A veritable best-of cornucopia of what to eat and drink in Princeton: The dry-aged angus beef burger with Adirondack cheddar and house-made pickles at Agricola. The Dinky Bar & Kitchen’s soft pretzels and spicy pimento cheese dip. The organic egg omelet with ham, Gruyère, and crème fraîche at Cargot Brasserie. The Two Sevens margarita with blanco tequila, lime, and agave. The person who helped make these culinary dreams a reality is sitting somewhat anonymously at a table in the front of the house at his French-style brasserie, Cargot. With the whir of the barista behind the bar churning out cappuccinos and espressos as backdrop, Jim Nawn—Fenwick Hospitality Group founder, gentleman farmer, and local restaurateur—watches as the breakfast crowd slowly turns over to lunch, signaled by the increasing hustle of the servers and the crescendo of laughter and silverware. He appears very much in his element, admiring from a respectful distance the practiced orchestrations of the staff he has carefully assembled—but that wouldn’t entirely be true. Creating what is considered one of the area’s leading restaurant groups was not what he considered his “calling.”
“I’m not a foodie,” Nawn says, sipping a coffee, sun streaming in through the wide windows behind him. “I come from a family of six and we ate what was put on the table. For me, it’s about the project, the building, the people, the team-building, the physical
space—it’s about creating a feeling, an experience. That is what really excites me.”
Born in Holden, Massachusetts, Nawn grew up with his five sisters in the same small town where his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were raised—and where everyone knew their names. He went to nearby Holy Cross College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts, and after working for his father, Nawn headed to Boston College to get his M.B.A. With that degree under his belt, he took a job with an international pharmaceutical company and spent 11 years in finance and administration while he and his wife, Ann, started their family. Fast-forward to 1998: After signing a development agreement with Panera to franchise 40 units, he went town-hopping through central and northern New Jersey for locations and found Princeton.
“I went all over the state with Panera and [decided] Princeton was a good place to do business,” he says. “The energy Princeton University brings to this town, the intelligence, the youth … it’s so vibrant. It’s where Ann and I chose to live—and we really liked living here.”
After a brief return to Massachusetts to be closer to family, Nawn made his way back to Princeton and did something entirely unexpected: He sold his units back to Panera; bought a working farm, the 112-acre certified-organic Great Road Farm, in Skillman; and registered at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.
“When I walked away from Panera, I was on my own again,” he says. “I tend to jump into things, but I like to be prepared when I jump. Going to school was a time-management technique so I didn’t jump into something too quickly.”
While he worked toward completing both the I.C.E. Culinary Arts and Culinary Management programs, he began to conjure the idea of a restaurant of his own, a gathering place in the heart of the town he now called “home.” He also had his first experience working in a professional kitchen, an externship at a Flatiron District restaurant. The six-week culinary turn gave Nawn on-the-line training in a standard-issue high-end restaurant kitchen, complete with the requisite blood, sweat, and spectacle. It also provided him with the insight into what he knew his own kitchen, once he had one, would not be.
“One day, the executive sous chef asks me to prepare the vegetables for mirepoix. I get the oil in the pan and I start roasting. Then he comes over and starts screaming at me. To this day, I still don’t know if he was just testing me,” he recalls with a laugh. “I’ve never punched anybody—I mean, not in anger—and if I had been somebody else, I would have taken a swing at him because he was in my face. But I thought, ‘Just keep your head. Nothing we’re doing here is life or death.’”
And keep his head he did: After working with a consultant to gather information on the dynamic local restaurant scene, and with Great Road Farm as his culinary muse, he opened his inaugural eatery, the rustic American–themed Agricola (agricola, appropriately enough, is the Latin word for “farmer”) in 2013. The classic English pub–style spot The Dinky Bar came next, in 2016, then the French brasserie Cargot the following summer. And the final jewel in the food crown debuted in late 2017: the Central–and South American–inspired cantina Two Sevens.
“Someone said, ‘Heavy is the head of the man who wears the crown.’ And yes, sometimes it is hard, partly because if I could put my hands on it and do it [all myself], I would. But you can’t do that,” he says. “The [big] business decisions are things I worry about. But the actual operation, when we service, when we open, the details [of that] … that’s all in the hands of the general manager and the chefs and my teams. I trust that they know what they’re doing and, if they need me, they’ll tell me.”
A typical workday for Nawn has a fluid, free-flowing quality to it—his “privilege to roam”—and that suits him just fine. He has an office at the farm, where he works alongside his bookkeeper and checks in with farm manager Kyle Goedde. But he’s happiest when he’s making his circuit of town, usually beginning at the bottom of Witherspoon Street, at Two Sevens, where he chats with the staff and occasionally picks up a few tacos to go.
Next he walks up the street, past the Arts Council and the Princeton Public Library, and into the heart (and occasional chaos) of town, to Agricola. He then heads up through campus, making his way to The Dinky Bar and Cargot, where he might take a meeting with his business partner (and one-time college roommate,) Rich Galvin, or sit down with his director of operations Billy Van Dolsen, to discuss special projects—like the upcoming gala for the Princeton Public Library, to be held this November, at the new Lewis Center for the Arts, where Nawn’s Fenwick Catering & Events group will be providing a plated dinner for approximately 400 guests.
“If you’re walking on a treadmill in your basement, it’s exercise. But walking down Witherspoon Street and across town, to me that’s an experience. It incorporates everything about the [area],” he says. “You inevitably bump into people you know, you see people who are interesting. And is there a more beautiful campus? It’s a really cool [cross section of] the whole town … and I think it’s good for the soul.”
All of this movement, the hellos and hand-shaking, the four-successful-restaurants
responsibility, the purveying of so much food, could easily overwhelm a person—or at the very least go to his head. So perhaps the most notable hallmark of Nawn’s quartet of restaurants and, indeed, of the man himself is the calm, level-headed approach to what easily could be daily level-10 drama. His kitchens are places of order and relatively peaceful food creation. He firmly believes in the power of open and honest communication between him and his staff—and he makes himself vulnerable to feedback of all kinds so he can constantly improve upon his processes and practices. This philosophy for running his business also applies to how he wants to live his life—and it’s become a valuable piece of parental wisdom he’s often dropped on his three sons: James, 25; Peter, 23; and Henry, 19.
“You grow from [your missteps] and sometimes you’ll be embarrassed [by them]. But you know what? If you can live your life treating victory and defeat with the same response, you’re probably going to be more effective and happier,” he says. “I’ve told my boys this many times: It’s all part of the journey: You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low because you’re only going to be fooling yourself. I think the law of averages would suggest that eventually everything kind of does come back to … average. So, if you’re really lucky, chances are you’re going to be unlucky, too.”
This belief system is something he’s found order and solace in particularly over the past six months, after Ann, his wife of 26 years, unexpectedly and suddenly passed away in October of last year.
“I think human life is imperfect, and God gives you what you need to deal with the imperfections. And that, to me, is kind of this whole idea that life rolls out as it does,” he says. “Fifty-two years and nothing bad happened to me. If I think I’m going to escape life without some terrible thing happening to me, that’s [silly].
“I cry a lot now,” he admits. “I married a great woman. [But] I have a great family and good friends. I was given everything I need to put one foot in front of the other for my boys and for myself … and there’s no reason why I can’t get through this.”
With the signs of spring (Nawn’s favorite season) finally unfurling everywhere along his regular walking route—from the pear trees along Witherspoon Street to the Japanese flowering cherry trees on campus—and Great Road Farm coming alive with more than seven acres worth of vegetables (the freshly harvested asparagus will be on the menu, of course), Nawn is optimistic about the brave, new world he’s living in—but that won’t include another restaurant.
“Ann and I talked about this before she died [as a way] of making things simpler: We were going to enjoy what we had built,” he confides. “So I’m not building anymore. Yes, we’re operating. The investments have been made. We need to operate. We need to [continue to] make each experience consistent and enjoyable, and that’s building on some level, but it’s just not building in physical spaces anymore. There’s not room for another restaurant by Jim Nawn in this town,” he adds. “It’s a great place to do business, but I’ve done all I can.
“There’s this Maya Angelou quote: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ That to me is true across everything: business and life and whatever. And in this business, people … their experiences are a feeling experience. It’s not a say or a do. It’s a feeling. And that,” he says, “is what hospitality is all about.” —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Jess Blackwell; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Spring/Summer 2018)