A few years ago MacGregor Mann headed out on a global culinary walkabout.
Mann applied for and was accepted as a station chef at Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen. Named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, it afforded Mann the opportunity to learn from Chef Rene Redzepi. He augments his pantry by foraging in the wild Demark coastlands, forests and fields where Noma's chefs uncover rich, unexpected flavors. Diners book several months in advance, and can pay nearly $1,000 a couple for a wine pairing and tasting menu that includes dishes like fried reindeer moss, radishes served in soil, and live ants with yoghurt. Mann likened his 2012 experience to a “PhD-worthy” sabbatical.
Returning to the states, Mann drove cross country and settled in Idaho, where he took over as Executive Chef at Henry’s Fork Lodge, a premier fly-fishing destination. Located on a high bluff overlooking Henry’s Fork River, the venue offers some of the finest accommodations and dining experiences along with the most diverse fishing programs in the entire Yellowstone Park region. To feed the anglers' appetites, typical favorites include bacon-wrapped trout, New York strip steaks seared directly on the coals, creamy butter beans, and Dutch-oven cornbread dotted with fig jam.
Mann's talent and pedigree were honed at Amada, part of the esteemed Jose Garces group of restaurants. At the award-winning tapas bar in Philadelphia, Mann rose through the ranks of Amada (known nationally in creative Latin cuisine) to become chef de cuisine. He was even featured on Iron Chef America, cooking alongside Iron Chef Garces.
Two summers ago the vagabond cook conceived the vision for his chef-owner debut. He named the establishment Junto (JUNE-toe), which refers to a group of persons joined for a common purpose, Mann's tip of the cap to a social club founded by Ben Franklin in Philadelphia in 1727.
Junto was launched in Chadds Ford to critical acclaim in May 2014. No reindeer here, but across the road a herd of deer were busily munching on rolling emerald field of alfalfa. A sweeping front porch beckons diners to this "American modern farmhouse" that presents familiar flavors with refined style, seasonality and sharp technique. Mann encourages his good ingredients to speak for themselves. Junto has quickly gained a reputation as one of the best natural food experiences in the Brandywine Valley.
Inside the simple elegance of the airy farmhouse there is a cozy but sophisticated flair. Rustic barn beams and hardwood floors team with tablecloths and candlelight. Tucked in a corner is a vintage Speed Queen washtub brimming with chilling BYOB wines. The smartly designed, intimate dining room seats 42, while an ancillary "Session Room" in the back is set up for private parties. Old-timers might recall that the location once housed the Brass Ladle and Silver Spoon eateries.
Mann also employs all sorts of culinary techniques, including fermentation (pickles, for one thing), and is regularly grilling on a wood-fired Big Green Egg out back. Some of his earliest memories were chasing chickens and stepping into the smokehouse at his great-grandparents farm in Culpepper, Va. Junto's menu often draws upon the Pennsylvania Dutch flavors and clever family recipes he grew up with in York County.
“I always liked cooking. My mom let me cook from the time I could reach the stove," recalls Mann, 33. "I remember sitting out back of our farm house at five years old shucking corn and sorting vegetables. Then we'd come in and help my mom prepare that night's dinner.”
While Mann won't be sourcing reindeer moss like he did at Noma, he and his talented team regularly forage the local countryside for wine berries, wood sorrel and wild asparagus that are spotlighted on Junto's specials board. Mann first caught my attention last summer as the guest chef at one of H. G. Haskell's wildly popular SIW farm-to-table dinners. Most everything at Junto is being sourced from our region.
Several days a week Mann can be found at farm stands, poring over a bounty of brussel sprouts, Doc Martin lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms butternut squash, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. Mann has built an impressive network of local farmers, including Chadds Ford's SIW, Pete's Produce in Westtown, and an Amish produce auction in Oxford.
“We’re trying to move forward, eat in a more wholesome way,” Mann explains. “We’re also trying to take a step back and a step slower.”
Junto has been cleverly and carefully planned out with all aspects bringing you back to one central theme: the American farmhouse. He has worked with local Amish farmers to learn centuries-old pickling and protein-preservation techniques. To make his menu true and authentic, Mann has read and re-read countless books on local food history to bring back some of the cuisine and culinary practices of Pennsylvania’s food heritage.
“Sometimes how they did things hundreds of years ago might be better than the way we’ve done it for the last 30 years,” observes a bearded Mann, sporting a white chef's coat and a "Trout Hunter" ball cap.
“Local, sustainable, it's all going back to where we should be. We’re trying to limit the miles to plate as much as possible. It’s all stuff that should be native around here to showcase what these ingredients are, and were 150 years ago. You know sturgeon was a huge part of the economy around here, but unfortunately we over-harvested the Delaware River.”
While his cooking gigs in Copenhagen, Idaho and with Garces' Amada are clear influences, Mann's personal vision of seasonality and updated traditional local flavors ring true. Diners are welcomed with corncob shaped cornbread treats served with apple butter - the recipe is courtesy of Mac's mom, one of an array of family recipes showcased at Junto. For starters, here's a few of the delightful options.
“The Roots” salad is served on a thin plank -- a beautifully deconstructed dish of pickled kohlrabi, sunchokes, radishes and beets along with green chickpea hummus and goat kafir ranch sauce. The wild mushroom plate is served in a silky consommé with Crowder peas and goat cheese toast. The slow cooked beef cheek melts in your mouth and is served with lima beans with a light crunch, heirloom tomato, sorrel and saffron potato chips.
One of the most intriguing small plates is the egg yolk ravioli served over crispy smoked pork, sassafras pork jus, red kale, peaches and shaved walnut. Dive into the ravioli, and the egg yolk melts into the pork jus, creating a savory blend of flavors. The peach adds a enticing sweet note. Sous-chef Joe Lux took two weeks to develop the technique to get just the right amount of ricotta to surround the yolk in its pasta pouch so that it would be perfectly and flawlessly runny.
We could not resist a cheese plate, a celebration of Farm Fromage Cloth Bound Cheddar, Tomme Delicious and Galens Good Old Gouda – all from Pennsylvania-- served with raw honey, spiced walnuts and raspberry butter.
The free-range chicken is an incredibly tender piece of fowl, a nod to the Redzepi "new nordic" style of Noma. The leg is sweetly smoked over apple wood in the Big Green Egg out back - the secret to a host of dishes here. Sautéed kale and arugula pesto serve as a luxurious bed and refried summer squash is a clever and tasty take on an old favorite. Mann's kitchen turned out one solid dish after another.
Mann has taught his staff well-- they are knowledgeable, friendly and attentive. The love that has gone into the handsome décor, the professional service and delightful dishes with spot-on technique stamps Junto as an outstanding and memorable experience.