FARGO -- When Austin Covert says he is excited to be in Fargo, you actually believe him.
The Michigan native, who is executive chef of the Rosewild restaurant and the Jasper Hotel's dining services, radiates energy and enthusiasm. The Jasper Hotel, located in the new RDO Tower, opens to the public June 24.
Covert loves his new flat at the historic Woodrow Wilson apartments. He loves the friendliness of the community's people and the variety of cuisines available. Most of all, he loves the challenge of starting from-scratch to create a whole new eating experience at one of the most hotly anticipated businesses in downtown Fargo.
Covert, whose beard and confidence make him seem older than his 27 years, speaks at length about the food, just as one expects from someone who has dreamed of being a chef since he was 8 years old. He talks excitedly of a Nordic-inspired, rustic approach, which will introduce creative and elevated iterations of familiar classics, where the menu brims with local ingredients and where patrons can look on while vegetables and meats are roasted on an open wood-fired hearth.
Covert will draw on the traditions of our Great Plains forefathers, serving lots of game and fish and using upscale fermenting and pickling techniques to pay homage to common food-preservation methods of yesterday.
His approach will be more Fargo than fancy—a place where he says Scandinavian favorites like krumkakke or Danish aebelskiver (which look like doughnut holes but taste like cardamom-spiked pancakes) will be elevated with a filling of passion fruit and raspberries.
“I’m super-excited, although I’ll probably mispronounce a lot of what we’ll be doing,” he says, grinning.
The Fargo flavor will be everywhere — from the dishware made by local potters and the artwork by North Dakota artists to fresh ingredients sourced from local growers like Doubting Thomas Farms, Dig It Produce, Midheaven Mushrooms and North American Bison. The Jasper promoted that hometown emphasis by staging a media event Thursday, June 10, at Doubting Thomas Farms in Moorhead, during which Covert foraged for mushrooms and other ingredients at the peak of their freshness.
"There's something beautiful about knowing where your food came from,” Covert says. “The idea isn't for me to be some out-of-towner who comes in and puts white tablecloths down and decorates stuff with flowers. I just want to cook good food for good people and to try to take a very approachable way on elevated cuisine.”
From fry guy to executive chef
Covert may describe himself as an “out-of-towner,” but his Detroit-area upbringing sounds distinctly familiar in its emphasis on sports, hard work and good food.
Inspired by helping his grandma and mom in the kitchen, he speaks reverently of his grandmother’s trademark grilled-cheese-and-jelly sandwiches, fancy cakes and molasses cookies. The latter will be on Rosewild’s menu, although Covert admits he’ll use butter instead of the lard or shortening his grandma preferred. “Grandma would be turning in her grave if she heard this,” he says, smiling.
At age 14, Covert got his first taste of working in a restaurant kitchen. He was clearing tables as a busboy at a neighborhood bar and grill when two members of the cooking staff quit and walked out.
Someone threw him an apron and ordered him to get in the kitchen. Covert was dispatched to the fry station. "I had no idea what I was doing," he recalls, grinning. "It was loud, it was exciting, there was a lot of heat going on. People were yelling. I fell in love with it instantly."
But at the time, Covert was more focused on martial arts than Michelin stars. His parents teach taekwondo for a living, which means his dad is an eighth-degree blackbelt, his mother is a fourth-degree blackbelt, his brother is a sixth-degree blackbelt and Covert is a third-degree blackbelt.
Back in 2012, Covert and his brother actually attended the US Olympic trials. “I was like three fights away from going to the Olympics and going to London, but that didn’t really pan out,” he says.
Afterward, Covert approached his parents and told them what his real dream was: He wanted to be a chef.
“They didn’t really understand at first,” he says. "It’s got to be hard to see your son making less than minimum wage, working 40 hours a week, and being away from home at such a young age, but the bottom line is that they just wanted me to be successful and happy.”
Still, Covert’s athletic background came in handy. Through a soccer scholarship, he was able to earn an associate’s degree in culinary arts/chef training at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich.
Covert moved to New York City to work at a couple of restaurants and then relocated to Chicago, where he worked at Acadia, a two-Michelin-star restaurant, and then at Sixteen, another two-Michelin-star restaurant located in the Trump International Hotel and Tower.
While working at Sixteen, Covert was able to bring his parents to stay at the Trump Tower. They also were treated to an elaborate, multi-course meal at Sixteen. “At the end of the meal, my dad said, ‘I get why you’re here,’” Covert recalls. “‘I get why you did it.’”
Pandemic opens new window
The Motor City has struggled for years to bounce back from its reputation as an economically depressed crime capital, and the Foundation Hotel was a big part of its image transition, Covert says. It helped to re-ignite residents’ pride in their city, with its upscale dining and beautiful spaces, accentuated by hometown artists and musicians. “It really gave people a sense of pride that we had this here, in our town,” Covert says, “and it really took off.”
Plans were underway to open a second Detroit Foundation Hotel and Covert was busy working and teaching with one of his favorite causes, the Rising Star Academy, a culinary school for kids with disabilities. The idea was to transition to a 16-seat chef's table where students and chefs would cook all the food before guests and all proceeds raised would go back to the academy.
Then the pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt. Plans for the second hotel restaurant were put on hold, “which really kind of limited my ceiling in Detroit," he says.
Covert reached out to Evan Sheridan, a former Sixteen pastry chef and now corporate director of food and beverage operations at Aparium Hotel Group, which operates the Jasper. Sheridan told him about an opportunity in Fargo.
“I came to the site and I just really fell in love with the project,” Covert says. “I fell in love with the concept of the restaurant, I fell in love with the town - everyone here is so genuine and everyone’s so proud to be from Fargo. I really wanted to showcase that and really celebrate the community through my food and through this restaurant.”
Home is where the hearth is
The Rosewild’s decor also has been created to celebrate Fargo and the Great Plains. Prominent round pillars, covered in white ceramic tile to suggest Midwestern grain silos, are positioned throughout the space. The open area is divided into a bar/lounge area, which seats 54 and steps up into a 1,400-square-foot dining area and an outdoor patio.
The size of the open-concept space is emphasized by soaring, exposed-beam ceilings and the floor-to ceiling windows that overlook Broadway and the Broadway Plaza.
The space boasts two fireplaces that will beckon guests during the most bone-chilling days of winter. The star of the room is the open hearth, which is centrally located behind the bar and from which Covert will roast meats, vegetables and whatever else could benefit from a nice, smoky sear.
Covert plans to capitalize on the hearth by creating multi-course “chef’s choice” dinners, in which at least one component from each dish has been cooked on the hearth, then served family-style.
“Cooking on fire has an element of depth and flavor that can’t be replicated,” Covert, who confesses he couldn’t wait to fire up the hearth once he received the OK to do so. “It’s not something you can do with pans or molecular gastronomy.”
While he doesn’t want to tip his hand too much, his descriptions of other future menu plans are mouth-watering. He speaks of “roast your own” tableside s’mores, which will be amped up with a rich chocolate mousse and a melt-in-your-mouth graham cracker crumble, and a deep-fried cauliflower, tossed in fermented pepper sauce to replicate the flavor of chicken wings, then served with a palate-pleasing balance of pickled grapes, pickled red onions and cooling lime crema.
"Good food and good service - that's almost expected, but what I really want to do is bring people around the table and just enjoy it," he says.
Ultimately, Covert aspires to create a place where everyone feels comfortable — whether they’re wearing sweats or a suit and where the ingredients aren’t upstaged by pretentious gimmicks.
"The one thing I don't want this restaurant to be is the place where you come to only on your birthday, or only on your anniversary," Covert says. "That's not your favorite restaurant. Your favorite restaurant is that spot down the street where you just get great service, you get to try something new and you're there two or three times a month. That's what I want Rosewild to be."