Lon­goven’s long jour­ney

was named one of Bon Ap­pétit’s best new restau­rants in 2016; the restau­rant of­fi­cially opened in June. It was quite the jour­ney.

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - BY KARRI PEIFER

Hailed as one of Amer­ica’s best new restau­rants in 2016, its open­ing last month was years in the mak­ing

It’s hard for Pa­trick Phe­lan — co-owner and co-chef of Lon­goven, which opened June 28 in Scott’s Ad­di­tion — to talk about his new restau­rant with­out tear­ing up.

Phe­lan, 44, and his co-own­ers and co-chefs — his wife, Me­gan Fitzroy Phe­lan, 37, and An­drew Man­ning, 43 — had been look­ing for a home for their restau­rant and pas­sion project, Lon­goven, for the past four years. But in many ways, their jour­ney started 15 years ago, in a tiny, swel­ter­ing kitchen in the Fan Dis­trict, at He­len’s restau­rant. Along the way, there was heart­break; love and mar­riage; set­backs; tragedy and tri­umph; death; a few chil­dren; dozens of jobs; a bil­lion-dol­lar cruise ship; time in two con­ti­nents, three coun­tries, three states; and one epic friend­ship.

Roughly 15 years ago, Phe­lan — an Army brat who ended up in Prince Ge­orge County when his dad was sta­tioned at Fort Lee — was a strug­gling mu­si­cian who needed a job. David Shannon, now chef and owner of L’Opos­sum restau­rant, hired him to work in the kitchen at He­len’s.

“I didn’t even know how to cook a hot dog,” Phe­lan said, but Shannon hired him any­way, and Phe­lan started at the bot­tom.

Shannon soon left and was re­placed as ex­ec­u­tive chef by Man­ning, a Rich­mond na­tive who was com­ing from the now-de­funct VCUarea restau­rant Sweet­wa­ter.

“An­drew was the first chef who took my food and threw it in the trash can,” Phe­lan said. “And that changed ev­ery­thing for me.”

For the next five or so years, Man­ning and Phe­lan worked side by side, two of a three-per­son crew that did ev­ery­thing from morn­ing prep to evening din­ner ser­vice for the Fan eatery.

Then Man­ning had the op­por­tu­nity to move to Italy to cook — in a cas­tle, no less, in Alba — and he took it. Phe­lan went to The Kitchen Ta­ble in Shockoe Bot­tom — un­til Trop­i­cal Storm Gas­ton rav­aged it and dozens of other small busi­nesses in the area in Au­gust 2004.

“An­drew said, ‘Come to Italy,’” Phe­lan said. And so he did. “We for­aged ev­ery­thing” in the hills of the Pied­mont re­gion in North­ern Italy. “It was beau­ti­ful. You took a knife in case you ran into a boar.”

Man­ning had taken well to Italy, eas­ily pick­ing up the lan­guage and find­ing him­self at home root­ing through fields in search of the fresh­est in­gre­di­ents. Man­ning ended up stay­ing for just over a decade, mar­ry­ing an Ital­ian woman and hav­ing a son and daugh­ter. Phe­lan stayed for five months.

“I didn’t learn Ital­ian eas­ily,” he said. “I wanted to go home.”

Phe­lan de­cided he was done with cook­ing and headed to Con­necti­cut to study pub­lic pol­icy at Trin­ity Col­lege.

“It was the only school I could find that would ac­cept me with like a neg­a­tive GPA,” he said jok­ingly. But Phe­lan soon found that he needed money, so he fell back on his trusty skill: cook­ing.

He took a job work­ing at a restau­rant in Hart­ford. There, in the kitchen, he would put his notes in the ticket win­dow so he could study while he worked. It was also there that he met his now-wife, Me­gan, who was a pas­try chef. Phe­lan and Me­gan stayed at the restau­rant for

Culi­nary adventure

Ex­plore Lon­goven’s menu and lay­out on Page D5.

the next three years.

Around 2007, “Me­gan and I found our way to New York. I was do­ing pub­lic pol­icy. Me­gan rolled the dice and got in at Daniel [restau­rant],” he said.

Me­gan would spend the next six years or so work­ing as a pas­try chef in some of the most revered restau­rants and bak­eries in New York, in­clud­ing Daniel, Tor­risi and Sul­li­van Street Bak­ery.

Phe­lan, how­ever, couldn’t find a full­time pub­lic pol­icy job, so found him­self back in kitchens, this time do­ing high­end cater­ing and work­ing with chef Neal Gal­lagher. Phe­lan, who had no pre­vi­ous cater­ing experience, was sud­denly lead­ing a team do­ing the food for movie pre­mieres, Wall Street ex­ec­u­tives and $4 mil­lion bar mitz­vahs.

“I dove in, and it was the best job I ever had,” Phe­lan said. But the hours were bru­tal — for both him and Me­gan.

“We were just get­ting ham­mered. We were work­ing 17-hour days,” Phe­lan said. “We came home and cried ev­ery night.”

But Phe­lan had never lost touch with his old friend Man­ning, who was still in Italy. “An­drew was in the field pick­ing prod­uct,” he said. “I’d send him pic­tures of the ‘Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble’ movie pre­miere and Hamp­tons’ par­ties.”

The two got to talk­ing — as Phe­lan and Me­gan had been do­ing — and think­ing: Maybe the three of them should open their own restau­rant — and maybe they should come home to do it.

“We’d been watch­ing Rich­mond,” Phe­lan said. “Watch­ing Ken­dra [Feather]’s growth [of The Roo­sevelt, Ipanema Cafe, Gar­nett’s Cafe and Laura Lee’s]; Lee [Gre­gory of The Roo­sevelt, South­bound and Alewife] and Brit­tanny An­der­son [at Met­zger Bar and Butch­ery and Bren­ner Pass] . ... We started to talk about ‘what if we moved back to Rich­mond.’”

Phe­lan and Me­gan were also talk­ing about start­ing a fam­ily — some­thing they didn’t think they could af­ford to do in New York. And a move to Rich­mond would put them closer to Phe­lan’s fam­ily, who were now in North­ern Vir­ginia. Man­ning, who now had two young chil­dren, learned that his fa­ther had been di­ag­nosed with can­cer. He wanted his kids to know their grand­fa­ther.

A de­ci­sion was made: In the spring and sum­mer of 2014, the group re­lo­cated to Rich­mond, ready to get to work on Lon­goven, the name they’d al­ready se­lected for their restau­rant.

But life had a sur­prise for them.

Phe­lan and Me­gan stopped in Wash­ing­ton to visit Phe­lan’s sis­ter on their way to Rich­mond, and Me­gan said she wasn’t feel­ing well.

”I thought she was try­ing to get out of mov­ing boxes,” Phe­lan said.

She wasn’t. Me­gan was preg­nant.

“That put things on hold a lit­tle bit,” Phe­lan said. They de­cided to stay with friends just out­side the city for a few months while they looked for a house and worked on Lon­goven’s first pop-up event.

Held at Shockoe Denim in Shockoe Bot­tom on a hot sum­mer night in 2014, “Lon­goven Sum­mer Pop-Up” in­tro­duced Rich­mond to “a pop-up din­ing event that fo­cuses on a unique per­spec­tive on in­gre­di­ent-driven cuisine,” ac­cord­ing to the first flyer for the event. That night, Rich­mond met Lon­goven.

Their hope was to do the pop-ups for a short time while they looked for a brick­sand-mor­tar lo­ca­tion and fund­ing to help flesh out their sav­ings. But they ended up do­ing the pop-ups for more than three years as the chefs worked other jobs and searched for a space, be­cause life, once again, had other plans for them.

Just af­ter that first pop-up, Phe­lan got a call from his old friend and boss Neal Gal­lagher. Gal­lagher was in Europe, over­see­ing the launch of restau­rants on a lux­ury cruise line docked in Ger­many.

“So An­drew and I flew to Ger­many to help,” Phe­lan said. “An­drew got the mas­sive up­stairs restau­rant, and I got three restau­rants down­stairs.”

Man­ning and Phe­lan were learn­ing the new kitchens and staff, and the ship was mak­ing brief treks out to sea as test runs. Cell ser­vice was spotty — even spot­tier when at sea — and it was there that Phe­lan got a call from his brother.

“He said, ‘You have to make endof-life de­ci­sions: It’s your wife or your baby.’” Me­gan, then six months’ preg­nant, had been vis­it­ing her sis­ter-in-law in D.C., when some­thing went wrong.

Most of that day is still a blur, Phe­lan said. “I don’t know how, but Neal Gal­lagher got a bil­lion-dol­lar cruise ship to turn around.”

Phe­lan went to see Man­ning, who had lost his fa­ther a few weeks ear­lier, then he was on a plane.

“I didn’t even rec­og­nize Meg when I walked in the room,” he said. She’d had a seizure, her or­gans were fail­ing and the baby — at 1 pound, 8 ounces — had been air­lifted to an­other hospi­tal.

It was bru­tal and touch-and-go.

Phe­lan was taken to his daugh­ter to feed her with a medicine dropper.

“She was this lit­tle bird,” he said of their daugh­ter, Lil­lian.

Lil­lian will turn 4 in Oc­to­ber.

“The next two years went by in a blur,” Phe­lan said.

They lived at a Ron­ald McDon­ald House for four months. Me­gan slowly re­cov­ered, and the friends whom they’d planned to stay with for a few months ended up host­ing them for two years. Along the way, Man­ning, Me­gan and Phe­lan con­sulted at Rich­mond area restau­rants. Man­ning’s wife, Valentina Gior­dano, also started work­ing in Rich­mond restau­rants; Phe­lan went back to cater­ing.

Fi­nally, it was time to fo­cus on Lon­goven again. They re­sumed the search for a space and re­launched the pop-ups.

“I called Evrim [Dogu at Sub Rosa Bak­ery in Church Hill] and asked if we could do pop-ups,” Phe­lan re­called. “He said, ‘Any Sun­day you want. Just leave the place how you found it.’”

“We had a wood-fired oven and two camp­ing burn­ers,” Phe­lan said, “We were try­ing to do two a month. It just started grow­ing. Ev­ery time, there were more and more new peo­ple.”

The trio soon landed an in­vite to At­lanta Food & Wine, an an­nual fes­ti­val that brings to­gether some of the best chefs in South­ern food and the big­gest names in food pub­lish­ing.

“We started mak­ing all these re­la­tion­ships,” he said. “All of these peo­ple were mind-blow­ing sup­port­ive. Be­tween Rich­mond and the com­mu­nity of South­ern chefs, it was such over­whelm­ing hos­pi­tal­ity and sup­port.”

Then, the trio caught wind, as hap­pens with these things, that food ed­i­tors and writ­ers from Bon Ap­pétit, one of the big­gest pub­li­ca­tions in the food world, would be at­tend­ing one of Lon­goven’s pop-ups at Sub Rosa.

“Things went well that night,” Phe­lan said. “But we could’ve done some things bet­ter. We thought maybe we’d get a blurb [in the mag­a­zine].”

Months later, the is­sue came out. They got more than a blurb: In Au­gust 2016, Bon Ap­pétit named Lon­goven one of “Amer­ica’s best new restau­rants.”

“Restau­rants don’t open overnight. As a re­sult, a lot of very tal­ented chefs can be left itch­ing for a stove to cook on while they search for the per­fect venue, seek out in­vestors, or trudge through red tape. Such is the case for Pa­trick Phe­lan, Me­gan Fitzroy Phe­lan, and An­drew Man­ning,” the mag­a­zine wrote. “Pop-ups are of­ten a risk; in the case of Lon­goven, that gam­ble pays off. We can’t wait to see what’s next.”

“That changed ev­ery­thing,” Phe­lan said. “It was ex­actly what we needed to mo­ti­vate [us] to keep look­ing [for spa­ces].”

But find­ing a space was prov­ing dif­fi­cult.

“We lost 18 spa­ces,” Phe­lan said.

And ev­ery space was a process. “It was months of process. It kept re­set­ting. Our lives were on hold.”

And the Bon Ap­pétit recog­ni­tion had made the pop-ups ex­plode. The wait list for the pop-ups was 200 peo­ple-long. “We started try­ing to do events just for the list,” Phe­lan said, but there were com­plaints from prospec­tive din­ers who thought they were wait­ing too long to get one of a hand­ful of seats at the pop-ups. So they com­plained.

“The pop-ups were get­ting ex­haust­ing. We were putting a lot of pres­sure on our­selves to make it per­fect. They broke even. How do you sup­port your fam­ily break­ing even? We thought, ‘Maybe it’s not time,’” Phe­lan said.

They were done, they de­cided. One cold Fe­bru­ary day last year, six months af­ter the Bon Ap­pétit piece came out, they were done.

But life, of course, had other plans. “That same day, a friend of An­drew’s called him and said, ‘I am stand­ing next to the King of Pops look­ing at Lon­goven.”

And he was. They signed the lease on the for­mer paint store and got to work on — at long last — the new­est chap­ter of their lives: the bricks-and-mor­tar lo­ca­tion of Lon­goven.

Their hope was to do the pop-ups for a short time while they looked for a bricks-and-mor­tar lo­ca­tion. ... But they ended up do­ing the pop-ups for more than three years. ... Life, once again, had other plans for them.

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

Lon­goven restau­rant, a pas­sion project that took nearly 15 years to be­come a re­al­ity, opened in June in the Scott’s Ad­di­tion neigh­bor­hood in Rich­mond.

An­drew Man­ning (from left), Me­gan Fitzroy Phe­lan and Pa­trick Phe­lan, chefs and co-own­ers of Lon­goven, built a fol­low­ing and rep­u­ta­tion for their in­spired food long be­fore they had a bricks-and-mor­tar restau­rant.

KATE THOMP­SON

An­drew Man­ning and Me­gan Fitzroy Phe­lan plate food for a Lon­goven pop-up din­ner at Sub Rosa Bak­ery. They did the pop­u­lar pop-ups while look­ing for a restau­rant space.

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