has made appearances on the Colbert Report and, this past February, Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern. Fox appeared alongside Blake in the Bizarre Foods episode. He prepared an Iowa Swabian Halls for Zimmern, which the host dubbed “a magical pig species” and “one of the truly great, great pieces of pork you’ll ever eat.”

And it’s gotten even better. Since then, Fox has pinpointed a proper diet of pasture, rye, barley, wheat, spent grain from Death’s Door Distillery and Karben4 Brewing and expired dairy from Sassy Cow Creamery, a blend that ups the fat content for the rich flavor heritage breeds are known for. His stock now includes nearly ten different breeds and cross-breeds. He’s learned what a pregnant pig looks like and how to build a proper fence. He strives to keep a rotation of twenty pigs per acre and will rotate them to new pasture every month. Fox might be a chef from the Chicago suburbs, but he’s determined to become every bit as much a farmer.

“He’s definitely more of a farmer today than he was a couple years ago,” says Andy Fisher, who raises pigs with Fox on his family’s Lonely Oak Farm in Rio, Wisconsin. “You can go to the farmers’ market and meet the farmer, but to actually get your hands dirty and be part of the whole process—there’s a lot more risk. I’ve never seen anybody jump over barbed-wire fences as much as [Fox] has to stop a pig or catch one if it’s running away.”

Back at Heritage Tavern, all of Fox’s experiences come to a head. He wants this to be some of the best food you can get in Madison, but he doesn’t want it to feel intimidating.

“My approach to food is very much the way that I want to eat it: sitting down. Whether it’s just radishes with butter and sea salt or something really composed,” Fox says. “We definitely want people to feel like they’re going out for dinner, but we want the food to be very inviting, very approachable.”

Bar manager Grant Hurless echoes Fox’s sentiment when it comes to the drinks. Although the restaurant has what he and Fox call an aggressive bar program—heavily influenced by farmers’ market offerings and what’s on the menu any given night—Hurless maintains that a bar with locally sourced ingredients and house-made tonics can avoid pretention with the right balance and attitude. That’s why you’ll see Miller High Life on tap next to a kegged artisanal cocktail. “It’s not supposed to be serious,” Hurless says. “It’s supposed to be fun.” 

Once the place opens and has its kinks worked out, and any new restaurant will almost certainly have a few, Fox plans to introduce weekend brunch service, then lunch. But what he’s really looking forward to are imaginative late-night options, including a menu tailored to industry folks: “Like fried lamb testicles and shit like that that’s kind of off the wall,” he says with a grin.

It’s that kind of off-the-cuff style that Fox has been craving all these years, and Heritage Tavern is his chance to do it.