Last month, Madison chef Daniel Bonanno, of A Pig in a Fur Coat, received a nod for Rising Star Chef of the Year from the James Beard Awards. Though Bonanno did not make the finalist cut, announced this week, it was a coup to be on the list.
Bonanno, 28, is a first-generation American who grew up in Kenosha. His Italian parents always cooked from scratch and preached the value of good food. "Going out wasn't a big thing in my family," says Bonanno, "but food definitely was." After attending Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis, he left for Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence, Italy, where he met his future business partner, Bonnie Arent.
Bonanno moved to Chicago and was sous chef for Tony Montuano at Spiaggia for three years but fell in love with Madison during that time. "I visited [Arent] here, and I loved it; I loved the market." The fact that many Chicago chefs source their food from Wisconsin made Madison seem like a natural spot to open a restaurant. Together, he and Arent opened A Pig In A Fur Coat in May of 2012. "Our goal was to cook really good food in a really casual setting," says Bonanno. "Our goal wasn't to have the best cuisine or be the best restaurant or best chef, but we wanted to have fun and be respected in the community."
A Pig in a Fur Coat isn't an Italian restaurant, but features flavors from Italy, Spain and France. "I look at everyone's menus and see what they're not doing," says Bonanno.
He likes Madison's small size; it lets him know his customers. "If they want something, you have to give it to them, but you have to put your own spin on it."
Small plates let diners be adventurous, says Bonanno. "They can try octopus or venison short ribs without having to spend $25."
Patrons often scratch their heads about the name A Pig In A Fur Coat. Bonanno says it started as just a funny name, but developed a deeper meaning. "We knew we wanted to use 'pig'. And we're doing the same food as fine dining restaurants, but without the fur coat. So I don't want to say I'm mocking fine dining restaurants, but I'm having fun with it."
The initial phrase, though, came from a trip Arent took to Kazakhstan. "They had a dish called 'Fish In A Fur Coat.' I thought it was a funny name. For something that wasn't pretty, you make it elegant."
The nomination, Bonanno acknowledges, does alter his profile, but he wants to stay focused. "I never really thought about the James Beard Award. Not before I was 30. But I don't want to change because of the nomination. I still have my goals I set before it, and I want to stick with it."