Musical notes float through the air, infusing 29 Markle Ct with life’s moods, seasons and flavors. The sultry trumpet of jazz legend Miles Davis is sure to grace the downtown Bridgeport restaurant more than once during Damon “Daye” Sawyer’s 12 to 13-hour shift.
“We play music throughout service, all throughout the day when we’re prepping, when I’m thinking about ingredients and when I’m planning new menus,” says the restaurant’s co-owner and executive chef. “Music is heavily a part of what we do as a whole, from inception to creation to writing menus, to the dining experience.”
As the culinary force at 29 Markle Ct, the former professional keys and trumpet player selects a playlist as diverse and distinctive as the menu. “It’s my playlist. It’s probably about 1,000 records on there, and it’s very meticulously thought out. I want people to feel a certain way when they are dining in the space,” Sawyer continues.
“I’m a huge Miles fan. I’m a huge Pharoah Sanders fan. But it’s not just jazz. There’s blues. There’s soul. There’s alternative music and a lot of different sounds.”
Applause for the Opening Act
The music, menu and service draw crowds to the Bridgeport restaurant in numbers greater than 29 Markle Ct’s partners expected for a new fine-dining establishment. Sawyer, Wesly S. Arbuthnott and Ishalee Green officially opened at the 29 Markle Ct location in November 2022.
The chef shares why the initial welcome surprised him. “I guess how receiving the community and outlying towns have been to something completely different, something that I think Bridgeport has probably never seen before.”
The Connecticut Restaurant Association put 29 Markle Ct on its list of finalists for the 2023 CRAzies Awards in the Newcomer category. The restaurant receives accolades from patrons and food critics. In his June review, Connecticut Magazine’s James Gribbon said, “Word is, it’s a hit.”
“It’s been overwhelming and a little nerve-racking because you have to keep up with the consistency that people expect from the restaurant,” says Sawyer. “We consider ourselves on the high-end spectrum of dining. Our menu reflects that, and so does our service and experience.”
As impressive as 29 Markle Ct’s early success is the fact that the three partners built a Black-owned business without outside help. “We don’t have any investors or things like that. This is all on our own dollar,” Sawyer notes.
“I think people didn’t think it was possible to have such a dining experience provided by people of color, honestly.”
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The restaurant delivers a welcoming atmosphere from the art-covered walls to the cozy banquettes and glittering bar. “I think people are shocked, surprised, and excited that Bridgeport now has an actual dining scene like they haven’t had in the past.”
The globally-inspired food and drinks offer unique takes on culturally diverse cuisines. Chef Sawyer mentions the recently added Puerto Rican mofongo, a mashed plantain dish, as one example of the creativity and diversity coming from the kitchen.
“No one is doing anything remotely like what we’re doing on our menu. It’s the kind of thing people aren’t expecting from us. I think the ingredients, the seasonings and the techniques we use are just different.”
Writing the 29 Markle Ct Songbook
The owners of the Bridgeport restaurant created a space where diners often want to linger.
Sawyer laughs when describing the warm, friendly environment’s impact on patrons. “I’m still in awe, quite honestly, that people feel so comfortable, especially people who don’t look like us. They come in, and they are excited to be there. We have to actually tell people, ‘It’s time to go. We love having you here, but other people have to sit and eat.’”
Chef Sawyer pulls from a melting pot of knowledge that he obtained from working his way up in professional kitchens, not culinary school. “I’ve been in a lot of different kitchens across the country. The first kitchen I was in was a French kitchen. I’ve been influenced by a lot of different cuisines, as well as my own roots.”
The restaurateur’s parents are from the South, and his wife is from the Caribbean. Their influences and his fondness for smoking techniques also appear on the menu. Sawyer’s songbook for creating fresh, seasonal dishes includes American, Italian and Caribbean flavor profiles.
“I have a black rice dish called Manmita’s Black Rice & Crab. Black rice is traditionally a Haitian dish, but we make it into arancini, an Italian technique.”
In addition to the fried rice balls stuffed with crab, diners get excited about the shrimp and grits, the handmade pasta and the smoked half chicken. Sawyer’s favorite entrée is the one he first made for his wife.
He arranged a restaurant setting in their home for her birthday and did all the cooking. “One of the courses was the halibut course. It’s a seared halibut with smoked corn puree and a charred corn salad. It blew her mind. I said I’m going to remember this dish, and if I ever open a restaurant, I’ll give it a shot,” the chef recalls.
The chef uses locally grown, organic ingredients as much as possible. His approach to vegetables elevates them to the hits list. “Our glazed carrots are probably just as popular as the half-bird,” Sawyer admits.
“We make a glaze of wine, orange juice and vinegar. We reduce that down until it is thickened. We glaze our carrots after roasting them for about 15 minutes and searing them off. It’s really delicious.”
A craft cocktail bar was another must-have for Sawyer and his partners. He and head bartender Razul Branch put as much thought into formulating craft drinks as writing the menu. “Right now, Rebecca Legoute is our lead mixologist. She’s a Black woman. She’s amazing and super creative. She’s probably in the kitchen as much as I am thinking about what is next,” adds the chef.
All of the syrups and mixes are made from scratch. The signature cocktails include a cucumber & jalapeño margarita and a smoked new fashion. “It’s not the traditional old fashion. We use a certain type of cherry. It has a couple new ingredients that will remain private,” says the Bridgeport entrepreneur.ed
Sawyer explains that some of his inspiration comes from study, research and exploration. “I read a lot of texts on techniques, other chefs and what they are doing in the world, as well as my own personal dining experiences throughout my travels. I never just go and eat. I’m always trying to be informed and thoughtful. I try to take my experiences and say, ‘Oh, I see what they did here, but I can take it and do something totally different and make it my own.”
While high-quality standards and identifiable consistency are hallmarks of most celebrated restaurants, Sawyer emphasizes that perfection is a challenge to achieve every day with every dish.
“People come for dinner and expect it to be excellent. We’re putting out hundreds and hundreds of plates a week, and every once in a while, one or two of them will not be what we planned or expected to put out just because of human error. I hope people have an open mind about things like that.”
Discovering Culinary Passion
The 29 Markle Ct website does promise this: everything is done “always with love.” That is because Sawyer fell in love with cooking after pursuing other career interests. As a teenager, he started experimenting with vegetarian cooking in his parent’s kitchen.
The smell of his mother’s fried chicken had ended his plant-based only eating by the time he became a seafood manager at Whole Foods in Connecticut.
“I was a fishmonger and trained probably six or seven other managers who went on to have careers at Whole Foods in different regions. I know that’s where I learned the financial aspect of running a business. It had large volumes, transactions and inventories. I was fiscally responsible for our success,” Sawyer recounts.
Next, Sawyer started his first business, smoking brisket and delivering lunches. In 2016, he began working in the kitchen of actor Richard Gere’s Bedford Post Inn. That exciting, challenging experience made him realize that cooking was his love language and destiny.
He moved on to other New York and Connecticut restaurants before starting Our Table Dinners catering service with some friends. The self-trained chef cooked for artists, music executives and entertainers from New York to Los Angeles. Catering events, including Grammy parties, solidified his reputation for innovation.
When the director of NY Prime Beef recruited Sawyer to run a new food truck venture, he became the executive chef of The Steak Truck. The venture took off, and two trucks are now operating, one in Bridgeport and the second on Long Island.
Sawyer currently serves as a consultant for the business run by Frankie D’Angelo. “I’m not as hands-on as before, but I did train the staff of both those food trucks. They continue to do all the things spearheaded by me. There was no ownership there. That’s why I was so passionate about opening something that was mine,” remarks Sawyer.
Sawyer’s discovery of his culinary passion taught him critical lessons about what it takes to thrive and rise in the hospitality industry. “You have to love it. There’s no other way around it. You have to love getting burned every day, hot kitchens, dealing with multiple personalities on bad days and good days, and dealing with customers who may be difficult.”
The chef and restaurant owner also suggests that anyone seeking a big paycheck should look elsewhere for a career. “If you think it is an easy job, this life is not for you. If you like getting paid tons of money and think that is the goal, it will not happen for quite some time. You have to be patient and tremendously dedicated to doing this work.”
Diverse and Talented Team
Chef Sawyer aligns himself with talented people who are just as passionate and dedicated to excellence as he is. His partner Ishalee is his wife’s sister, and his partner Wesley is her fiancé.
“I’ve known Wesley about six years. Neither one was in the restaurant business prior to 29 Markle. But their respective talents have definitely led to our success,” maintains Sawyer.
The partners and the rest of the restaurant’s employees, emphasize teamwork and inclusion. Sawyer describes the staff’s diversity. “We employ everyone. We have people from Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, Puerto Rico and Europe. I think it is important that we try to reflect on what is happening in the world in real time. Sometimes, people like to feel they can come to an establishment where they are being served by people who look them.”
Head bartender Branch owns BPT Creates and is immersed in Bridgeport’s arts community. His expertise helps produce the art-focused décor of 29 Markle Ct. The restaurant will soon have original artwork displayed on its walls.
“The restaurant will take on this kind of art gallery feel over the next couple of months as paintings from local artists are commissioned and cycled in and out over the seasons,” Sawyer discloses.
The ambitious chef does not foresee his 17-year-old son or 23-year-old daughter joining his pursuit of a restaurant dynasty. However, Sawyer’s dream is to open four more restaurants in the next seven years, each with a different concept. That way, he can provide opportunities for others who look like him and his partners.
More restaurants will allow Chef Sawyer to fulfill his desire to pass on his love of creative cooking, upscale dining and quality food and drinks. “The love of cooking and the passion are lost in many places. I realize that when I go out to eat. I never want to have that kind of establishment. I want people to feel that we put a lot of time, effort and passion into everything we do and care about the plates we put in front of them.”