Mark has a rich culinary background. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y. He apprenticed at Washington D.C.’s acclaimed Maison Blanche restaurant under Chef Pierre Chambrin, who later went on to be White House Chef during the Reagan administration. After moving to Seattle he became executive chef at the Bellevue Club from 1989 to 1995. He then spent several years as a regional chef for the California Café Restaurant Group and as a corporate chef for Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants.
With his wife Terri, he opened his first restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar in Sonoma County in 2002. The couple opened Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg in 2003 and Monti’s Rotisserie in Santa Rosa in 2004. Stark Reality Restaurants was launched in January 2006, with 150 employees — 17 are managers who have been promoted from within. In January 2008, Stark’s Steakhouse (now Stark’s Steak & Seafood) opened — a classic American steakhouse in Santa Rosa’s historic Old Railroad Square area.
In September 2012, Mark and Terri will open Bravas Bar de Tapas, a Spanish-style tapas bar in downtown Healdsburg.
Q: Tell us about your cooking background.
I started professionaly cooking later in life at about the age of 24. I think what drew me to the professional kitchen was the similarity to playing sports; a lot of practice, teamwork, sweat, ass-beatings, and the sense of winning after a successful night of cooking, a short period of celebration, ( beers, tequila, sex if you were lucky) then back to work the next day to do it over just as good or better.
While working in DC, early in my career, I read an article on Sonoma County and it sounded ideal from a food and wine lover’s perspective, and the article made no mention of high humidity! Perfect.
Most of my career was spent cooking in cosmopolitan areas, Seattle, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley. They were all great experiences, but very competitive and I never felt a sense of community. You work all day, then retreat to your hood and never really connect with the community that you were cooking for. Here in Sonoma, my neighbors are our customers, our food suppliers are our customers. Does it get any better than that? I’m sure Napa is the same way, maybe…
Q: You now have 4 restaurants and are about to open a 5th with a Spanish theme. How did that concept evolve, and give us a little peek at the menu and what you want diners to remember.
Just like the our other restaurants, the concept begins with the thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if we……..” , then, and only then, if we think we have the right core people that want to be part of the project, we move forward, try to scratch up some cash, and dive in head first.
This particular project, Bravas, came from a trip to Barcelona a few years back and the desire to create a Tapas type dining and social scene that might excite our guests, while possibly exposing them to some Spanish flavors and techniques prepared by this dude (me!), born and raised in southern Maryland!
We hope to represent the tapas classics, croquettas, Patatas Bravas, tortilla espanola, as well as lots of local ingredients simply prepared from the plancha. We are also super excited about serving Jamon Iberico de bellota, the prized cured hams fed on acorns. There will also be a selection of Spanish wines and sherries to compare to our local bounty.
Q: You and your wife, Terri, run Stark Reality Restaurants together. How do you divide your duties and what are your secrets for keeping your relationship fresh and supportive?
I do whatever she says!
Terri and I are very fortunate to love what we do for a living and be able to do it as a team. It isn’t always easy, and I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it works for us. The key: sense of humor. You’ve got to keep laughing, and…….I do what ever she says.
Q: How important are issues like seafood sustainability and GMO’s to you? Do you think your customers care??
Being in Sonoma County our customers care about everything. Just as in politics, you really have to do your homework to get to the truth of the matter when it comes to “organics, sustainable…” and other phrases that sometimes just turn out to be marketing ploys. We try and ask the right questions and eventually do what is right for our industry, and in turn, do what’s right for the environment.
Q: All of your restaurants have interesting wine programs and lists. Who creates them and are you doing anything special to take advantage of the growing interest in craft beers and spirit-based beverages?
Each restaurant targets a specific cuisine, so each wine list is generated from within to match what we serve. We always have one person on staff that drives the wine program, but Terri sets the parameters as far as the amount of local wines to imports, and the amount of wines by the glass. After all, we do live in Wine Country.
I’m a big fan of spirit based beverages, and I try to work them into every meal!
Our bartenders are very active in the creating of the specialty cocktails as well as what beers we serve. It is a great process to have the entire bartending team from each restaurant actually drive that portion of the drink list. And I can tell you they research their trade with passion!
Q: Can you share a favorite recipe that a home cook could do?
My “I just ran 3 miles and I deserve this” cocktail:
- Juice of one fresh grapefruit
- Juice of one fresh lime
- 1/2 tablespoon of agave syrup
- Crushed ice
- 2oz. of your favorite tequila
Place in shaker and shake then pour into a tumbler. Garnish with your lips!