Chef Aaron Manter has a cabinet full of magical powders. On Tuesdays his Greenville restaurant, The Owl, is closed to customers, but he and his staff experiment with thermo-irreversible gelling agent, emulsifiers, thickeners, meat glue that bonds proteins together, and flavor transformers.
“Everything is an ingredient. Nothing is sacred,” he says.
Originally from South Florida, Manter and his wife, Justi, married and moved to Greenville six years ago. They opened the doors to their first restaurant, at 728 Wade Hampton Blvd., a little over two months ago. He says the goal is to heighten people’s expectations of what can be done inexpensively.
“I think that food should be more egalitarian than elitist. We call the tagline for what we do ‘fine dining for the working class.’ I think most fine dining places are hateful in their pricing and their exclusivity.”
The small half-sheet menu currently offers main dishes of lamb, duck, quail and tofu for less than $20. A six-course chef’s tasting is available for $35, and there are daily specials.
“None of us went to culinary school,” Manter says of his staff of six. “I actually discourage people from going to culinary school. If you can’t learn any other way, then by all means go to culinary school. It’s like forty grand. Just work for a year. People think when they get out, they get a chef job. No! You start on salads, same way that everyone else starts. I’d rather hire a person’s character than a guy out of culinary school.”
Manter ran a rather uncouth Craigslist employment advertisement and was inundated with 300 applications. Chef de Cuisine Joey Fazio came from Main Street’s Stellar Wine Bar.
“Joey knows more classic techniques, whereas Aaron is more avant-garde,” said Justi Manter, who handles the business side of restaurant and runs tech support for the paperless PosLavu iPad/iPhone point-of-sale system the restaurant uses. “They blend really well.”
Justi “makes sure the wheels don’t fall off the carriage,” says her husband.
Bartender Kirk Ingram came from the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. “We knew he was going to be the guy for the job two minutes into the conversation,’ Manter said. “He was making his own bitters at home and was interested in bartending as a craft.”
From the beginning, the couple decided to run a fiscally responsible restaurant.
“I grew up a skate-punk kid. I’m just not a fine-dining kind of dude,” Manter said. “We decided to do something different without being fake. We are trying to be ethical and sustainable as much as we can without being jerks.”
“I try to make seven out of 10 good decisions,” he said in reference to the menu. “The duck comes from Ashley Farms in North Carolina. The quail is from Manchester Farms in Columbia. The lamb? I don’t know. I know it’s domestic. Seven out of 10. We just got two whole animals delivered from Greenbrier Farms. We try to buy from them when we can, but we are also a fledgling restaurant. It is foolish to start with the end goal instead of making your way there.”
Manter frequents Swamp Rabbit Caf?? and Grocery and buys in-season produce from local farmers when he can. “The whole point is to try to elevate everyone and for everyone to do a little bit better. You don’t have to say ‘I’m only going to eat organic, and I’m only going to shop at places that only sell local foods and buy from local farmers.’ That’s a great thing to think, but that’s the endgame.”
He does not let fiscal responsibility get in the way of good food, though.
“We had a case of catfish come in one weekend. On Tuesday, my staff came to me and asked if they should give it a rinse. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we are not fish washers!’ We threw a couple hundred dollars of catfish out. Most restaurants would have rinsed off the decomposition. Is the fish edible product? Yes it is. Is it the best product? That’s not what we want to represent us. It wouldn’t make me feel good when I’m going to bed at night that I sold you some sketchy product. If it costs me for my staff to feel good about what they are putting out and to know they are making the right decision, then I’ll take that hit every single day.
“Look, I’m not some guy who is perfect. Last night I was eating a frozen pizza. But with my business, I want what we do to be legit. I want people to know what they are putting into their bodies when they eat here.”
The nontraditional menu format, no reservations policy, and limited seating might put some people off, but Manter stands by his concept.
“It’s me saying, ‘Guys, do a better job.’ It’s not just better for us, it’s better for everyone if we can raise the bar of what people can expect out of a restaurant.”