At a restaurant known for fresh, local ingredients, January is the ultimate test for the chef. "Nothing's growing outside right now," laments Derek Rowe, who later this month will take over as executive chef at Harvest, the fine-dining eatery at 21 N. Pinckney St. on the Capitol Square.
But Rowe will make the best of the off-season. Certainly he has the experience. Till recently he cooked at New York restaurants of celebrity chef Mario Batali, first at Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, then at Del Posto. Before that Rowe, who grew up in Sun Prairie, had a stint in Chicago as sous chef at Vong's Thai Kitchen.
Harvest proprietor Tami Lax met Rowe at nearby L'Etoile, where they both worked just over eight years ago. "We had a nationwide search with over 50 applicants," says Lax of the hiring process.
The menu at Harvest will retain its American-French character, but Rowe will add Asian and Italian accents, including freshly made pastas. He'll be making the cuisine "not necessarily more rustic, but more simple, in a good way," he says. "We'll use fewer ingredients, and let the ingredients really shine."
"I'm looking at this as the basis for a rebirth at Harvest," says Lax. The changes, she notes, are "going to give us entrees on the menu that are a little more price-friendly. People view us as a special-occasion restaurant. I'm trying to break that." The first all-new menu under Rowe's guidance should come in February.
Rowe arrives as part of a shakeup in the downtown dining scene. Harvest's current executive chef, Justin Carlisle, is departing to join Shinji Muramoto, the celebrated proprietor of Restaurant Muramoto, 106 King St., and Sushi Muramoto, 546 N. Midvale Blvd.
Carlisle and Lax are parting ways amicably. "No, I don't hate Harvest," Carlisle says drolly. "There's nothing that's made me want to leave the place. But for me professionally, I'm still young, and I need to move on."
In his new position Carlisle plans to focus as much on business as on cuisine, with an eye to eventually opening a restaurant of his own.
"It's a great move for both of us," says Lax. "I'm getting this great new chef. Restaurants need to re-create themselves every few years."
With former Firefly chef Bee Khang, Carlisle will run the kitchen at a new restaurant Muramoto is planning with Cocoliquot co-founder Brian Haltinner. It opens this spring at 225 King St., currently the site of Cocoliquot, which is slated to close next month.
Carlisle and Khang also will work at a new restaurant Muramoto is planning for his existing King Street storefront, which will feature yakitori, the skewers of marinated meat that are popular as a cheap treat in Japan.
Just around the corner from Harvest is the Square's newest food spot: Sucré, a bakery and cafe opened by Punky Egan, a longtime baking instructor at Madison Area Technical College. (She prefers to call her place a patisserie.)
Sucré opened Jan. 5 at 20 W. Mifflin St. Until recently that was a grim McDonald's, but now it is a bright, cheerful space, with white booths, luminescent orange chairs and a gleaming floor of Wisconsin sugar maple.
"That McDonald's was something that was not in downtown Madison's best interest," Egan says. "The transformation is complete from McDonald's to something that is just the exact opposite."
Opposite how? For one thing, instead of those weird McDonald's fruit pies, there is a variety of scrumptious-looking baked goods, from scones and gougères to éclairs and elaborate tortes and cakes. There also is lunch in the form of cheese and meat sandwiches on foccacia, and for evenings - the place is open late - there is table service and liquor.
"It's a beautiful space that is in tune with the ambience of downtown Madison," says Egan.
Want to eat eggs and be kind to nearby farmers at the same time? Check out the winter farmers' market and brunch being held Saturday, Jan. 19, at Madison Christian Community, 7118 Old Sauk Rd. The market will feature eight vendors selling locally produced meats, jellies and hoop-house spinach, and the brunch will be made of ingredients provided by the farmers.
The event is one in a series of winter farmers' markets organized by Churches' Center for Land and People, a Janesville group that promotes the health of rural Midwestern communities. "The purpose is to get churches involved in agriculture, land and people - in stewardship of the land," says Madison Christian Community member Roger Williams, who is coordinating the market and brunch.
Farmers at Saturday's event will donate 10% of their proceeds to the churches' Harvest of Hope Fund, a 22-year-old endeavor that benefits farmers going through tough times. "In a sense, it's farmers helping farmers," says Williams.
Madison Christian Community is a partnership of Lutheran and United Church of Christ parishioners, and it is one of several dozen congregations in the region holding winter markets under the auspices of the Churches' Center. Like Madison Christian Community, most belong to progressive, mainline denominations: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal.
Williams praises locally produced food not only for the usual reasons - lower shipping costs, fewer product-safety concerns - but also because, he suggests, eating it is good for the soul.
"It helps people understand that spirituality has a link to the land, and the resources taken out of the land," he says. "So much of the Bible is infused with stewardship of resources."
For more information and brunch tickets, call Williams at 836-4633. Tickets are priced at $6 for adults, $3 for kids age 3-10, and free for kids under 3.