Mandolin’s Sean Fowler ’95 Talks Food, Culture and Community

Mandolin’s Sean Fowler ’95 Talks Food, Culture and Community
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Julie Dengler

The chef-owner of the beloved Raleigh restaurant reflects on how he transformed his passion for good food into sustained success through creativity, hard work and community.

Hungry diners looking for a restaurant near downtown Raleigh will find Sean Fowler ’95’s restaurant, Mandolin, described in Google search results as “elevated modern American cuisine with a Southern slant, served in a refined bistro space.”

But for Fowler and the community he’s created around his farm-to-table restaurant, it’s much more than that. It’s a reflection of home.

The restaurant, located on the corner of Oberlin and Fairview avenues in the Hayes-Barton neighborhood, is just down the road from Fowler’s childhood home and farm. The building used to house Johnson’s Pharmacy, whose lunch counter was a favorite place for an after-school snack. When Fowler returned with his wife, Lizzie, to open a restaurant and raise a family, the building — rich with memories and sentiment — reconnected him to Raleigh in multiple ways.

Here, Fowler reflects on his culinary career, the success of Mandolin and why Ravenscroft has become an important part of his return to his roots.

Mandolin’s “refined bistro space” is tied to Fowler’s childhood memories of sitting at the lunch counter of the building’s previous tenant, Johnson’s Pharmacy.

His journey to becoming a chef

Fowler earned a Bachelor of Arts in European History at Washington and Lee in 1999. He says that by the time he was a senior in college, he knew that he didn’t want to be a lawyer as he had originally imagined. He followed his love of nature and the outdoors, skiing and climbing, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he taught ski school during the day and waited tables and “started cooking a little” in restaurants at night.

“I’d always worked in restaurants starting in high school, washing dishes when I was 15 or 16, and then I started waiting tables.”

It was at a since-closed restaurant called Nani’s Genuine Pasta House in Jackson Hole that Fowler started to realize that he “really enjoyed the food aspect of restaurants.” His appreciation for history and for regional cooking (at that time, Calabrian and Sicilian) and his innate creativity found a shared outlet in this place.

Fowler decided to attend culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Denver, Colorado, where he could continue to teach skiing and enjoy outdoor pursuits during his studies. Soon thereafter came opportunities to work in the kitchens of some of the top restaurants in the United States and, eventually, his role as chef at the AAA 5-Diamond Fearrington House in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

He opened Mandolin in October of 2011.

Fowler and his wife, Lizzie, produce some of the restaurant’s food in their own quarter-acre home farm in addition to sourcing ingredients from other local producers.

Naming his restaurant after a musical instrument

Fowler’s choice of name for his restaurant was equally intentional. 

“A lot of my fondest memories of childhood, adolescence, teenage, college — a lot of my best memories had common themes of good music and good food enjoyed with family and friends,” he said. “Music and food always went hand in hand: in college, sitting out on the back porch listening to bluegrass and eating barbecue, being at home and listening to records with my parents.

“As far as the mandolin instrument particularly … it’s an old-world instrument that kind of has its roots in Europe. It was brought over to the U.S. during early settlements and found its way up into the Appalachian mountains and got repurposed in roots and bluegrass music that is different than in old-world Italy.”

The mandolin, then, is “a metaphor for my food and how it has roots in old classical French absorbed into the South and interpreted through Southern ingredients and the way we eat here,” he concluded. “That’s essentially what you get with the food at Mandolin.”

Naming the restaurant after a musical instrument with European roots but a distinctly Southern flair created what Fowler calls “a metaphor” for the type of cuisine he creates.

Mandolin’s impressive longevity

In an industry where many new businesses fail quickly, Mandolin is set apart by its success. Fowler said that’s in part because the time was right for opening this kind of restaurant.

“We launched in 2011, when Raleigh was ready for the type of food I was trying to do. Since we’ve opened, I feel like the food scene in Raleigh has really taken off: the amount of good restaurants, farm-to-table, seasonally changing menus. When we started we were kind of the first people doing a lot of that stuff. [We] were ingredient-driven, a little bit higher-end, the menu was constantly changing. We are meticulous about our sourcing, whether growing it on our own farm or getting it from local farmers. There were a few people doing that then, but not a lot.”

Mandolin’s cuisine has its “roots in old classical French absorbed into the South and interpreted through Southern ingredients,” Fowler said.

What also made Mandolin stand out was that it wanted to be more than just a restaurant.

“We didn’t just open a business, we really tried to embed ourselves in the community and become a part of that neighborhood. We got to know our neighbors and established regular customers and treated them like friends and family,” Fowler said. “We got involved in the community through charitable organizations and nonprofits. I became active in a number of causes — things that are important to me and my staff and my wife — but [also] things that are important to our customers. We were always quick to show up and contribute to their fundraisers and events in an organic way. We had a name and a face and roots to the community.”

The Fowlers have deepened their connection to the area through meaningful service and support of local nonprofits, such as the Interfaith Food Shuttle.

That shared sense of community would prove essential when the pandemic closed dine-in restaurants and many small businesses struggled to stay afloat.

“When revenue streams dried up and we were forced to close our doors, all of those people that we had fed over the years reciprocated and really showed up in force, helped support us [through a fundraiser for furloughed staff and purchase of meal deliveries and takeout],” he said. “The community surrounded us and bolstered us up.”

Sending his kids to Ravenscroft

Fowler said he is grateful that his restaurant “gives me this unique vehicle, as someone who is not the best at staying in touch with people. People come in and catch up, whether that’s old teachers or classmates, coaches. I get to kind of revisit my time at Ravenscroft through my guests.”

Nevertheless, he and Lizzie did their research before deciding to send their daughters to Ravenscroft.

Sean and Lizzie with their daughters, Grace ’34 and Clementine ’34, and son, Teddy, in Provence, France.

“We looked around at schools before agreeing that Ravenscroft gave us what we were looking for for educating our daughters, and all likelihood our son: a kind of well-roundedness, great athletics, good fine arts, drama, visual arts and the science program with coding and computers,” he said, noting that, as first-graders, Grace and Clementine are taking violin this year. “They probably aren’t going to be into all of it, but they will find out what they are really passionate about.”

Fowler added that a Ravenscroft education is not just about academics but also “molding good, well-rounded people,” including through the school’s emphasis on service and the Lead From Here citizen leadership framework.

His own Ravenscroft experience

Part of the decision to become a Ravenscroft parent, of course, stemmed from being an alum. Fowler attended Ravenscroft from second grade through his graduation in 1995.

“Ravenscroft has a very well-rounded, kind of holistic approach to education. It’s not just the classroom, it’s also the extracurriculars: the arts, sports. I was involved in all of those things. That environment inspired all of those interests in me, whether it was learning about science — which probably wasn’t my favorite thing to learn about, but I can still go back to things now that I learned then, in the kitchen or at the farm, like alkalinity and soil samples. There is something at Ravenscroft for every student to find out what their niche is. And it might not be just one thing.

“Most students there are going to find something that they are passionate about and that they can keep exploring for the rest of their life.” he added. “Ravenscroft fosters that kind of natural curiosity and wanting to learn outside of the classroom.”


Mandolin Recipes

Chef-owner Sean Fowler ’95 has generously shared two signature recipes from Mandolin. Enjoy!

Collard Green and Peanut Pesto
Collard Green and Peanut Pesto

View recipe here.

Pickled Okra
Pickled Okra

View recipe here.