Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent
Top toque (or, more appropriately trucker-hat clad) chef/owner Regan Stachler is staging a coup in Holly Springs with his Little Hen Restaurant a longtime dream of his and wife/co-owner Dawns, now set to celebrate its one-year anniversary in March bringing the pastoral from the plow to the pitchfork to the plate to the palate. And the locals (and locavores) are loving it.
A native of the Sunshine State, Stachler has come a long way from that Easy-Bake Oven, working his way from his childhood kitchen to a Florida dish pit through a sandwich-art stint at Subway to the savvy Manhattan kitchens of some of the nations star chefs.
But even with the epic rise, the vision that led to the destination is squarely rooted in, well, his roots. Despite the decorated vitae carrying the likes of legendary New York Gramercy Tavern his mom remains his greatest culinary muse.
Maybe thats what makes his Hen so genuine. His farm-to-table foray has that honest home-cooked feel. Built on a taste first philosophy just like mom would make its an authentic bucolic bite spot where nature literally means nurture, and where the farm-to-fork yield isnt a bunch of trendy fodder: All of the food, including the produce in those palatable potables, is sourced from farms within a 50-mile radius; Okfuskee farm pigs are butchered in-house twice a month, utilized from nose-to-tail (think hefty grilled chops, sausages, braised shank and trotter cakes); and Valley Love Poulet Rouge chickens become dry rub chicken wings, seared breast and so forth.
Decorated a la modern farmhouse, that home philosophy pervades every aspect of Little Hen, from the backdrop to the bites to the bar. This is a home to be filled with memories of our family, our farmers families and yours, their site proclaims. And the Triangle taste buds are taking note from local diners eager to sup off the ever-evolving menu (which now includes brunch), to The News & Observers Greg Cox, who recently awarded the resto 4.5 hard-earned stars. Looks like that home-style is bangin out a home run.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had an Easy-Bake Oven when I was a little boy, and I often cooked with my mom. I wanted to be a teacher, but I always loved to cook.
How old were you when you knew you would don a toque?
I'm still not sure when I'll ever don a toque; I'm a shorts and trucker hat kinda guy. In all seriousness, probably when I was 5, revived at 16 when I started my actual hands-on experience in the business, and then, again at 27 when I moved to New York to elevate my craft.
First food-related job?
Dishwasher and busboy at a seafood restaurant in Florida and, of course, at some point, I was a "sandwich artist" at Subway.
You've worked from local Florida establishments to Manhattan's top kitchens in Gramercy Tavern and Town restaurants. What kitchen did you leave your heart in?
My heart is firmly planted at the Little Hen it is my vision and reality. At Little Hen, I cook food that I love. My fondest memories are of my time and experience at Gramercy Tavern; I was and continue to be inspired by its food and philosophy.
To whom do you owe your cooking chops?
Little Hen is a big endeavor, a longtime dream of you and your wife. Coming up on your one-year anniversary, what does it feel like to have that dream come to reality? Is it all what you expected?
It still doesn't feel quite real, which is a ridiculous thing to say because running a restaurant, with all of its challenges and growing pains, is incredibly real. I am humbled and grateful each day for the opportunity to put forth my culinary point of view and for the footprint in the community that I am able to make through my food.
Owning and running a business is tough, and it is all that we expected and more. It is also very rewarding to see happy and satisfied diners, and to nurture young talent in the kitchen and work with dedicated staff. We certainly did not expect the attention and support that we received early on and are very grateful for great friends, acquaintances and other professionals we were so fortunate to have connected with.
Your cuisine is modern American with a bucolic spin. Give us a taste of what we would expect.
Modern American cuisine is what America is today; you learn about people and a country through its food. America is a smorgasbord of cultures, and that is, in turn, reflected in the direction we have progressed in, and are still progressing toward, when it comes to food/cuisine/flavor profiles. American chefs of this century are focused on modern twists to old techniques and the unexpected use of flavors one would otherwise associate with a different cuisine. Borderless, unrestrained by boundaries.
At Little Hen, our focus is on flavor first. We look at all the product we receive, and we think: What method of preparation and what flavors will best highlight this product? If its something simple, like salt, pepper and olive oil, so be it. Restraint is part of the process.
Since the fall, we have had a grilled romaine salad on the menu. It is a wedge of romaine (not a new idea of course), and the most recent version is as a Caesar salad. Besides a housemade dressing, which is not anything like your typical creamy Caesar dressing, we add pickled white onions, and it is such a simple item but that component makes the dish.
At Hen, you bring seasonal fresh fare to the table via what you call "true farm-to-table" cooking. That genre has no doubt turned trendy. What classifies yours as "true" and distinguishes you from the rest?
Look, any restaurant that works to some extent on a farm-to-table philosophy is doing a socially responsible thing. If all you do is commit to buying one or two items from a local farmer, that in itself is valuable.
What we do at Little Hen is this. We have built relationships with farmers in Holly Springs and in Wake County, Orange County and also in the Pittsboro area. We tell our farmers to bring us what they have available weekly, and then we write our menu based on what we are able to obtain. The challenge is, in part, quantity. Someone might bring us green beans; well, in two days, they will be gone and we will have to change a side to a dish. One of the farmers might only have a limited number of steaks or chickens; initially, I think it was difficult for guests to understand why we might run out of a certain item on a given night this is the reason. We've since learned to meet this challenge, but it does take finessing.
And again, our focus is on taste taking an ingredient and finding a way to best highlight its quality and flavor. For example, when squash was in season, we had a roasted acorn squash dish, with poached farm egg, couscous, toasted walnuts and drunken raisin vinaigrette.
You butcher Okfuskee pigs in house twice a month. Talk about hog heaven. How does that segue into your dishes?
Nose-to-tail is part of our philosophy also. Diners like to experiment, and, while we do not put too many offal dishes on our menu, we certainly offer a selection: hearts, livers, and marrow. We make blood sausage using pigs blood, braised pig's cheeks and so on.
More commonly, we serve grilled pork chops and pork belly dishes. We grind a lot of the other pork to make meatballs and meat sauce for pasta. We also make spiedini, terrines the list goes on.
Later this winter, we have plans to outsource some of the cuts to make cured meats.
This farm-fresh philosophy plays across your resto into your libations. Tell us about your potable philosophy.
Craig Rudewicz is our very talented bartender. He has the interest, palate and talent to match our farm-to-table philosophy. Craig makes, among other things, a beet bourbon that is a staple on our drink menu. He utilizes honey, herbs and seasonal ingredients, much like the kitchen. In the summer, our special cocktails featured berries from our farmers. This fall, he made some very delicious pumpkin cocktails and also made his own pumpkin soda. We also serve a pickleback, which is a shot of whiskey, followed by a shot of housemade pickling liquid and a salami chaser.
If you were limited to one ingredient?
That's tough. Any part of a pig. I just love working with pork.
Most memorable cooking experience?
All of my time at Gramercy Tavern.
Your biggest kitchen oops?
I worked at a restaurant named Country in NYC (owned by Geoffrey Zakarian). It was the end of my first day, and I had just finished cooking. There was hot oil in the pan, and I accidentally threw it all over my forearm.
Fav eat spots around town?
J. Betskis. John Korzekwinski is a talented chef and a great guy. I recently had the opportunity to eat at Mateo in Durham, and that was an awesome meal. We also love ethnic food (Hong Kong in Durham for dim sum, Biryani House, Korean Garden and Grand Asia Market all in Cary). The truth is, we hardly ever have the time or opportunity to go out to eat.
Any new plans/news for the Little Hen?
We are optimistic about the future; we shall see where the next year takes us. We'll be celebrating our first anniversary in March. Little Hen will always be our "baby" and building a strong foundation and following for it is our primary commitment at the moment.