Finding success in the restaurant business is pretty much a 50-50 proposition. And for the half that do make it, there is no guarantee they’ll do more than break even.
Yet, John Foster – well-known Lexington chef, chair of the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus, local foods proponent and KyForward columnist – has decided to take the plunge … again. He and his wife, Nance Everts, who were partners in the successful Harvest restaurant from 2003-2006, will soon open The Sage Rabbit in the same Chevy Chase neighborhood.
“I wanted a second chance,” Foster said, “not because I feel I failed the first time, but because I wanted another shot at doing it the right way.”
For Foster and Everts, doing it right means three things: being open when you say you’ll be open, offering consistency in service and food quality, and delivering a good value. They promise this family-oriented enterprise, located at 438 South Ashland, will do just that.
“We can’t thrive on volume, like chain restaurants can,” Foster said. “So we have to guarantee that someone can go to The Sage Rabbit consistently and have a great meal with great service, and it won’t cost and arm and a leg. It might not even cost an arm.”
More importantly, perhaps, doing it right also means offering food – and drink – with an emphasis on “natural, seasonal, local.”
“That describes me to a T,” said Foster, who has more than 40 years under his chef’s toque, including 10 years at local favorite Dudley’s restaurant.
It was at Dudley’s where Foster first introduced local foods into the menu – and it will be at The Sage Rabbit where he will continue that legacy.
“We’ll break down local lamb, beef and chicken,” he said. “We’ll work with the freshest products, two hours out of the ground. We’ll have a short and simple, ever-changing wine list that will rotate with the seasons. We’ll even use local sorghum as a sweetener.”
In short, you can consider Sage Rabbit’s menu “momentary.”
“We will try to target the ingredients at their best right now,” Foster said. The customer may not like it because we don’t have asparagus in January, when you can’t buy it locally, or when they can’t get tomatoes in December. But they will be more satisfied when we offer them a natural, seasonal, local alternative.”
No asparagus in January for Foster’s asparagus pesto? How about vegetarian chili using root vegetables instead?
“Our menu will be about an 18-item menu, with some specials thrown in,” Foster said. “The specials will really allow us to show some creative range and talent.”
Customers might find a sliced leg of lamb – local, of course – seasoned with tabil spice and paired with house-made cous cous and dried local fruits. The menu will also include the always popular hamburger but will be made with house-ground local beef and named for Foster’s mother, Hoppy. A “secret ingredient” will remain a secret.
Back by popular demand, Everts added, will be a vegetarian entree called chef’s garden. The dish, created during the couple’s Harvest days, changes continuously to include “everything seasonal” on the menu.
“In the summer, we might create chef’s garden using local tomatoes, wild greens, baby squash and hen of the woods mushrooms,” Everts said. “Then it’s paired with a starch, like a crisp polenta cake. Our Harvest customers absolutely loved this dish, so we have to bring it back.”
Local chef Melissa Armstrong will join Foster in the kitchen and will focus on pastries. She, too, plans to place an emphasis on local, seasonal offerings.
“And that doesn’t just mean Derby pie,” Armstrong said. “I love breads, so there will be lots of breads, bread pudding, custards, sauces with seasonal berries … and lots of chocolate. They will be memorable, of course, … but they are not going to leave you feeling heavy.”
While the name Sage Rabbit will no doubt lead some to ask if rabbit is on the menu, Foster is prepared: “The bunny is safe.” So why the name, then?
“It’s a combination of whimsy, it has a natural element … and putting a color in a restaurant name seems to work well. People remember it for some reason,” he explained.
Plus, he added, it’s another way to pay homage to his mother, who was known fondly as Hoppy and under whom he first learned to appreciate the art of cooking.
“My mother was a very approachable, comfortable cook,” Foster said. “She had to be with five kids and preparing dinner every night for seven.”
While Foster will oversee the kitchen, Everts’ focus will be on every aspect of the customer experience, as well as on the business side of things. She will find herself in the kitchen on occasion, as well.
“Nance is a wonderful cook in her own right,” Foster said.
“I want The Sage Rabbit experience to be memorable and very comfortable. We are not a white table cloth restaurant. We are casual and relaxed,” Everts added.
With two chefs – one during the day and one at night – and servers and bartenders, “we’ll be able to provide a living for 12 people, which is also what being local is all about,” Foster said. He also plans to offer externships to students in Sullivan’s culinary program, where he plans to continue teaching.
The restaurant, in the heart of the thriving Chevy Chase district, will be open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, for both lunch and dinner. There’s seating for 104 people inside and 40 outside on the building’s covered porch.
Those who know Foster and Everts, and probably more who don’t, might wonder why they would take that 50-50 gamble in a city Foster said is already saturated with good restaurants and in a business based on “people’s whims.”
But Foster is quick to answer, “Why not?”
Besides, he added, being able to cook and create every day for an audience “never leaves you.”
“I see people having fun in the kitchen, knee-deep in prep, their adrenaline pumping – you can’t replicate that in school. Nothing can replicate 140 covers on a Saturday night. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Courtesy of KyForward