Joanie Swords is dreaming of Italy. In the fall, she will seek out the discoveries that author Frances Mayes writes about in her book, “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
As Harper & Madison, the cafe, bakery and market that she has “put her heart and soul into,” enters its fourth year, she can trust her staff to operate the business while she’s away.
Named after her two children and located in the hospital corridor, Harper & Madison has become a popular gathering place. Lines queuing for the offerings of paninis and salads often go out the door during the lunch hour.
In the summer, Swords, her executive chef Shane Weigel and Lilac executive chef Jeremy Engebretson offer al fresco farm-to-table dinners. A long table lines the middle of the street in front of the cafe where dozens of diners partake of multi-course meals. Then, for post-feasting entertainment, Swords has lent her voice to accompany Marion Booth Green in a few jazzy tunes.
“Lots of people have a dream, and mine is to be gone at least a month,” Swords said. Taking cooking lessons for a week and then working in a bed and breakfast or farm are currently on her wish list.
“I don’t have many plans,” she said. “I like traveling alone. As I get older, it is easier to let our world get smaller. We get too comfortable.”
Swords wants to experience the amazement Mayes describes in her book—the vibrant markets, lush vineyards and the spiritual revelation of preparing food.
“The whole trip is based on romance: the romance of cooking, the romance of a foreign place, and the romance of being an adventurer,” Swords said. “It is the romance of communicating in another language.”
There is another reason for the trip, which Swords confessed to with a sheepish grin and innocence in her eyes.
“Lately I have been feeling like a fraud,” she said. “I cannot cook. When people say my food is good, I tell them I’m fortunate to have a good staff.” Weigel, who has been with Harper & Madison since its inception, oversees the creation of all the savory offerings while Swords nurtures the baking.
“I want to come clean,” Swords admitted. “This cooking thing is really bugging me.”
And although she really wants to learn how to cook, she also admitted a distaste for a key ingredient in Italian cooking.
“I have an aversion to garlic,” she said. “When they’re cooking it in the kitchen I sometimes have to go into the walk-in refrigerator, but I love onions and shallots.”
Swords said Harper, her 18-year-old son, “can cook better than I can.” And she said her daughter Madison likes to say her mother can make only four things: roast chicken, spaghetti, tacos and toast.
Swords elaborated, “There is a right way of making toast. You have to wait to butter the toast. If you butter it too soon, it becomes soggy.” She also asserted that the optimal cinnamon toast requires two parts sugar to one part cinnamon. In the future, toast with jam may be an offering on the chalkboard menu.
A customer once described Swords as a “serial entrepreneur,” and she takes it as a compliment. In addition to Harper & Madison, she previously opened Poet Street Market and Dancing Ovens.
The success of the three endeavors can be attributed to her willingness learn. Her baking skills are self-taught. She took a crash course from the kitchen manager at Le Petite Cafe, and Mark Kennedy allowed her to work every position at his Bert & Ernie’s Restaurant. Both of those businesses used to be in downtown Billings.
Swords did take one detour off the baking path 10 years ago, when she enrolled in the nursing program at Rocky Mountain College in hopes of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse, only to discover “I was not happy as a nurse.”
In a different way, Swords practices her nursing skills at Harper & Madison, where customers come for nourishment and healing conversation. The well-lit space accented by farmhouse décor is a place of respite and calm.
Her four-layer coconut cake, red velvet cupcakes, or asparagus sundried tomato quiche provide palliative medicine. People gather there for the atmosphere as well as the tasty food, and Swords is usually in the front of the house, unobtrusively greeting customers as she collects dishes and cups, her presence part of the homey ambiance.
“To walk into Harper and Madison is to be enveloped in a warm, friendly embrace,” said Amy Brown, a regular customer. “Joanie Swords has enlivened our quiet neighborhood with her sweet temptations and savory delights.”
As much as Swords enjoys what she does, she also knows the value of stepping back for a while, and hence the trip to Tuscany this fall.
“In order to stay positive about a restaurant,” she said, “you need to take breaks to remember what it is was that took you there in the first place.”