Chef Damon Sawyer doesn’t just smile. He beams.
With good reason. He opened his first restaurant, 29 Markle Ct (29), this winter and it’s already exploded onto the restaurant scene.
I use the term “scene” loosely because it’s in Bridgeport and there’s not much in the way of a culinary “scene.” Which is one of the many things 29 has going for it. “It’s different than any other restaurant here,” Damon asserts.
Damon has been described as a trailblazer. Says a recent diner, “People will look back and say ‘this is when Bridgeport first developed a foodie scene.’” According to CTBites.com, “Damon Sawyer has rolled out a menu that’s like throwing down smooth lyrics over a sick beat.”
In only a few months 29 has attracted a spirited fan base that includes several well-known restaurateurs, one of whom lamented, “I’ve got to stop coming here. I shouldn’t like it so much.”
Their motto is “Always with love,” and everyone - from Damon, to the waitstaff, to the guy helping renovate their new addition - exudes it. From the stunning platings to the 5 Fingaz painting on the wall, there’s a lot o’ love going down. Damon ticks off the ways in which he and his staff show love: how they interact with each other and with guests, how they treat vendors and, my personal favorite, not being late.
Mostly, though, they show love with their cooking.
“I want to open people’s ideas about what’s possible with food in Bridgeport,” Damon states. “I want dishes to be as traditional as possible with ingredients based on their culture.”
Take the Curried Chicken Dumpling & Okra Soup. “The dumplings are drawn from both Caribbean and east Indian influences. Curried chicken is a staple of Caribbean cuisine and most curry is a derivative of east Indian curry. Butternut squash was seasonal at its conception and provides a great base for the dish.”
Or the Manmitas Black Rice and Crab Balls with pikliz, a Haitian condiment of pickled chili pepper and cabbage “Manmita means ‘heart,’” adds Damon. “…a universal symbol of love.” This dish is an homage to his partner, Wesley’s, Haitian family after they lost a relative.
His inventiveness and respect for the heritage of each dish are buoyed by the fresh produce and meats from local farmers.
(The space itself is in an auspicious venue. Markle Court is named after Tiny Markle, a wildly popular AM radio personality. AM radio, you may recall, used to be cool. He broadcast from a studio there until he died, at 60, in 1980. He was also considered a trailblazer and was heralded as a “giant in the city of Bridgeport.”)
Born and raised in Norwalk, the youngest of six kids, Damon announced one day that he was, now, a vegetarian. His parents, both from the “deep south” and saddled with five other offspring, wished him Godspeed, good luck making all of those meals.
He began studying herbology and figured out how the hell to cook. Broccoli, tofu. Ramps and mushrooms he foraged in Ridgefield and Weston. “I was winging it,” he laughs. “My parents weren’t cooking that stuff.”
After school, he joined the Whole Foods seafood department and was quickly promoted to head. He soaked up the financial side, learning how to be margin-savvy and was named a Top 3 performer in the Northeast.
He left and, no longer a vegetarian, explored his carnivorous side by perfecting the art of smoked brisket and mac & cheese, which he sold from his home. “I got really good at it,” he admits.
A stint at the Bedford Post Inn taught him the French method of cooking and the cruciality of a good sauce, and he became very, very good at pasta.
Then he was chef at Win Win coffee shop in Pennsylvania, started a catering business for high-end parties, and turned down a job at the prestigious Eleven Madison Park to open the popular The Steak Truck in Bridgeport.
Despite 29’s success, it’s a tough business. “You have to put out the perfect product or close to it because it could sink your business if you don’t,” he concedes. “Somedays you’re tired and you don’t want to cook.”
He lights up when talking about future plans though, including in-house farm dinners in June. “Local farmers will come and explain what you’re eating from their farms - even the chickens!” Then there’s an eight course pop-up dinner “for hard-core foodies” with celebrity Chef Ro, a Food Network Chopped champion and a Forbes magazine Overachiever Under Thirty.
Oh, and a documentary about what Damon’s done for the city of Bridgeport. Stuff like that
Before leaving, I ask him to tell me his best joke. He beams and says, “I don’t have a joke. I’m not really funny, I’m serious.”
Well, knock me over with a swizzle stick.
So I told him mine. Now he has a restaurant and a joke.
“I want to open people’s ideas about what’s possible with food in Bridgeport,” - Damon