A Lot on His Plate
On his long and winding road to being a serial restaurateur, Andrew Brow says he’s had many inspirations, role models, teachers, and even an “idol.”
The latter would be Claudio Guerra, the now-legendary restauranteur — think Spoleto, Mama Iguana’s, the Del Raye, Paradise City Tavern, and many others — who gave Brow, like so many others, much more than a job.
“What I got from Claudio is what I wanted — I wanted to be a restaurant owner,” he explained. “It just seemed like this glamourous, fun, wonderful thing — not always, but Claudio made it something to aspire to.”
But there were others who had an impact as well, including Bill Collins, who also worked for Guerra and later hired Brow to be his executive chef at the restaurant he opened in East Longmeadow, Center Square Grill. Then there was Therri Moitui, the owner and chef of a French restaurant on Cape Fear River in North Carolina, where Brow worked for a time after leaving his native Western Mass. to find, well … something else.
“I thought I was God’s gift to the kitchen at this point, when I was 24 years old,” Brow recalled. “And, sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, he let me know that I was not God’s gift to the kitchen and that I still had a lot to learn. And he proceeded to teach me.”
Today, Brow — owner of HighBrow, a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Northampton, and Jackalope, which just celebrated one year of bringing ‘creative American’ food to downtown Springfield — is still absorbing lessons from others, but he’s also the one passing on knowledge, experience, and keen insight to those who work for him.
His most important bit of advice, if that’s what it is: “if you stop learning, you’re no good.”
This is an operating style that has dominated his career and his time as a restaurant owner, which has been marked by overcoming adversity — as in extreme adversity in the form of the pandemic — and seizing opportunity.
As for the pandemic, it nearly cost him his dream just a few months after he opened HighBrow, but he persevered, knowing that one doesn’t get many opportunities like this one, and it might be his only opportunity.
“It was an interesting time,” he said with a large dose of understatement in his voice. “The first thing is, you feed into that fear — this is my first restaurant, this is basically my one shot; if I fail here, there probably wouldn’t be a second chance. I didn’t come from money, and without money, you can’t really do much. This was my one shot at making it out of being someone else’s chef and being my own guy.”
As it turns out, and largely because of that perseverance, HighBrow wasn’t his only shot. He seized another opportunity with the opening of Jackalope just over a year ago at the site of the former Adolfo’s on Worthington Street. At first, he didn’t want any part of downtown Springfield, thinking the city and its restaurant section had seen its day.
But a visit to the soft opening of Dewey’s nightclub, next door to Adolfo’s and owned by a friend, Kenny Lumpkin, changed his mind.
“I went back the next day because I had enjoyed myself that night, and I was standing on the patio and thinking, ‘maybe I could do something over there,’” he said, adding that this ‘something’ is Jackalope, which he described as a place where could “create and plate whimsical, fun, different things.”
That list includes everything from grilled pizza to mac & cheese to prosciutto-wrapped rabbit saddle. And on the appetizer side, there are his now-famous ‘sticky ribs,’ braised baby-back pork ribs cooked in a host of secret ingredients and juices and then made crispy.
‘Sticky ribs’ are becoming part of the local culinary lexicon — his restaurants go through more than 1,000 pounds of ribs per week — and Brow, one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2023, is one of the rising stars in the region’s galaxy of restaurateurs.
His is an intriguing story of someone who forged a dream when he was just in high school and then, thanks to hard work and lessons from those mentors and idols, made it happen.
A Different Breed
The jackalope, by most accounts, anyway, is a mythical creature, a jackrabbit with antelope horns — hence the name — said to be ferocious and quite deadly. Stories about them have appeared in many cultures worldwide.
By now, Brow has become an expert on the subject.
“A Jackalope drinks bourbon and beer and eats bologna — and they get enraged,” he explained. “And they would go and attack hunters, who would wear stovepipes on their legs so they wouldn’t get ripped up.”
But he admits that, in this case, the chosen name for his restaurant (after he put aside plans to resurrect the name Caffeine’s) was more a nickname for an old friend who “would drink beer and act crazy in the woods,” than anything else.
“I was having coffee with my wife one day, and she said, ‘when’s the Jackalope moving back up?’” he recalled, adding that the name resonated, and he eventually chose it. Today, there are stuffed jackalopes on his walls, and the logo is on everything from the door to the menu to T-shirts.
The road to opening Jackalope, his second restaurant, has been a long and winding one, with, as noted earlier, countless lessons and influences on his life and career along the way.
Our story begins in Northampton, where Brow grew up in the “projects,” as he put it. Anxious to climb out, he sought work as soon as he could. That was age 15, when, with the proper paperwork, he could work at a Dunkin’ Donuts.
This was a location that was still making its own donuts, rather than having them shipped in from a commissary, so Brow was able to get real experience making things in the kitchen. His work at Dunkin’ came during his freshman year at Smith Vocational in Northampton, and it inspired him to enter the culinary-arts program there, which fueled more interest in cooking as a career.
His first job in a restaurant, at age 16, was as a dishwasher at La Cazuela, owned by Barry and Rosemary Schmidt, who became his first real mentors and role models.
“They were two of the coolest restaurant owners I ever met,” he recalled. “They were kind of like ’60s hippie people, and for them, everything was from scratch and quality. They would fly down to New Mexico and Mexico, and they would meet chili farmers and buy wholesale dried chilis from these farmers; that showed me the passion behind actually loving what you do. It was very inspirational.”
From the dishes, Brow moved up to the pots and pans, which means he also got to prep some of the rice and beans, shred the cheese, and fry the tortilla chips. “It was grunt work, but I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and a few months later, I was a line cook.”
From there, he did a stint at the landmark Joe’s Pizza as a pizza cook, and then a job at the recently opened Spoleto Express, one of several restaurants owned by Guerra, as a sauté cook. There, he met Collins, and the two quickly bonded.
“We became like brothers,” Brow said, noting that he worked for the Spoleto Restaurant Group for close to a decade, helping to open several new restaurants along the way. “I was like the young, rising chef in the organization; I lived the restaurant business.”
He took that passion with him to North Carolina as he sought to get away and do something different somewhere else. “I grew up, I’d spent all my time here, I didn’t go to college … I got out of a long-term relationship, and I was like, ‘why am I still where I was born?’ I wanted to go see something different and new.”
Food for Thought
Brow stayed in North Carolina for two years, learning butchery, charcuterie, French techniques, French sauces, and much more, before returning to Western Mass. to tend to his ailing grandmother.
He first took a job at Springfield Smoked Fish Company, and soon took on some part-time work at the recently opened Center Square Grill. Eventually, he became executive chef there and stayed in that position for four years before he fulfilled that lifelong dream to own a restaurant, buying a wood-fired pizza restaurant from Guerra and renaming it HighBrow.
Pizza wasn’t exactly his passion, he admitted, but this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. And, as things turned out, it was a godsend because, as noted earlier, Brow became a restaurant owner just a few months before the pandemic reached Western Mass.
Pizza was a model that lent itself to delivery and pickup more easily than other types of restaurants, he explained, adding that he was able to pivot in many different ways, including by partnering with other businesses to bring meals to frontline workers, including those at hospitals and the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.
“I started off with just myself — I laid everyone off,” he recalled. “I told them to be on standby until we knew what the world was going to look like. Later, it was me and one of my cooks, Carlos. We would come in every day, and we’d go to Restaurant Depot every morning. We would have a limited menu; he would cook pizzas, and I would cook sauté and salads and appetizers. Eventually, I slowly introduced more staff as we were getting busier and I could justify putting more people back on payroll.”
Brow said he wasn’t exactly looking to open a second restaurant when Lumpkin implored him to take a hard look at the Adolfo’s site, but eventually he warmed to the idea of being part of the scene — and part of a comeback — in the central business district.
Over the course of his first year, there has been some change — and pivoting — there as well, he said, adding that he started off focusing primarily on fine dining, but has shifted and evolved, as he put it, and is now offering “more approachable things — but done with the detail we would use if we were plating a filet Oscar or something with delicate construction.”
For instance, with the mac & cheese, he offers a unique pasta with a cheese sauce made with many different types of cheeses, topped with crushed Goldfish crackers instead of the usual breadcrumbs.
“I try to be unique — I don’t like to do anything the same as anybody else around me is doing,” he explained. “I try to be different.”
And, like the name over the door, he is.
Unlike the jackalope — or Claudia Guerra, for that matter — Brow is not the stuff of legend. Yet. But he is getting there — one sticky rib at a time.