RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond’s food scene is making a comeback amid the still-lingering pandemic. As former pop-ups like Pizza Bones and Cobra Burger grow into their new brick-and-mortar spaces, others make names for themselves.
Daniel Harthausen’s labor of love, Young Mother, is a newcomer to the scene. It sets itself apart with a focus on Japanese cuisine, sake pairings and strong front of house service, bringing a fine dining twist to the Richmond pop-up scene.
Harthausen is a food service veteran of many Richmond kitchens, including being the bar manager for Brunch and Supper. He bartended at Common House and also managed their coffee program. He left the position on Sept. 16 to return to Adarra, where he serves and bartends.
Harthausen greeted me with a shot of espresso and water. It was a simple act, but he put care into it. It wasn’t just the espresso and water; it was the saucer it was on, along with the accompanying teaspoon and silver tray. He poured my water and even asked to move the table because of the slight wobble; all indicative of his eye for service and detail.
Young Mother was initially supposed to be a Sicillian food pop-up. Harthausen says he thought about the name more. His mother had him when she was 19 and he was the middle child in a military family where the dad was never home.
“It became this thing where I would love to transform this name into something that’s kind of an homage, but also this concept of figuring it out but doing it beautifully,” he said.
Harthausen started Young Mother to reconnect with his Korean roots. After growing up in a house that was close to its heritage, he found that he was also part Japanese through a DNA test. He said that it’s a study of Japanese and Korean history through food; focusing on how the two cultures have interacted and learned from each other throughout history through their proximity, trade, colonialism and more.
Growing up, Harthausen was always searching for an answer to why he experienced what he did being an Asian American. When he lived in Korea in his teens, he said that nobody saw him as Korean because of his American upbringing.
“The food aspect is that I never had a very strong connection with my culture growing up except for the food my mom made me,” he said. “I think that’s a similar story for a lot of people, it’s very comforting.”
Harthausen joked that Young Mother may have even started out of a little spite. His former pop-up at Flora (now formerly Poor Boy’s) ended poorly. Harthausen took a hiatus from cooking, and continued his work in front-of-house. He learned bartending and table service. When one of his old cooks jokingly said he didn’t cook anymore, Harthausen got fired up.
“I felt that I had a lot of unfinished business; this thing that I never really put my full capability into,” he said.
Harthausen has been in the service industry for almost nine years, starting at a coffee shop in Hampton Roads called Aromas where he would make sandwiches and salads. He got into the industry out of necessity, having no other option for income.
He went to college for a year in Pennsylvania but ended up leaving. He wasn’t welcome at home, he says. So he decided to come to Richmond after hopping from couch to couch in friends’ homes.
“I found this notebook the other day that I had when I first moved to Richmond, and the first thing it said was: ‘I want to work in a full-service restaurant,’” Harthausen said.
While working at Alchemy, he was approached by the owner to create a lunch menu. He had several ideas, but says he settled on rice bowls. The connections he made in those kitchens helped him get a foot in the door with his other ideas. The Rogue Gentlemen owners approached him when they wanted to do a Japanese concept.
“I had a full kitchen at my disposal and I was only 22 at the time,” Harthausen said. “I think it was one of those situations where I was a little too young, but I learn really well by being thrown into situations.”
This is where he started In Hause, a concept to represent different cultures’ foods in a series. Harthausen said it was a fun exploration for him while still trying to make some money.
After working the brewery pop-up circuit for a while, Harthausen began to make dumplings for In Hause. He says that people went crazy for the dumplings, but this is what ended his residency at Flora. Harthausen said he lost a lot of money during the residency and the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth about cooking. He even thought that he wouldn’t cook again.
Harthausen said that he was able to make important connections through this, which put him in a space where people could notice him.
“It wasn’t like I was just a line cook in really nice restaurants,” he said.“I was this dude who was doing all of these concepts and inviting people to come eat and try the food.”.
Harthausen turned his attention to bartending, front of house service and wine.
Harthausen developed 16 custom cocktails for the ambitious cocktail program at Brunch, but he said cocktails weren’t exactly what people wanted in a restaurant open from morning through early afternoon.
“I barely had a year of experience with bartending and I would rely heavily on my cooking techniques and incorporate different syrups,” he said.
Harthausen discovered wine and sake when he left Brunch and started bartending at Restaurant Adarra, a fine Basque-inspired restaurant in Jackson Ward.
Restaurant Adarra spearheaded the sake pairings for Harthausen. They would invite him into the restaurant to taste the different sakes, which allow him to tailor dishes to each flavor profile and choose which bottles would be best. Harthausen hopes to tap into the D.C. sake market and get people to travel to Richmond.
Harthausen doesn’t exactly have a preference for front or back of the house. Rather, working in both positions has given him a holistic understanding of the industry.
“It’s one of those things where it tests different parts of your brain,” he said.
He relishes the service part of food preparation.
“You can have the best dish prepared but if it’s unable to be presented to someone neat or in a pleasing way or manage that expectation of them coming in to spend money, no one will ever experience it,” he said.
Harthausen still has a passion for cooking and feeding people and bringing people together through food and drink.
“My philosophy when I go into restaurants is that little things matter; I’m trading money I’ve earned and my time for this thing,” Harthausen said. “The least I can do is make it taste good.”
Harthausen said that food isn’t a necessity when dining out, but rather an experience. Because of this, he feels that they deserve to be treated well.
Treating diners to an experience with his high standards takes time, and a network of friends and family to offer feedback. His prep for a pop-up event starts at least two weeks out with different fermentations.
Then there are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. prep days closer to the pop-up. Just before the doors are opened for service, every dish will have been made multiple times.
Harthausen said that prior to the last pop-up, he made a dish eight times before he was okay with it, but he had to “86 it,” or remove it from the menu, because they ran out of portions.
“It’s a puzzle, you can’t just go in there and think it’ll be good because you thought of it,” he said.
His talented team will tell him when he’s wrong, Harthausen said.
“Without them a lot of the dishes wouldn’t become what they are,” he said.
The first few Young Mother pop-ups were successful, Harthausen said, even if they didn’t generate cash. He made only $90 after five of them. On the bright side, he said he’s breaking even.
“I make sacrifices by spending more money but it’s intentional,” he said. “If I want people to come out to this, I want them to have the best experience they can.”
When he’s not cooking, Harthausen enjoys acting, doing stand up comedy at open mic nights or foraging in the woods with his girlfriend, Megan Cooper.
The outdoorsy couple said foraging was the next progression of their love for hiking. They started off with their eyes set on morels, but after a bad morel season they stopped looking. After Harthausen did a walk with Common House social club, he was able to learn more skills and get back out into the woods.
“I started going out on my own and I was able to get lucky a few times,” he said, giddy from finding a giant patch of oyster mushrooms earlier in the day. “It’s that initial rush you get when you find a choice mushroom.”
He joked that his Instagram has become nothing more than a foraging account.
Cooper and Harthausen met at a bar in 2019. Cooper herself is no stranger to the service industry, having worked in a handful of restaurants for about 11 years. She said that she was amazed by how much Harthausen had done in the industry for how young he was.
“He wanted to do so much and always had so many goals and ideas for where and what he wanted,” she said. “He had this humbling confidence that made me want to get up and do more.”
Cooper has witnessed the Young Mother beginning and enjoyed being the recipient of leftovers and taste tests.
“He would play around with a few dishes at home, but I think a lot of these dishes he grew up with,” she said. “He already knew what he wanted to do with them, with a few tweaks here and there.”
The National Restaurant Association cited that pop-ups were the sixth most popular restaurant concept trend in 2018, and the second most popular 2019 trend in their annual “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.” Pop-ups can offer flavors and dishes that are unrepresented in an area and cater to an “underground” dining community, the association says.
Richmond, a city celebrated for its culinary scene, is no stranger to the roving restaurant concept.
Ashley Patino recently moved her pop-up Pizza Bones into its first brick-and-mortar location in Church Hill.
While her takeout pizza pop-up was a vastly different concept than Young Mother, Patino said that there are still challenges that every pop-up will face.
“Each week I stressed out about trying to keep people’s attention,” Patino said.“That was the hardest part. I kind of felt like I was an entertainer more than a food person.”
Patino offered natural wine pairings and after-dinner amari digestifs, but it was not as centered around table service as Young Mother.
Patino said that it’s a luxury to be able to incorporate wine and beverages along with the food, adding that it’s one more thing to think about. She said the difference between Pizza Bones and Young Mother is stark. The expectation of a to-go pizza is far different than that of a fine-tuned dinner with pairings. But it is a curated experience Richmond diners want.
“Especially after quarantine, people want those experiences and to share things together in a safe and positive way,” she said. “Anything can work, you just have to do it well.”
Patino faced a hard start before she gained the attention and following she needed to allow operations to run smoothly.
“Compared to the amount of energy that goes into it, you don’t make a decent income,” she said.
Operators use a space that isn’t theirs, which Patino said was “like sharing a bedroom.” Stuff gets lugged back and forth in addition to all the other details that go into the operation.
“You’re conscious that it’s someone else’s space and you don’t want to take up too much of it, but you also have a mission…there’s so much to think about,” Patino said.
Harthausen hopes to see more success with Young Mother. He is excited to continue serving the Richmond community which he said is “incredibly responsive and supportive.”
He remains on the fence about a future home for Young Mother because he knows how much work goes into it.
“The only reason I would do a brick-and-mortar is to say I did it,” he said. “It would be a cool thing to say: ‘I had a restaurant.’”
Harthausen sees some shortcomings in the food scene of Richmond, saying that many pop-ups focus on bar food because that’s what the people want.
Harthausen explained that Richmond food culture was essentially founded by two families and their restaurants. The focus was big servings of good food for relatively cheap. He said that this carried on into the wave of NewAmericana and Southern-Revivalist cuisine.
He also thinks that’s why he has seen a lot of chefs leave.
“Those restaurants do well in this city, but there was never room for the restaurant that does a little more of a refined setting, puts a little more emphasis on service and putting out food that’s interesting,” he said. “That’s not to say that Richmond restaurants don’t do that, but that’s not necessarily what Richmond showed that it wanted.”
Young Mother is working its way into the space between a casual dining gathering space and a fine dining experience, and with each pop-up it gains more traction. Harthausen says he was never a big fan of the super refined chef’s tasting style of dining, but still wanted something more elevated than bar service, where the service and environment are good.
“As long as it makes sense on the menu, when you order it, when you eat it and when you pay for it, then I feel like I’ve done a good job,” he said.
Images courtesy of @nickcapturesva via Young Mother and Daniel Harthausen.