WEST BRADENTON -- After dining career adventures in Big Sky, Mont., and Austin, Texas, Bradenton native and chef Rich Knowles is looking to cook up some big flavors for Bradenton.
Knowles, 29, is the new owner of Ezra Café. He will close the restaurant Saturday to relaunch the space Oct. 11 as enRich.
The comfort of hospitality and family drew him back to his hometown to start his own upscale restaurant at 5629 Manatee Ave. W.
"Especially with my friends and relatives spreading the news by word of mouth, that's huge. That's what really made me think I could make this place successful," Knowles said as he sat beside his father and business partner, Dick Knowles, in the restaurant's private dining room. "That's a huge advantage for me versus if I tried to do a restaurant in Austin or somewhere that I really didn't know people."
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In late January, Knowles was hired as executive chef at Ezra Café. After seeing the potential for the space, realizing his own vision and recognizing the current owner had too much on his plate, he knew it was time to make an offer.
On July 23, Knowles bought Ezra Café from Bradenton Heart Center cardiologist Dr. Raj T. Rajan, an investor in area restaurants Blu Mangrove Grill in Palmetto and Selva Grill in Sarasota. Rajan purchased Ezra Café last year from longtime owner Donna Eason.
Come October, Knowles will open enRich with the aim of it becoming a trendy dining spot using locally sourced produce, seafood, dairy and meat.
"Our mission statement is to enrich Bradenton's dining experience by incorporating global flavors with local ingredients and a refreshing atmosphere," Knowles said.
Family friends the Geraldsons will supply the restaurant's produce, Daikin Dairy in Myakka City will supply the dairy, and some of his buddies are fishermen, too. He'll also experiment with bottarga from Anna Maria Fish Co.
EnRich will be open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and closed Sunday.
From Western Frontier
Knowles has deep family roots in Manatee County, where his family farmed citrus for generations.
"My childhood was the orange groves," he said. His family ran citrus operations along Rye Road in Parrish before his father retired and the family moved to West Bradenton.
His first job was at 13 years old, working in Robin's Downtown Café. He has since gained a wealth of experience and brought that back with him to start his own restaurant.
Knowles, a 2004 Manatee High School graduate, traveled west to Big Sky after taking college classes in Gainesville.
"I only thought I was going to be out there for one winter. I ended up being there for four years," Knowles said.
In the middle of the Montana wilderness, he cooked under the tutelage of classically trained French chef Scott Mechura at the Timbers at Moonlight Lodge.
"It was my first real experience cooking on a hot line, especially the fine dining food," he said. "I worked in plenty of delis and Outback Steakhouse."
His career path followed Mechura to the millionaires-only Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, where he cooked for anyone -- Bill Gates, David Letterman, Justin Timberlake -- who decided to stop in at the private ski and golf resort on the footsteps of Yellowstone National Park's west entrance.
Knowles appreciated the slopes himself, but ended up injuring his knee. Surgery and rehabilitation brought him back home where he took odd jobs at Blue Marlin Grill and Slim's Place before getting another offer from Mechura to follow him to Austin -- to Bob's Steak & Chop House from August 2012 to September 2013.
In November, he returned home to be close to family, burned out from working far away. His unemployment didn't last long as he found an opportunity at Ezra Café through a friend.
"It kind of fell into my lap," he said.
Returning here, he is seeing more creative offerings in the Bradenton dining scene, including Derek's Rustic Coastal Cuisine right across the street on Manatee Avenue. He wants to make his own mark with enRich.
"It's going to be the most creative food in Bradenton," Knowles said. "I would love to see anyone challenge that."
His father is glad to have his son back working alongside him.
"What's more exciting for a father than to see his son pursue his dreams?" the semi-retiree said. "He has a passion for cooking. He loves it. That makes work easier when you get to wake up every morning and you get to do something you love to do. That's why we raise kids. We raise kids for them to grow up and become a great contributing member to society."
Dick Knowles will play the role of mentor and help with some of the administrative oversight of the business. The hobbyist beekeeper will also supply honey to the restaurant.
"Obviously they don't want me in the kitchen, but I will be helping him with the business side of things," the elder Knowles joked.
An oversized photograph that has graced the private dining room for years seems to be a good omen for Knowles. The black-and-white print shows the family's former property between Rye Road and Manatee River, with a tree swing hugging oak trees that hid the orange groves.
The dining rooms will have more of a touch-up than an overhaul for the opening of enRich, while the menu will see big changes.
Knowles will feature new colors on the wall while keeping an Old Florida theme. He loves the open kitchen that allows him to see his customers. He's repainting areas white and black for a clean look and will keep the white tablecloth service.
The orientation of the restaurant will change as the outdoor bistro area will serve as the main entrance, featuring bistro lights and a wall fountain to bring attention to the underutilized outdoor seats and the private dining room. Overall, the restaurant seats more than 150.
"I want to keep the same ambiance and the level of quality dining Ezra has been over the years," he said.
Craft beers will be on the menu, and Knowles is bringing some mixology inspiration from Austin, which might include a jalapeno margarita.
"One thing I want to do is the Moscow Mule -- or a version of it. You see that everywhere in Austin," Knowles said of the ginger beer and vodka drink. "We're going to get some copper mugs, which is associated with the Moscow Mule. Maybe we'll do a couple different versions of it."
Knowles was able to pick up several cooking styles and recipes while in Montana and Texas, ranging from hand-cutting steaks to cooking up a nice Italian meal.
To help bring his favorites together, his menu will focus on sharing plates to allow diners try a variety of food.
"My menu is going to be pretty concise, but I'm going to do three to five specials a day keeping the focus on seasonal stuff and what's available local," Knowles said. He's thinking about adding a "Montana plate" featuring several cuts of steak.
About 70 percent of the menu will be new at first, but he acknowledges he'll have to keep a couple of Ezra favorites.
"I will keep some of the Ezra staples like the calamari salad, which people come in droves for," Knowles said. "I can't touch that or else I'll get slaughtered."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.