Mark Connell

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Mark Connell

Restaurant: Arroyo Vino (Santa Fe, NM)

Experience: Max’s, Tomme (Santa Fe, NM); Salts Restaurant, Bina Osteria (Cambridge, MA)

Education: The Culinary Institute of America’s (Greystone, St. Helena, CA); Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners (Costigliole d’Asti, Italy)

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
In Vail, I apprenticed for three years with David Weihler at the Game Creek Club and Paul Ferzacca at La Tour. They taught me to taste everything and to season, especially Paul. He’d stand on the other side of the line and stick his finger in everything. It was a bit intimidating, but it made me realize the importance of tasting and seasoning.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
A lot of people have me pegged as a molecular guy, which is so ridiculous. I’m not at all. I like food that you can really stick your fork into. I like to play with technique a lot, more than playing with flavor combinations.

So a dish that defines me is polenta two ways, crispy and creamy, served with a slow cooked egg and seared porcini and mushroom foam. That describes my style because it uses newer technique, but the bottom line is it’s still polenta with an egg on it.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first things I ever made were cookies and cakes, and those are good for kids to try because it’s more about learning about measuring. One of the reasons I got into pastry was because as a kid I really liked eating sweets. I remember being 12 and making my own ice cream cake.

For a neophyte, I’d just say learn to cook what you love. That’s what it’s all about.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Two friends were really important to me for inspiring me to talk about food, rather than teaching me specific lessons. Richard Lacounte was a high school friend who got me my first cooking job. We used to walk around after the restaurant job, go to one of the casinos and look at the pictures of the food they were advertising, and we’d figure out what everything was and how to make it. My other important mentor was my roommate in Vail, Douglas Klacik, who is also a chef. The French Laundry Cookbook was a fixture on our coffee table and we’d read cookbooks all the time and talk food. It wasn’t learning so much as someone to be inspired by.

Favorite cookbook of all time.
The French Laundry is an obvious one, but also Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
The ability to be critical of yourself is one of the most important things. It’s not necessarily a skill but an attribute.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d like to be more organized and wish I were better with different Asian cuisines.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Fish sauce is something that I splurge and get the $6 bottle. It’s so cheap and it can add so much depth to almost anything, even salad dressings. I also have an awesome local lamb purveyor. Usually lamb is too expensive, but oddly enough I have a good source of bang for the buck here in Santa Fe, and I use lamb scraps in my Bolognese.

What is your current food obsession?
I go back and forth. Sometimes I’m all about pastry and other times I’m reading molecular gastronomy books. I don’t have a singular food obsession.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’d like to go to Next in Chicago and see what Grant Achatz is doing there. Having to buy a ticket is an interesting concept.

In Nashville, the Catbird Seat. Chef Erik Anderson staged at the French Laundry with me and I’d like to go see what he’s doing.

Puritan & Company in Boston because I used to be friends with the chef, Will Gilson. At Puritan he’s doing very creative things, and when I first knew him he was doing more simple food.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
It might be expensive to get there, but I’d like to try Vietnam or Thailand. Although, really, if I’m going somewhere to eat, I’m not going to focus on the money I’m spending.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I’m not a souvenir guy but I collect my chef coats, and I’m attached to the one I got at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, in Costigliole d’Asti, Italy.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Skiing is my favorite thing in the world, maybe even more that cooking.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d like a big wood burning outdoor oven in a park. I’d put a lean-to up and some picnic tables underneath it. We’d cook pizzas on the oven, have some grills, and people could come and hang out. Hundreds of years ago, the oven was the middle of the town and people would bring their dough and bake bread. The oven was a meeting place, and that’s my inspiration.

If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be?
He’s into old-school punk rock and that’s a similar interest to me. We’d go to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, walk around, eat different things, and people watch. It would be interesting to pick his brain, and it would be better to do it with all the things to see there, rather than just going to a restaurant.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring a lighter and some matches to start a fire, and then I’d forage for things. I’d make hearty soups by bringing grains and then add mushrooms or whatever’s growing nearby.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Hopefully they won’t be talking about the fact that they can’t get seafood anymore. I think sustainability and local ingredients will continue to be interesting, also heirloom varieties of produce.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat chips and salsa straight out of the fridge, and I buy them at La Choza restaurant in Santa Fe. I also love string cheese and my favorite snack is gummy bears. It must be a texture thing.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
A Cuisinart hand blender to me is the greatest thing. It’s not new, but I use it all the time for making pesto and other sauces at home. I also use a mortar and pestle a lot at home.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?