In the lookbook for our current collection of Short Run, Special Service, we feature Owen Lane — chef and co-owner of The Magpie. After years of experience and holding nearly every back-of-house position imaginable, Owen opened The Magpie, a neighborhood gastropub, with his wife Tiffany just shy of two years ago. After spending the day with a handful of our favorite Richmond chefs for the lookbook photoshoot, we caught up with Owen to talk about the many aspects of working as a chef and the elements that go into creating the perfect meal.
How would you describe the cuisine of The Magpie?
I like to use influences of Olde English pub food and plays on classics – taking dishes from the Olde English era and making them modern. Since this is burger week in Richmond, I had a funny idea to do a burger tartare with a brioche crisp, tomato powder and pickles. I try to keep things fun. Obviously we are serious and passionate about what we do, but you have to have some fun with it. When it comes to my cooking, I always think about what my grandfather used to say, “If you don’t love what you are doing, then why are you doing it?”
You’re one of the few restaurants located in the Carver neighborhood; what was your decision in choosing this location?
We looked at a lot of spaces– We came across this place and we thought long and hard about it. It’s small, but we thought that since this would be our first venture, it would be better to start small. We wanted to make sure we could control everything and that your experience from when you walk into the door to when you leave is exactly how we want it to be. We only have 10 tables and a small bar, but I think that is part of the charm.
Now that it’s summer time, what are your favorite ingredients to cook with?
We will have a brand new menu July 9th. For my summer menus I like to keep things raw. I don’t want to do a lot of cooking to things because everything is fresh and from 50-100 miles away. Many of the proteins will have salads with them. We just got some green beans in. We’ll have all kinds of tomatoes coming in soon with corn and basil. There’s a lot of basil in the summer from Thai, opal, to regular sweet basil. I’m looking forward to this.
When it comes to creating a new menu, what factors do you take into account? How do you achieve harmony and balance on the plate?
It’s done seasonally, taking availability of certain ingredients into consideration. When it is winter, we eat heavier food since it is cold out. Coming into spring, everything blooms and we start eating lighter – a lot of seafood comes into play during that time of year. During the summers I always do a lot of smoked and grilled items. It’s all about the season.
Is there one cooking technique that everyone should know to be able to hold his or her own in the kitchen?
Everyone should know how to sauté. Everyone should know how to sweat out onions, garlic and vegetables. If you can properly sauté, you can pretty much make a meal for two people in one pan.
If you weren’t a chef or restaurant owner, what would you be doing?
Maybe I would own a farm seeing that my grandparents owned a small beef cattle farm in Tennessee. Every year we would go there for 2-3 weeks out of the summer. My brother and I would get excited to go to the farm, but eventually we realized that our grandparents were putting us to work for about half of time that we were there. I would probably be doing something like that.
My grandmother had this amazing garden and everything she cooked came out of it. My grandpa had a giant freezer and I remember he would flip it open and pick out the cut of beef that we would be eating that night. This has definitely helped get me to where I am today, how I like to cook, and how I think things should be.
How do you view the Richmond restaurant scene?
I’ve been here for a little over 10 years and I would say that in the last three years, the Richmond restaurant scene and community is the strongest it has ever been. There are great places to eat right now and it’s pretty exciting to see the city starting to gain notoriety. It’s taken a little bit of time, but Richmond is finally getting there.
Monday night I was hanging out in a restaurant with six other chefs I would consider the best chefs in Richmond. I think the food in itself has taken a huge step. Five years ago there wasn’t much going on. Lemaire has always been a staple – Walter is an amazing chef. Dale at Acacia is one of the pavers of Richmond dining. Jason has always been here and has done great things for the city with Comfort and Pasture. Now there’s Lee at the Roosevelt, Joe over at Heritage, Randy down at Julep’s, Tim over at Secco and Caleb and Phillip over at Dutch and Co.
It is seems as if there’s a sense of community amongst you all.
We’re all friends and everyone genuinely wants to see one another succeed. Earlier in my career, I never thought I would be part of all of these great chefs, and now we’re doing charity dinners together. We did a Hurricane Sandy relief dinner. We did a leukemia dinner and raised almost $8,000. It’s incredible to be apart of that and give back in some way when 15 years ago you were just a line cook waiting to finish your shift and get a beer with the guys.
Where do you see The Magpie going in the future?
Keeping people in the seats and smiling faces leaving the door. All of those smiling faces will keep us going. Hopefully The Magpie will be around for a long time — I would love to see bigger and better things for The Magpie always. I would love to see my staff grow, and as strange as it sounds, I can’t wait to see my staff here move on. You never want to see people move on, but it would be amazing to watch my staff become chefs and possibly have their own place down the road.
The Magpie is located at 1301 West Leigh Street, Richmond, Virginia. Visit their website and keep up with them on Facebook for more information.