Longoven Restaurant

Longoven is a trio of passionate chefs who have built a national reputation for imaginative food.

Cooking—like painting, writing, bricklaying or glassblowing—is a hardscrabble trade. Banging out reliably good food is a steady way to pay the bills, but for some it’s also a calling, an art form. Those chefs who are drawn to the kitchen are the ones who leap at the chance to drive all day to stand in the hot sun and cook at a food festival on their only day off, or to cater a private dinner for a potential restaurant investor. Or, to pull together a pop-up. 

Patrick Phelan, his wife Megan Fitzroy Phelan, and Andrew Manning hold down day jobs consulting and supporting various food operations. But in their off hours, the trio has been running a standout restaurant pop-up dinner series called Longoven.

Last year, Longoven was named one of the country’s top 50 restaurants by Bon Appétit—the only eatery on the list without a permanent space or schedule. Their most recent pop-up at Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond sold out immediately on EventBrite, with zero publicity. Without even opening an actual location, Manning and the Phelans have established a national reputation with their stunningly creative food featuring well-developed, bright flavors. 

Megan, 36, is a gifted pastry chef whose skills include drawing detailed musical instruments with cocoa powder on fondant discs (for a party for the conductor of the London Philharmonic). You may have seen her smiling on Virginia This Morning, whipping up a zabaione or cutting butter into pastry crust for apple-fennel tarts. 

Patrick, 36, and Andrew, 43, both chefs, met about 15 years ago in the kitchen at Helen’s Restaurant in Richmond. Patrick was a musician who dabbled in cooking. Andrew was already a seasoned pro, having worked in commercial kitchens from age 14. “There are some people you meet and you realize they’ll be a friend for life,” Andrew says. And so it was, that even when Andrew left to cook in Italy, the two stayed in touch. 

After eight years cooking and playing music in New York, Patrick and Megan returned home to Richmond in 2014. The couple had met in Connecticut while he was at Trinity College studying public policy and human rights and she was learning pastry work. (Megan would later go on to cook for famed French chef Daniel Boulud.) They found jobs in Richmond, reconnected with Andrew, who had returned from Italy, and started dreaming of something bigger. 

“It hasn’t been easy,” says Patrick. “Cooking is like any other creative form, and it’s exhausting. You’re always having these internal battles with yourself about what you want to create and do. That’s been hard to sustain.” 

Longoven didn’t set out to be a pop-up, but finding the right permanent space has been a challenge. During the search, pop-ups have kept the dream alive, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Pulling one off is a complex dance of advance prep—transporting food, training staff and learning a newkitchen—all on a day off. 

At the same time, pop-ups are a food playground, a great place for chefs to try out new concepts or to cook dishes they aren’t able to at their regular job. It’s an opportunity for emerging chefs to test the waters before opening a restaurant. When you dine at a pop-up, you know the food is coming from the heart. And that’s why chefs go to all the trouble they do.

“It’s hard on everybody,” Andrew says. “You’re working 60-70 hours a week, and on your day off you’re doing a pop-up. Sometimes I’ll go a week when the only time I see my kids is when I wake them up and take them to school. But that’s being a chef. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.” 

For a Sunday night pop-up, the trio starts working Friday evening, prepping late into the night. They work a full Saturday shift at their day jobs, and reconvene at dinnertime to continue preparation for the next evening’s meal. 

On Sunday morning they haul the food, cooking dishes, linens, plates, glasses and flatware to, for example, Sub Rosa. There, they set up for more prep and cooking in the wood oven and a few traveling burners, while the staff arrives to set the tables and serve. The team of about 10 regular servers and cooks sends out six or more courses with paired wines, then spends about three hours cleaning up and loading everything to take back home. 

Pop-up guests pay $75-$85 each for advanced tickets, and are seated in festive groups at shared tables covered with white tablecloths. In the 36-seat space at Sub Rosa, the atmosphere for Longoven’s May pop-up was bright with anticipation. The guests, a mix of well-heeled restaurant regulars and attractive young hipsters, took their seats and introduced themselves over flutes of bubbly.

The menu, listing simple dishes like “clam, lettuce, ramps, tarragon,” undersold the tender razor clam slices floating in a delicate spring green broth, punctuated with tiny pink flowers. The surprising “asparagus, egg, morel” dish featured whole morel mushrooms but nary an asparagus spear in sight. Then the tasty white cubes turned out to be diced white asparagus. 

The entire meal was exceptional, in a city full of outstanding eateries. But the chefs think it can be improved. 

“To be honest, so much of our food can be a million times better in our own space,” Andrew says. “The food can’t be perfect until you are in your own kitchen.” He wants storage space, and room to ferment, age and pickle. And a regular service for fine-tuning dishes.  

For the past two years, the Longoven team has been searching for its own kitchen. The trio wanted to be in the type of intimate neighborhood they were used to in New York and Italy. Although they’ve gotten pretty far along with a handful of spaces, each deal eventually fell through for reasons of size, parking or location. “It’s a balance of compromises,” Patrick says. 

Without a regular service, Longoven’s chefs can’t refine their dishes. Every plate is a daring one-off. “You put a dish together, and sometimes it can be the very first time that dish has ever been plated and tasted,” Patrick says. “We may do a dish that’s good, and know that it could have been really, really good.” 

Working full-time, managing young families, running regular pop-ups and constantly looking for space is grueling, says Patrick. “We are coming to this later in life. There have been plenty of moments where it’s been like, ‘Let’s throw in the towel on this.’” 

But pop-ups keep pulling them back to the stove. In fact, Longoven’s chefs half-considered renting commercial food prep space and just focusing on regular pop-ups. After all, there are some advantages. 

“Because you are pre-selling the tickets, you can break the rules,” Patrick says. “You can kind of do whatever you want. With a restaurant, it’s hard to stay spontaneous and creative with large numbers and staff.” 

Established restaurants tend to favor continuity and consistency—guests don’t want surprises every night. That predictability can quash the kind of high-pressure creativity that Longoven’s chefs thrive on.  

“Part of what’s made Longoven what it is, is the duress around it,” Patrick says. “We are crunch people. We perform when the cards are down, we like the pressure and get more energized.” 

But Longoven wasn’t dreamt up to exist in other restaurant’s spaces. It needs a home space that can be infused with its own personality. And combining the adventurous spirit of a pop-up with the stability of a permanent location could be the best of both worlds. 

“That’s what keeps me going,” Andrew says. “It’s not about getting rich and making a ton of money. It’s being able to walk into your own kitchen and do what you want to do and be happy and have fun.” LongovenRVA.com 

Update: Longoven has open a permanent space 2939 W. Clay Street in Richmond. This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.

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