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Cormac Mahoney

Chef Cormac Mahoney
Photo © Karne Loria
© Karne Loria

Won Best New Chef at: Madison Park Conservatory, Seattle.

Born: 1972; Centralia, WA.

Experience: Etta’s, Dahlia Bakery, Dahlia Lounge and Sitka & Spruce, Seattle.

Side project: His food truck, Tako Truk—now a pop-up at Madison Park Conservatory—serving items like pork belly tacos.

How he got into cooking: “I cooked most of my life with my family. My mom would be working, so I’d put the chicken in the oven when I got home from school. Now I think the public fetishizes dinner parties, but to me, cooking was my grandma just making straight-up food for the table. And my aunts bringing pies and salads. One of my first food memories was my aunt’s taco salad, with Doritos and ground beef and shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar. That was one of the first food compliments I remember giving—I told her, ‘This is really, really good.’ ” 

Favorite childhood dish: “Growing up, I loved my grandmother’s mashed potatoes. One day, we’d been working on the farm. I ate all my mashed potatoes and asked for more, then ate them and asked for more. We all agree that 10-year-old Cormac Mahoney must have put down 10 pounds of mashed potatoes that night. My grandmother still talks about it.”

On cooking at chef Tom Douglas’s restaurants: “Tom’s restaurants are the best cooking school in Seattle. Whenever I got bored, they’d move me: I started out in the pantry at Etta’s, then Palace Kitchen, then Dahlia Bakery—where I learned to make bread—then Dahlia Lounge to learn to be a line cook.”

Cinematic influence: The film Like Water for Chocolate. “If you’re in the worst mood, you’re going to make food that leaves people empty. I want to put out food that has the effect of the meal in Like Water for Chocolate.

Inspirational figure: Matthew Dillon [an F&W Best New Chef 2007 at Sitka & Spruce]. “Matt validated me—he said, ‘You do your food, it will be good.’ He also said that I was the worst plater. I do give credence to the idea that you eat with your eyes, but that’s only for the first second. Then the food better be great.”

Memorable cooking experience:

1: “One day when I was in high school, my uncle and I went out hunting and I shot a pheasant. We had to hide it (pheasants were out of season). I was going to see my girlfriend, so I took the pheasant. We had a candlelit dinner, with roasted pheasant and some bad wine from my parents’ fridge. I felt so grown up.”

2:  “Last year, I was in New York doing a dinner, and the president of Rwanda came. My main course was Jamaican-style mako shark, but I got told at 5 p.m. that he wanted steak, well-done. So I had to pull out a steak. After dinner, I got a note that he loved the shark and didn’t eat the steak. I made the president of Rwanda a shark lover.”

Favorite kitchen tool: Rosle peeler. “It has a little scoop for digging out potato eyes, and I can use it to pop tops off cans or pry things open. The steel is so amazing.”

Favorite food city: Los Angeles. “You can find a crazy taco stand that makes whole pig carnitas with the lips, ear, skin and uterus; and then go to Little Tokyo and get awesome ramen. And it has [L.A. food critic] Jonathan Gold; the way he looks at food makes it easy for me to understand.”

Fantasy splurge: “I’d probably end up in Argentina on the pampas, eating Francis Mallman-style carne asada [grilled meat]. I’m unabashedly meat-centric. I’d ride horses all day, then grill meat and eat it right off the fire.”

Cheap eat: “I rely on pho to get me going in the morning. I always do the round eye steak, tripe and tendon pho. Tripe and tendon together are the coolest thing in your mouth.”

Favorite drink: “I prefer tequila on the rocks. Reposados and blancos. Not so much añejos—they’ve turned into Scotches. I like tequilas that are a little bit smoky and herbal. Then a shot of the digestif Fernet Branca. I also put it in my coffee in the morning, if necessary.”

After-hours hangout: “The two places I go to the most are The Hideout and Vito’s. Vito’s is an old-school Italian-American joint. The same guys own both places. The bartenders are awesome. Craft cocktailing without pretentiousness.”

What his next restaurant would be: “The next thing I want to do is figure out how to make the Tako Truk a brick-and-mortar spot. I want it to be a bar with eight items on the menu.”

Food trend he most dislikes: Overserious food people and chefs. “The food-as-entertainment theme has been going strong for the last 10 years. People doing food and being foodies and talking about foods in a superficial way because it’s hip. I just want dinner.”

Favorite food show: “I have a huge bro crush on Anthony Bourdain.”

Favorite cookbook: “I’m a big Alice Waters guy, which includes Richard Olney and Paul Bertolli and that whole group. I just bought Chez Panisse Vegetables; it’s awesome, even just for the drawings. And I just got The ‘21’ Cookbook: It’s what I want for the bar upstairs. The food in the book is so fabulously mid-’90s.”

Favorite food-related blogs: The Atlantic’s food blog: theatlantic.com/health/category/food. And Eataku. “He’s from New York and he works for Marvel comics. He finds food all over the place and calls it out. When I wish I weren’t in Seattle, I hit him up. He’s a total nerd, and so am I.”

1 recipe by Chef Cormac Mahoney
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