It's hard for Patrick Phelan - co-owner and co-chef of Longoven restaurant, which opened June 28 in Scott's Addition - to talk about his new restaurant without tearing up.

Phelan (44), along with his co-owners and co-chefs - his wife, Megan Fitzroy Phelan (37) and Andrew Manning (43) - have been working on finding a home for their restaurant and passion project, Longoven, for the past four years. But in many ways, their journey started 15 years ago, in a tiny, sweltering kitchen in the Fan District, at Helen's restaurant. Along the way, there was heartbreak, love and marriage, setbacks, tragedy and triumph, death, a few children, dozens of jobs, a billion dollar cruise ship, two continents, three countries, three states and one epic friendship.

Roughly 15 years ago, Phelan - who was an Army brat who ended up in Prince George when he dad was stationed at Fort Lee - was a struggling musician who needed a job. David Shannon, the now chef and owner of L’Opossum restaurant, hired him to work in the kitchen of Helen's.

"I didn't even know how to cook a hotdog," Phelan said, but Shannon hired him anyway and Phelan started at the bottom. 

Shannon soon left and was replaced as executive chef by Manning, a Richmond native who was coming from the now defunct VCU-area restaurant Sweetwater.

"Andrew was the first chef who took my food and threw it in the trash can," Phelan said. "And that changed everything for me."

For the next five or so years, Manning and Phelan worked side-by-side, two of a three-person crew that did everything from morning prep to evening dinner service for the Fan eatery.

Then Manning had the opportunity to move to Italy and cook - in a castle, no less, in Alba. He took it, and Phelan moved to The Kitchen Table restaurant in Shockoe Bottom - until Tropical Storm Gaston ravaged it and dozens of other small businesses in the area in Aug. 2004.

"Andrew said, 'come to Italy,'" Phelan said, and so he did. "We foraged everything" in the hills of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. "It was beautiful. You took a knife in case you ran into a boar."

Manning had taken well to Italy, easily picking up the language and finding himself at home rooting through fields in search of the freshest ingredients. Manning ended up staying for just over a decade, marrying an Italian woman, and having a son and daughter. Phelan stayed for five months.

"I didn't learn Italian easily," he said. "I wanted to go home."

Phelan decided he was done with cooking and headed to Connecticut to study public policy at Trinity College.

"It was the only school I could find that would accept me with like a negative GPA," he joked, but Phelan soon found that he needed money so he fell back on his trusty skill: cooking.

He took a job working in a Billy Grant restaurant in Hartford. There, in the kitchen, he would put his notes in the ticket window so he could study while he worked. It was also there that he met his now wife, Megan, who was a pastry chef. Phelan and Megan stayed at the restaurant for the next three years.

Around 2007, "Megan and I found our way to New York. I was doing public policy. Megan rolled the dice and got in at Daniel [restaurant]," he said.

Megan would spend the next six or so years working as a pastry chef in some of the most revered restaurants and bakeries in New York, including Torrisi and Sullivan Street Bakery.

Phelan, however, couldn't find a public policy job and found himself once again back in kitchens, this time doing high-end catering and working with chef Neal Gallagher. Phelan, who had no previous catering experience, was suddenly leading the team doing the food for movie premieres, Wall Street executives and $4M bar mitzvahs.

"I dove in and it was the best job I ever had," Phelan said. But the hours were brutal - for both he and Megan.

"We were just getting hammered. We were working 17-hour days," Phelan said. "We came home and cried every night.

But Phelan had never lost touch with his old friend, Manning, who was still in Italy and is exactly one year and 10 days younger than he. "Andrew was in the field picking product," he said. "I'd send him pictures of the 'Mission Impossible' movie premiere and Hamptons parties."

The two got to talking - as Phelan and Megan had been doing. Maybe the three of them should open their own restaurant - and maybe they should come home to do it.

"We’d been watching Richmond," Phelan said. "Watching Kendra [Feather]’s growth [of The Roosevelt, Ipanema Cafe, Garnett's Cafe and Laura Lee's]; Lee [Gregory of The Roosevelt, Southbound and Alewife] and Brittanny Andrerson [Metzger Bar and Butchery and Brenner Pass]... we started to talk about 'what if we moved back to Richmond.'"

Phelan and Megan were also talking about starting a family - something they didn't think they could afford to do in New York. And a move to Richmond would put them closer to Phelan's family, who were now in Northern Virginia. Manning, who now had two small children, learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer. He wanted his kids to know their grandfather.

A decision was made and in the spring and summer of 2014 the group relocated to Richmond, ready to get to work on Longoven, the name they'd already selected for their restaurant.

But life wasn't done with them yet.

Phelan and Megan stopped in D.C. to visit Phelan's sister on their way down to Richmond and Megan said she wasn't feeling well.

"I thought she was bullshitting," Phelan said. "I thought she was trying to get out of moving boxes."

She wasn't. Megan was pregnant.

"That put things on hold a little bit," Phelan said. They decided to stay with friends just outside of the city for a few months while they looked for a house and worked on Longoven's first pop-up event.

Held at Shockoe Denim in Shockoe Bottom on a hot summer night in 2014, "Longoven Summer Pop-Up" introduced Richmond to a "a pop-up dinning event that focuses on a unique perspective on ingredient-driven cuisine.," according to the first flyer for the event. That night, Richmond met Longoven.

They intended the pop-ups to be a brief series while they looked for a brick and mortar location for their restaurant and some funding to help flesh out their savings; the pop-ups turned into more than three years of events held on the side while the chefs worked other jobs and searched for a space, because life, once again, wasn't done with them yet.

Just after that first pop-up, Phelan got a call from his old friend and boss, Neal Gallagher. Gallagher was in Europe, overseeing the launch of multiple restaurants onboard a luxury cruise line docked in Germany.

"So Andrew and I flew to Germany to help," Phelan said. "Andrew got the massive upstairs restaurant, and I got three restaurants downstairs."

Manning and Phelan were learning the new kitchens and staff and the ship was making brief treks out to sea as test runs. Cell service was spotty - even spottier when at sea - and it was there that Phelan got a call from his brother.

"He said, 'you have to make end of life decisions: It's your wife or your baby.'" Megan was six months pregnant and while visiting her sister-in-law in D.C., something had gone wrong.

Service was spotty on the ship, and most of that day is still a blur, Phelan said. "I don't know how, but Neal Gallagher got a billion dollar cruise ship to turn around."

Phelan went to see Manning, who had lost his father a few weeks earlier.

"Andrew gave me three Ambien and told me to drink a beer. He said, 'don't be awake for this flight.'" Phelan was on a plane that day.

"I didn't even recognize Meg when I walked in the room,'" he said. She'd had a seizure; her organs were failing; and the baby - at one pound, 8 ounces - had been airlifted to another hospital.

It was brutal and touch-and-go. Megan produced her first colostrum and Phelan was taken to his daughter to feed her with a medicine dropper.

"She was this little bird," he said of their daughter, Lillian.

Lillian will turn four in October.

"The next two years went by in a blur," Phelan said.

They lived at the Ronald McDonald House in Northern Virginia for four months; Megan slowly recovered; the friends who they planned to stay with for a few months ended up hosting them for two years; along the way, Manning, Megan and Phelan consulted at area restaurants. Manning's wife, Valentina Giordano, also started working in Richmond restaurants; Phelan went back to catering.

Finally, it was time to focus on Longoven again. They resumed the search for a space and relaunched the pop-ups.

"I called Evrim (Dogu at Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill) and asked if we could do pop-ups. He said, 'any Sunday you want. Just leave the place how you found it.'"

"We had a wood-fired oven and two camping burners," Phelan said, "We were trying to do two a month. It just started growing. Every time there were more and more new people."

The trio was invited to Atlanta Food & Wine - an annual festival that brings together some of the best chefs in Southern food - and the biggest names in food publishing.

"We started making all these relationships," he said. "All of these people were mind-blowing supportive. Between Richmond and the community of Southern chefs, it was such overwhelming hospitality and support."

Then, the trio caught wind, as happens with these things, that food editors and writers from Bon Appétit,one of the biggest publications in the food world, would be attending one of Longoven's pop-ups at Sub Rosa. 

"Things went well that night," Phelan said. "But we could've done some things better. We thought maybe we'd get a blurb (in the magazine)."

Months later, the issue came out. They got more than a blurb: in August 2016, Bon Appetit named Longoven was one of "America's best new restaurants" for 2016.

"Restaurants don’t open overnight. As a result, a lot of very talented chefs can be left itching for a stove to cook on while they search for the perfect venue, seek out investors, or trudge through red tape. Such is the case for Patrick Phelan, Megan Fitzroy Phelan, and Andrew Manning," the magazine wrote. "Pop-ups are often a risk; in the case of Longoven, that gamble pays off. We can’t wait to see what’s next."

"That changed everything," Phelan said. "It was exactly what we need to motivate to keep looking [for spaces]."

But finding a space was proving difficult.

"We lost 18 spaces," Phelan said. And every space was a process. "It was months of process. It kept resetting. Our lives were on hold."

And the Bon Appetit recognition had made the pop-ups explode. The wait list for the pop-ups was 200 people long. "We started trying to do events just for the list," Phelan said, but there were complaints from prospective diners who thought they were waiting too long to get one of a handful of seats at the pop-ups. So they complained.

"The pop-ups were getting exhausting. We were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it perfect. They broke even. How do you support your family breaking even? We thought, 'maybe it’s not time,'" Phelan said.

They were done, they decided, one cold February day last year, six months after the Bon Appetit piece came out. They were done.

But life, of course, wasn't done with them.

"That same day, a friend of Andrew's called him and said, 'I am standing next to the King of Pops looking at Longoven."

And he was. They signed the lease on the former paint store and got to work on - at long last - on the newest chapter of their lives: the real life, brick and mortar location of Longoven.

***

Longoven: The 64-seat eatery at 2939 W. Clay St. (across the side street from the King of Pops commissary) - (804) 308-3497 - serves dinner Tuesday - Thursday, 5 - 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 - 11 p.m. The menu changes constantly based on seasonal availability of ingredients and is printed daily at the restaurant; it's presented in two sections, basically starters and entrees, but it's more like a flavor progression: starters to "wake up the palate," according to Phelan, and then savory items with more fat content. Items are generally priced between $10 - $28 and its recommended that guests order at least three menu items to be sated, but Phelan said the staff will help guide diners. Past Longoven menu items have included: lettuce, cucumber, roe (grilled romaine hearts with vinegar, trout roe, and cucumber tarragon purée); beans and pig ear (black-eyed peas, fava, butter and French beans, cow peas, pork broth and shaved pig ears); and watermelon, tomato, fennel sorbet.

The dining room, too, is divided into two sections: the front where the bar is and a back room that looks onto the open kitchen - where Longoven will host six-eight course tasting menus Thursday - Saturday, beginning at the end of July, though the room is always open to a la carte diners. The tasting menus will be priced at $110 per person, not including optional wine pairings or tax and gratuity. Tickets for those events - and reservations - can be made online at exploretock.com/longoven. The bar seats 12 and a garden patio with seating for 40 - and its own outdoor bar - should open in the coming weeks.

They've brought with them a virtual who's who of Richmond dining: Danny McDermott, most recently of Acacia, to manage the bar, and in the kitchen: Dave Alinea from Dutch & Co., Zach Weiss from L’Opossum and Pablo Corralas from The NoMad in New York, to name a few.

Receive daily news emails sent directly to your email inbox

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

kpeifer@richmond.com

(804) 649-6321

Twitter: @KarriPeifer

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.