Raleigh restaurateur Dean Ogan, seeking better recipe for life, returns to the kitchen

aweigl@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2013 

  • Rocky Top in the Triangle

    Dean Ogan’s business, Rocky Top Hospitality, has several entities:

    • Dean’s Seafood Grill and Bar, 1080 Darrington Drive, Cary, Info: deansseafoodgrill.com

    • Twisted Fork, 3751 Sumner Blvd., Suite 170, Raleigh, outside Triangle Town Center mall, Info: thetwistedfork.com

    • The Daily Planet Cafe is located in the Nature Research Center of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences,121 W. Jones St., Raleigh, Info: thedailyplanetcafe.com

    • Rocky Top Catering is based on the original Michael Dean’s location, which is now called 1705 Prime at 1705 Millbrook Road, Raleigh. The company caters events there but also offers off-site catering. The company is also the exclusive caterer for events at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and the Blue Zone at UNC’s Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. Info: rockytopcatering.com

By 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, Cary’s dinner crowd has descended upon Dean’s Seafood Grill and Bar. The kitchen, already busy, is about to get slammed with entree orders from a table of 28.

“Here it comes,” cried chef Mike Harris as the ticket machine cranks up to a steady whine. Harris is expediting, placing each table’s food on trays for waiters to take out to the dining room. Owner Dean Ogan is running the hot line, barking instructions at sous chefs and line cooks. Ogan will last another 15 minutes before Harris has to come around to help him. It’s what Ogan expects.

Just a few hours earlier, Ogan, 44, in a white chef’s jacket and black pants with a white apron tied around his waist, stood in the kitchen surveying the bustle before dinner service. He talked about his bumpy transition back to the kitchen after 12 years managing several restaurants.

“You forget the very basic things,” Ogan said.

Case in point: the previous Saturday, it was Ogan’s turn to prepare the sauces. He forgot how to make beurre blanc, a French sauce made of butter, shallots and white wine. He had to ask Harris for help.

“It was embarrassing for me,” Harris said of the episode.

Ogan takes a different view: “I can’t have any ego.”

He excused himself to answer a phone call from Maite Vigil, director of operations for Ogan’s restaurant and catering business, Rocky Top Hospitality. When he returned, Ogan joked: “That was my other job. It gets in the way of my cooking job.”

In December, Ogan split with his business partner, Jeff Schneck. The two men had been considering expanding their Tribeca Tavern restaurants to Greensboro and beyond. Ogan decided he didn’t want to do it. Opening restaurants in other cities would mean living out of a hotel for months at a time and Ogan didn’t want to be away from his family that much. Instead of more, Ogan chose less.

It’s not what his competitors are doing. Kevin and Stacey Jennings, who own Raleigh’s Urban Food Group, have five restaurants and are exploring opening more Vivaces in Atlanta, Denver, Tampa, Fla., and Bethesda, Md. Greg Hatem, who owns Empire Eats with five restaurants in Raleigh, plans to open a second location of its most popular eatery, the Pit, in Durham in early August.

‘Better than being big’

Ogan’s decision meant walking away from the Tribeca Taverns he owned with Schneck, as well as the Mash House in Fayetteville. He kept the company name, a catering operation based in North Raleigh, a restaurant in Cary that became Dean’s Seafood, the Twisted Fork restaurant outside Triangle Town Center mall and management of the Daily Planet Cafe at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.

“It seems he’s trying to get back in touch with why he started restaurants in the first place,” Hatem says. “Being better at what you believe in is better than being big.”

Downsizing meant Ogan needed to work in the kitchen at Dean’s Seafood. That seems fitting because Dean’s Seafood is in some ways a throwback to Michael Dean’s, Ogan’s first restaurant, which opened in Raleigh in 1998 and was the last time Ogan cooked full time.

Ogan opened Michael Dean’s with his college buddy, Kevin Summers. They met the end of their freshmen year at the University of Tennessee, hence the company name. Both were waiters at Darryl’s, one of the nation’s first fast-casual restaurant chains. (Darryl’s was started in Raleigh in 1970s and founded by Thad Eure Jr. and Charles M. Winston, who also created the Angus Barn, and Darryl Davis of Cary.)

At Darryl’s, Ogan started as a waiter, talked his way into the kitchen and eventually worked his way into management. The company moved him all over the country. In 9 1/2 years, he worked in 10 different cities, eventually landing in North Carolina. By 1997, Ogan and Summers were ready to open their own restaurant so they quit their jobs at Darryl’s and opened Michael Dean’s at the corner of Millbrook and Old Wake Forest roads.

“We decided it was time to take the leap,” Ogan said.

Scaling back for family

The restaurant offered modern American food, specializing in fresh seafood, often prepared on a wood-fired oven. The restaurant struggled at first but eventually took off. Based on the success of Michael Dean’s, Ogan and Summers opened Bogart’s at 510 Glenwood South in 2001, and then they just kept opening restaurants. In 26 months, they opened Bogart’s; Mash House in Fayetteville; Hi5, which later became Draft; Vivo, which later became Red Room; and Twisted Fork. “We kept getting pregnant with other restaurants,” Ogan said.

Glenwood South was just starting to heat up as a nightlife destination. Ogan discovered he was essentially running two businesses in each of his three restaurants at Glenwood South: a restaurant before 10 p.m. and a club until 2 a.m.

It was fun for a while, but then Ogan got married and started having children.

“When I first met Dean, he would get home at 3 a.m. on Saturdays,” said Jennifer Ogan during a recent Monday night dinner at the family’s home off Falls Lake in North Raleigh. “When Nathan was born, that got old for me really fast.”

The couple’s son, Nathan, now 7, and their daughter, Randi, 5, are coloring at the dinner table after eating the meal their father prepared: risotto with short ribs, goat cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, asparagus and spinach. This is why Ogan has scaled back his businesses. He wants two days off a week. He wants to be home to cook dinner for his family four nights a week. He’s not there yet, but he’s working on it.

Ogan and his wife sit at the dinner table and talk about the many transformations his business has undergone and what prompted each change.

He went from owning mainly Glenwood South restaurants and clubs to primarily suburban restaurants where the dinner rush ends at 8 p.m.; from several business partners to none; from managing many restaurants to working in a kitchen. The first big change was not renewing the leases at 510 Glenwood so he could stop being in the nightlife business. The second big change was his split with Schneck in December.

‘He’s much happier’

The prelude to that was Ogan and Schneck talking about opening a Tribeca Tavern in Greensboro – a decision that would have taken Ogan away from his family more. When he brought up the idea to his wife, he said, “She didn’t have to say anything. She just gave a look that says, ‘You are an idiot.’ ” He added: “I can’t operate a restaurant without being involved.”

(At the time, a typical Saturday for Ogan meant spending an hour or more in all six of his restaurants. He would visit Twisted Fork and Tribeca Tavern in North Raleigh during the lunch service, go to the gym, then drive to the Mash House in Fayetteville, then travel to Cary to check on Tribeca Tavern and Rockwell’s, and then back to Glenwood South to check on his sole remaining restaurant there, the now-closed Draft.)

Jennifer Ogan, herself a pharmacist, asked: “What’s the reason? To make more money? We have a comfortable life.”

Ogan chimed in: “We aren’t boat people. We aren’t second home people.”

And so in December, Ogan split with Schneck and gave up his grueling Saturday routine.

“It just wasn’t as gratifying,” Ogan said. “It’s not like showing up at 9 a.m. and getting to cook until 9:30 p.m.”

Now Ogan’s days are spent cleaning fish, thinking up dinner specials and sweating over a stove during the dinner rush. And more nights are spent at home cooking meals like the one his family just got to enjoy.

“He’s much happier,” Jennifer Ogan said.

One more benefit: this spring, Ogan took his wife and children on a vacation to Florida, including a few days at Disney World where he and his son got to ride Space Mountain and his daughter had dinner with Cinderella. At 11 days, it was the longest vacation Ogan had ever taken in his life.

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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