Madison chef Sean Pharr is semi-finalists for James Beard Award
Sean Pharr is a co-owner of Mint Mark, a small plates kitchen and craft cocktails bar in Madison's Schenk-Atwood neighborhood. Pharr is Madison’s lone 2020 semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation award, best chef in the Midwest. (Photo by Mary Bergin)

New London native is a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist

Some guys stop for coffee on their way to work. Sean Pharr goes fishing.

Always stored in his Subaru Forester is a rod and a timer, which he sets at 10 minutes. That’s a self-imposed limit for casting at Yahara River, Wingra Creek, Lake Monona – wherever it seems convenient.

“It’s become an obsession,” Pharr acknowledged.

Then his workday begins at Mint Mark, a small plates kitchen and craft cocktails bar in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood of Madison. The co-owner preps ingredients for dinner while a couple of cooks make lunch.

Pharr is Madison’s lone 2020 semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation award. He is one of 20 semifinalists for the category of Best Chef: Midwest. The group –named for a pioneering chef of the 1950s– is in its 30th year of recognizing quality and leadership among America’s culinary artists. He was surprised by the nomination but is no stranger to haute cuisine. 

The chef is a known commodity, if not a rising star, in elite culinary circles because of his dozen years in Chicago: line cook at TRU in Streeterville to executive chef at The Bristol in Bucktown. In between, while chef de cuisine at NoMI Kitchen in 2011, he cooked at the James Beard House in Manhattan.

Today it is much easier to find Pharr wearing chef whites online than at Mint Mark, open since 2017. “I think I wore them for a day, then let ‘em fall to the bottom of the closet,” he said, opting for blue-collar flannel as we talked near midday. 

Gone is the need to invest in a pricey chef’s uniform, apron to work shoes. Pharr cleans grease traps as well as taking the lead on menu development. 

“There’s no need for hierarchy,” he said, and – unlike a couple of former work environments – no strategy to get on the Beard foundation’s radar. 

Pharr called the Mint Mark menu – which changes weekly for lunch, monthly for dinner – “French focused technique and Italian intent.” There is room for duck rillettes with cherry mostarda (an Italian condiment), knackwurst with rutabaga kraut, pierogi with borscht, fried bologna on sourdough.

Hamm’s Beer goes into the batter for fish on Fridays, and Old Fashioned cocktails are on tap.

Two items that don’t leave the menu because of their popularity: biscuits with honey-garlic icing and roasted cauliflower with a bagna cauda sauce (garlic, anchovies, olive oil).

The food business was part of  Pharr’s childhood in New London, population 7,000, where his dad’s work was at a sauerkraut factory and the family’s favored restaurant was Cracker Barrel. 

Pharr’s first job was at Jolly Roger’s Pizza: “I begged them for a job and got hired as a delivery guy, until I crashed the delivery car.” That left him on the outside looking in, until the owners let him help on a busy night.

The teen liked the camaraderie, rhythm and rush of restaurant work but majored in music education at UW Stevens Point. He was a percussionist who concluded “music was too much time spent with too little results – you’d work on the same thing for six months.”

Pharr says he was in the process of flunking out when he met Chad Vogel. The two took country club restaurant jobs, and Pharr liked what he experienced as a cook.

“Things evolved fast,” he recalled. “I knew right away if I screwed up or did well.” Pharr said he kept pushing himself to do well, but now he and wife Maggie are the parents of two – Abbie, 6, and Auggie, 5 – who seek the good life as a family.

Dichotomies remain. Pharr and Vogel, co-owner of Mint Mark, expect to open their next business May 1. “I want to keep moving forward in my skill set,” Pharr said. “If I had only one place, I’d probably be bored.”

Expect a 1970s rec room theme, with ping pong, shuffleboard and foosball at the Lake Edge strip mall location, Monona Drive and Buckeye Road. The name: Muskellounge, a nod to Wisconsin’s wily sport fish.

Pharr, who fished often with his dad on the Wolf River and Waupaca Chain O’ Lakes, didn’t have time to drop a line while working in Chicago, but he’s back at it now.

[Editor’s Note: Pharr was supposed to learn Mar. 25 if he would be one of the finalists, but the James Beard Foundation has postponed that announcement and the eventual awards celebration due to the coronavirus outbreak. New dates have not yet been scheduled.]