Behind the scenes of Sky’s, the region’s leading fine-dining establishment
We are seated in circle back lounge chairs next to the massive wine storage library, waiting for the head chef to join us.
It is a Friday afternoon, about four hours before Sky’s opens for the night. The bank of windows that lines the Demers Avenue side of the fine dining restaurant and lounge is at our backs, shining the type, and volume, of soft light into the place that any interior photographer would dream of.
Richie West, the award-winning drink mixologist and lounge manager that started washing dishes at Sky’s when it was at a different location and known as Sanders 1907, is there. Pat Madigan, the general manager that returned to the city after stints in major fine-dining establishments in Washington D.C., (and also an employee of the Sanders’ days), is there. Eventually, Joe Hanson, the head chef that trained under Kim Holmes, the founder and head chef in the Sander’s years, exits his kitchen and daily routine to join us. Hanson is happy to sit with us, but it’s clear from his continual glances back towards the kitchen, part of his attention is still simmering elsewhere.
When we start talking about food, and table design and kitchen layout and the many reasons why Sky’s has become the premier place for fine dining in the region, however, his internal draw back to his kitchen wanes. Soon, Hanson and West and Madigan are all smiling and laughing and expounding on their run at Sanders and their current chapter as the daily leaders of Sky’s. West and Madigan each make comments about Sky’s that help pinpoint why the restaurant works in this city
“Sky’s is fine dining with a casual atmosphere,” West says. “You don’t have to dress up but you can if it feels right. I’ve seen patrons in tuxedos and overalls on the same night.”
Despite the fact that Sky’s serves the type of food and offers the type of setting that would excel on any major market fine dining circuit, Madigan explains that the Grand Forks eatery should be thought of as a neighborhood place with high-end food. “You get that full level of service and attention to detail here (that other fine dining establishments offer), but you don’t feel intimidated,” Madigan says.
It is hard to argue with Madigan’s assessment. Sitting with them on that Friday afternoon before the evening rush started, I felt like I’d known each of them for a long time, like they were my neighbors or friends. The longer we sat there and the more we talked, the easier it was to understand what West, Madigan, Hanson and Sky’s is all about. The people there—West, Madigan, other staff, or Hanson if you are lucky enough to catch him outside of the kitchen—are great to be around. They can talk with a fine wine lingo, describe a unique dish only a head chef of Hanson’s caliber could make, or, the state of UND hockey and the Minnesota Vikings. It is easy and relaxing to be at Sky’s. It is also a special place, offering an elegant setting where every detail is accounted for and everything you see—from the table legs to the hanging lights—is distinctly exquisite, or as West and Madigan would say in their refreshing and inviting non-pretentious way: it all just has a wow factor.
Managing the High Standards
Sky’s could compete with fine dining establishments in any major market. Madigan knows, he’s worked at high-end restaurants in major markets. The key to success with any fine-dining spot is to plan ahead and prepare for the night’s situation. Madigan wakes up thinking of table arrangements and leaves each night moving items around in preparation for the next day. His wine list is numbered at 1,800 different types because in part, he says, he wants to have everyone’s favorite bottle. The best days at Sky’s for Madigan feature big parties or wedding groups. The greatest and most rewarding comments are those related to the smallest details—the amount of light being put out from the hanging bulbs, the placement of a painting, the folds of a napkin—because everything a patron sees, touches, smells, or experiences during their stay is something Madigan has stressed over.
For West, the success of Sky’s relates to the constant buy-in he and Madigan try to instill into the entire staff. “We want the service and hospitality to be as high-end and memorable as this place looks,” West says. The job can be hard, they both admit. The nights are long and sometimes the mornings come too early. The constant stress of managing the smallest details is a requirement, not a choice. But, providing an escape or a wow factor or a best-of-the-best style of service makes managing Sky’s and Cloud9 lounge worth it for Hanson, West and Madigan. They all said that in some way on that Friday afternoon, an hour after we had started talking at our circle back chairs next to the wine library. The hustle and calamity that naturally happens every day at a restaurant was just starting. By the end of our talk, they were all looking over their shoulders to their respective areas and duties. They enjoyed talking but they wanted to get back to work. As we were finishing up, I asked them where they would go and eat on their days off. West let out a quick laugh and answered before Hanson and Madigan with a confidence that indicated his answer would suffice for all of them. “We always come here on our days off.” G
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PHOTOS BY: MANSTROM PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 1, 2019