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The Making of a Cook

Read James Mark’s firsthand account of his journey “from washing dishes to slinging on a line to developing desserts for Michelin-starred restaurants to culturing sourdough starters and butchering whole animals.”

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One thing that I want to establish from the outset is that north as a restaurant is not about a single person – there is no “chef.” We are a group of cooks who have lived and worked in this city for six or seven years who want to cook the food that we like to eat. So there are a lot of seemingly dissonant elements of our menus, but they are actually harmonious in a completely inauthentic manner. We have lived in Rhode Island for a long time, and so we love New England food. Some of our best friends in Providence are Guatemalan; we are completely enamored with their culture and food. The flavors that can be found in the Cambodian restaurants and markets of this city have astounded our palates, hitting us so hard that we have no choice but to try to replicate them, trying to produce that same reaction in our customers. And finally our past, the buildup of flavor experiences and restaurant lives that we have been so lucky to have over the last 11 years, both helps guide and define what we cook.

Personally, I started cooking for a job when I was 15 – still in high school but with the social anxiety and pre-manboobs that will prevent a teenager from having pesky distractions like dates or sports to worry about. I helped open a McCormick & Schmick’s at the mall in the next town over, and that restaurant defined my first few years of cooking. When I moved to Providence from New Jersey to attend Johnson & Wales, my boss also moved up to open the local branch of McCormick. I stuck with him and moved to Charlotte, NC where I helped open yet another new McCormick branch. Leaving the country for my co-op at JWU, I ended working at Maes-y-Neuadd in North Wales. It was a small inn with a restaurant attached.

Wales really demarcated my mentality switch from a line cook slinging cashew tilapia and sole parm to more fine dining leanings. At the time, the cooks worked six days at Maes-y-Neuadd: five days in the kitchen and one day in the garden, with one day off. The day started with a two-mile hike up the Welsh mountains from the staff house to the inn at 6 for the 7am. breakfast service, followed by a long prep day while lunch went on, a very large staff lunch, then an hour and a half to two hour break until 5. Then, dinner service started and we would finish and clean hopefully by 10:30, and then catch a ride to the town pub for last call. It was at Maes-y-Neuadd that I grew and picked my first vegetables, where I baked my first loaf of bread, where I made my first terrine. Everything was done in house and everyday we had to write a brand new menu for the guests. If a guest stayed for two weeks we needed to write 14 different menus in a row, each with 13-15 courses, depending on how one counted them. Very intense for a 19-year-old cook whose cooking experience basically consisted of slinging at a higher end chain. I floundered a lot, but the small crew of three there really helped push me.

When I came back stateside I had this strong desire to branch out in my knowledge base. The connection between farms and restaurants had not really hit over here yet. A few people were doing it but this was before Farm Fresh, before Wild Rhody, before Blackbird and Stony Hill Farms and everyone else were really networking. None of the restaurants in the city really interested me (which was due to my own ignorance, not because of what they were doing). I found a small bakery in North Smithfield that had a wood-fired oven, and I showed up there looking for a job.

Maxie's made amazing bread. I can close my eyes and still smell their sourdough and durum loaves. I remember the weight of the peel in my hand, the structure of the dough between my fingers. I can hear the cacophony of crackling crust that would happen whenever we pulled a batch out. Unfortunately, the bread business is really fucking hard. Their profit margins are incredibly thin. We didn't make enough money, couldn't pay the rent, and one day my door key wouldn't turn when I came into work at midnight. A week or two later, the oven, a behemoth built brick by brick with the hands of my 50-year-old boss, was torn down and a tanning salon went in. It was one of the saddest times for me; to this day I have yet to taste bread like that.

I think everyone from my generation in this industry tries to compare their own lives to that of Anthony Bourdain. His book, Kitchen Confidential, is incredibly ubiquitous in this alternative world where we live and work; for many of us it is the reason we started cooking professionally in the first place. The next job I took could easily been considered my “wilderness years”: it was debauched, filled with booze and drugs, but a remarkable lack of sex (something that really bummed me out at the time, but have since gotten over). A friend from class got me a job at L'Epicureo, a once renowned restaurant from the Hill “reborn” in the Hotel Providence. Chef Rick Allair (who is now killing it at Providence Coal Fired Pizza) had created a culture of fine dining there – exactly what I thought I wanted. Rick, Eric Haugen (former chef at the Ocean House, now somewhere in NYC), and Jason Dragonetti were doing a beautiful, modern menu, highly complex. Two weeks after I started, Rick left. Two weeks after that, Eric left, leaving Jason in charge of a crew of college students who though they knew way more than they did. I met and started working with Tim Shulga here, starting a lifelong friendship/party/cookout. Along with a crew of other young idiots that would move on to work at some of the country's finest restaurants, we drank, cooked for basically no one (L'Epicureo was bleeding money), and thought so highly of ourselves with our seven pan pickups that would swamp us with five tickets. It was a stupid time, and looking back on it we definitely acted like the idiots that we were.

In the middle of my time at L'Epicureo I went abroad again, this time to Southeast Asia. Taking a school sponsored semester abroad ended up being a very poor decision, although staying in Asia for a few months after everyone else left ended up being a great idea. The completely different cooking systems of Asia amazed me; I couldn't grasp how these dishes and flavors were conceived and prepared. The breath of dishes in Singapore, the gritty character and deep soulfulness of Thailand, the complexity of Hong Kong’s identity, and the pure audio/visual stimulation of Tokyo all have profound influences on my cooking today. And while each city’s cuisine and culture was completely different from one another, they all had some sort of identity dichotomies – whether between styles of food, Eastern and Western philosophies, or between the traditional and the modern. I was going through similar struggles in defining myself at the time – there are days that I still do today. In many ways we have embraced that struggle as what defines us and our food. We’re not pigeonholed by a particular culture or style; our only rule being that it has to be fucking delicious.

I came back to Providence to finish my classes and to keep working at L'Epicureo, but I knew my time there would be done soon. I craved something new, and the restaurant was sinking fast. Back when Eater.com was only in New York they were doing a ton of coverage on David Chang. As I started reading his writing I grew determined that his restaurants were where I wanted to cook. They were opening up Momofuku Ko in a few weeks, and needed a cook; I applied through CraigsList and got myself a stage at Momofuku Noodle Bar. (The Ko kitchen was not yet open.) I worked fast for my first day, made friends with my Mexican counterpart, and overall had a very good time. The pace was fast, the food delicious, and the staff drink was as many PBR’s as I could handle. I was sold. Luckily, I got the job at Ko.

Ko is an amazing restaurant, and at the time was a completely unique experience. While there has been a rise in “chef counters/foodbars” across NYC (Brooklyn Fare, Alter?, Blanca), back in 2008 they didn't exist – at least not in the pared down form of Ko. There was chef de cuisine Peter Serpico, sous chef Sam Gelman, two cooks, Mitch Bates and myself, and a dishwasher named Sinaido. Originally there was no front of house, but quickly we realized that wouldn't work and two servers/bussers/hostesses were added. I was in way over my head, and demoted to porter/prep cook within two days. But that was the entire crew. Eventually we added lunch service and another cook, but it was those five people with which we earned three stars from the New York Times and a few weeks later two Michelin stars. I remember being up in Providence on my only day off when I got a congratulatory text from Sam and freaked out at a house/college party. No one really understood why I was sitting against a wall overcome with emotion. They had no idea how hard we worked, how hard everyday there was – the massive amount of hours and determination and skill that was involved. I would leave North Jersey at 6 in the morning to get there by 7, check in orders, soft boil eggs, make chicharrons and tiny potato chips, micro-brunoise radishes, cook and peel crawfish and lobsters. I was cooking multi-component staff meals for some of the best cooks in the city. I would work by myself for seven hours in the morning until the rest of the crew showed and then work another eight hours in the basement.

Chang couldn't stand me. He told me that not a single person in any of the restaurants’ histories has made him as mad as I did. Lord knows I was trying like hell to please him. He put me through a ringer of physical, mental and emotional abuses that broke me multiple times, but the rest of the crew always stuck up for me when he was on the cusp of firing me. Chang would break me; Peter and the rest of the crew would build me up again. Everything I know about kitchen life I learned at Ko from that crew: how to behave, how to give credit, how to stay humble, how eat out, how to think about a prep list, how to cook.

There is a management philosophy within the Momofuku restaurants that I respect and hope to replicate. It is their theory on expansion. In order to keep the best people you possibly can within the company, the company needs to expand and grow as your cooks do. That means opening new restaurants, but it also means opening new alternative spaces: office spaces, art spaces, shop spaces. This is how Momofuku Milk Bar came to be. An opportunity for a bakery space opened up next to Momofuku Ssam Bar, and Christina Tosi (who was at the time working in the Ko basement) was ready to expand. Working next to her everyday in the basement, along with making fresh bread daily for staff meal, landed me a job as the restaurant group’s only baker. Luckily, Momofuku is fairly Asian and doesn't require much bread, because I had no clue what the fuck I was doing. I had never run a full bake by myself on a large scale.

The next year was a difficult mix of a few highs and a lot of lows. I was working 110-115 hours a week, six days a week, with my only day off devoted to a small produce company that I started, delivering produce from small family farms in my native South Jersey to downtown restaurants. I slept in the basement of Ssam on cardboard boxes or on the benches in the dining room. My bread was mildly successful at best, a near complete failure other days. Nothing was selling. I was writing down only 50 hours a week because I knew we weren't making any money on my product. I began making excuses about the quality of my work and alienating myself; after one year at Milk Bar I knew it was time for me to go. I wasn't good enough. Completely depressed, I decided to give up cooking and hike and camp until I got sick of that.

Everything I wanted to keep I packed into a backpack; everything else was given away or sold. My savings went to paying off my credit card and I was debt free. A one-way Amtrak ticket took me up to Providence to meet a buddy who was in a similar situation in Cleveland. We headed out into the woods for a few days in western Massachusetts when a cold he had been harboring suddenly got far worse. Two days and a car ride from Tim later, we found ourselves back in Providence.

Tim and I had been offered a deal to buy a restaurant here. I started working at Thee Re Fez doing late night food until 1 or 1:30 in the morning, making our own hot dogs. We would deep fry them North Jersey style, then top them in ways that were inspired by the dudes around town. Matt Jennings’ (La Laiterie at Farmstead) dog had fancy cheese sauce, American cheese and crumbled cheeseballs. Derek Wagner’s (Nicks on Broadway) had home fries, a sausage patty and bacon. The dude from Ichiban had a dog with kimchi, bacon, Kewpie mayo and fried shallots. We were so psyched about what we were doing. It flopped.

The restaurant deal fell through and work at the Fez ran out. I started dating a girl who worked at Nicks on Broadway, so I talked to Derek and got a job with him baking bread and making the breakfast sausage. My job gradually shifted to butchery as we got more whole fish and animals in. The work was intensive, but it was a wonderful opportunity to hone my technical skills and pick Derek’s brain about the process of opening a restaurant.

I heard through the Fez that Mike Sears was looking to sell Ama's, so I approached him at Lili Marlene’s one day about buying it. We came to a pretty good deal, Tim and John left the Fez, and now we are getting north off the ground. The end.