Executive Chef Mark Peel talks Top Chef Masters, Cookbooks and New Cocktail Lounges
I’d much rather produce the book that is going to be grease-stained and dog-eared and broken-spined, sitting around on the kitchen counter. I think this book will be that. ~Mark Peel
Mark Peel, executive chef of Campanile, opens up about the legacy he is building that started the fateful day he landed his first gig as a chef at age 20. With Wolfgang Puck. Smart and self-assured, he also has a gentleness and sense of humor that pops up when least expected. Read more on how this Top Chef Master competitor wraps up 2009 with a new family friendly cookbook, cafe and cocktail lounge.
You’ve had this very successful, incredibly long run in the restaurant/food industry. Way back when this started, how did you envision things working out?
MP: Well when you start out cooking you’re working, you have your head down. You’re just trying to accomplish and learn things you need to learn. After a while, you start to pick your head up and look around, try to figure out where the industry is heading and where you want to be in the long term. After just a few years of cooking – I started out with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison in the 70’s – I decided I did really want to be one of the best chefs in the country. I know, that maybe that might sound a little arrogant, but look – if you’re going to do something, you might as well do the best you possibly can.
I started looking around for people I could work for, people that could mentor me. Jonathan Waxman. Alice Waters. Wolfgang Puck. Trying to learn and absorb everything. It was an ultimate goal of mine to have my own restaurant, which we finally achieved in 1982. I’m sorry, 1989. 1982 was when Spago opened. 1989 was the opening of Campanile, and it was patterned after people that were my mentors (Chez Panisse, Spago, etc). Borrowing on European techniques, French and Italian, but with it’s own distinctly American feel. We’ve been doing it ever since, for 20 years.
Your mentors aren’t everyday chefs; they are pretty heavy hitters. Obviously they saw something in you. How did you happen to get in that circle?
MP: It was just a fluke. I was 20 years old and I moved to Los Angeles to go to Hotel & Restaurant school at Cal Poly Pomona, and as it happened, my mother was working as a Vision Therapist for an Optometrist. One of her patients was a man named Henry Dwan, his wife was Lois Dwan who was the LA Times Restaurant critic. Through that introduction, that backwards introduction, I was able to kindof get a foot in the door. She was able to give me a list of restaurants that she thought were the best in Los Angeles, and I called all of them. And I got a job over the phone at Ma Maison, which I didn’t know from anybody. It was like “Oh, here is this guy, this baby-faced chef, Wolfgang Puck.” So I started off my career working alongside Wolfgang, on the line.
It was a perfect time for the industry too, because things were starting to rev up for food.
Things have changed so much. Food has really come into fashion; it is very “sexy”. At any point along the way did you have to explain to people why you wanted to be a chef?
MP: My father was opposed to it. My father was a child of the Depression. He was definitely in favor of financial security and didn’t think that (being a chef) would provide it. When you make decisions, sometimes you aren’t necessarily making lifelong decisions. If it hadn’t worked out I would have done something else. What, I don’t know.
This was definitely your calling.
All of your experiences with top restaurants led you to Top Chef Masters. How was that combining food and television?
MP: It was great. It was very high pressure. Well, short periods of high pressure punctuated with long periods of boredom. That’s TV. Cooking for television, there are long periods of waiting for them to set up cameras, redo the lighting, do some pickup shots of lines that were dropped, that sort of thing. It was exciting as well. I say high pressure because I was on there with people I have a lot of respect for. John Besh and Doug Rodriguez I’ve known for years. Anita Lo, I did not know her, but in a few days I gained a lot of respect for her. She’s a very creative, hard working chef. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of them! I think I managed not to do that, but I didn’t win. That’s the nature of competition. Only one person can win.
You have been invited to Top Chef as a judge – how is it coming from that side?
MP: The differences are very interesting between Top Chef Masters and Top Chef. In some ways I think there is greater pressure for chefs in the regular Top Chef because they are really trying to break out. Become noticed. It is far more important, I think, for them to win than for us. I think that the chefs on Top Chef are taking it very, very seriously. I will say this: This season probably has the best set of chefs/cooks over any other season. It is going to be very tough, because you have people who are very experienced, at the top of their game. They are not newbies, they are not wet behind the ears. They are, well, professionals.
Along with the many things you have going on, you also filmed something for the movie Julie & Julia.
MP: Right. A great movie. I was honored to be asked to do a little promotional bit for it. I did scrambled eggs for my wife, just talking about the beauty and simplicity of doing the small things. Even small things can be absolutely delicious and wonderful.
I thought it was very courageous of them to open a film like that in the middle of summer. No aliens. No car crashes. No explosions. No blood. Just a hint of sex. (laughs)
The movie has done very well, and we did try the Scrambled Eggs for Daphne –
MP: You did?
Yes, and it went over equally well!
MP: Oh good, good.
You talk about the small things. I know you have a lot of children. Were any of your recipes geared toward them? When you created the recipes were you thinking of family?
MP: Oh absolutely. I have a new book coming out in October that is about family dinners. Simple things that you can cook at home. I appreciate, I admire, those coffee table books, but that’s not me. I’d much rather produce the book that is going to be grease-stained and dog-eared and broken-spined, sitting around on the kitchen counter. I think this book will be that.
[At this time, Mark Peel’s “New Classic Family Dinners” has been listed in the bestselling Top 10 books for 2009 by Amazon. Congratulations, Mark!]
Above: Chef Mark Peel with Catering Director Caroline at book signing; below (l) Daughter Vivien Peel enjoying dishes from the cookbook at signing; below (r) Wife Daphne Brogdon and son Rex Peel
Photo Source: Peel Family
MP: There are also all kinds of simple things that we’ll be doing in a new restaurant I’m opening around the same time the book hits [The Tar Pit]. It’s built around the cocktail lounge, because the same thing that has been happening to food and wine in the last 20 years or so is happening to spirits. People are drinking less, but they are drinking better. This is the best time that’s ever been for all the bourbons, gins, scotches, even the Canadian whiskeys. And there are great Japanese whiskeys coming out. Very delicate, very nuanced. Bartenders are really ramping up their skills.
Is this a tasting room or is food combined?
MP: Now, I don’t like to restrict people. We are going to have great cocktails. The whole restaurant is centered around the cocktail lounge. We are going to have smaller plates of food. I don’t like to use the word tapas because it has been overused. But smaller plates of food geared to go with cocktails. Not specific cocktails, but cocktails in general.
Can you tell us a little about the dishes you are going to have?
MP: Well, I don’t want to reveal the whole menu,
MP: Mostly because I haven’t completed the whole menu.
MP: Definitely leaning on charcuterie, which is the art of making pates and cured meats, salamis, proscuittos, coppa and all of those things. Individual potted macaroni and cheese. The good kind baked in an oven that gets a good, crisp crust.
Update: Audrey Saunders of NYC’s Pegu is joining Peel in The Tar Pit. The final incarnation is moving toward 40’s supper cluband may push opening out to December 2009.
The Tar Pit opens November 2009
The Tar Pit
609 North La Brea Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Meanwhile, you can nosh at Peel’s newly opened café in October 2009 in Culver City, CA emphasizing Take Out & Delivery
8522 National Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
This interview originally aired on Solessence Radio. This interview is dedicated to my husband who, despite having acceptance papers, could not convince his mother that The Culinary Institute of America was not a fly-by-night education for short-order cooks.
Website Bonus Question
Chef Peel answered a personal preference question for the foodies/chowhounds out there!
What is one spice you can’t do without?
MP: Fresh Thyme. It is versatile and enriches. An herbal umami.