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One on One: Mark Militello
Executive chef/owner, Mark's Restaurants
March 01, 2005
While his lengthy list of awards may lead one to think Mark Militello basks in the limelight of his celebrity-chef status, that assumption is dead wrong. Militello hasn’t let the awards and publicity go to his head. He is very matter-of-fact about his passion for cooking and searching for new sources of seafood to serve at his four eponymous restaurants in southern Florida: Mark’s Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, Mark’s Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Mark’s South Beach in Miami and Mark’s CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
Militello put South Florida on the culinary map when he opened his first restaurant, Mark’s Place, in North Miami Beach in 1988. His original contemporary-American cuisine immediately won rave reviews nationwide. Militello earned a James Beard Award for Best Regional Chef in the Southeast in 1992, the same year he received a Distinguished Restau-rant Award from Conde Nast Traveler.
Among his more than two dozen accolades, Militello also has been named Food & Wine’s Ten Best Chefs in America and one of Gourmet Magazine’s Best Restaurants. In 2002 Militello co-authored an eight-week series in the New York Times called “The Chef.”
Militello, 46, received a culinary degree from Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Hotel Management and New York State University’s Hotel and Culinary Program. Cooking is a far cry from the medical field, his original course of studies.
Born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in upstate New York, Militello spends most days preparing the menu at Las Olas and overseeing the executive chefs at the other three locations.
Militello’s travel schedule had him running to three culinary festivals in January and February, followed by a stint as celebrity chef on Celebrity Cruise as well as Bon Appetit’s Savor the Caribbean culinary cruises at the end of this month.
I caught up with him in early February as he was preparing for a normal day in the kitchen.
Robinson: What is the key to running four restaurants and maintaining your reputation as one of the finest chefs in the South?
Militello: There is a strong chef at each of the restaurants. Each one has worked here with me before.
Opening a restaurant is an extremely stressful vent. How have you survived four openings?
I hate them; it’s always a struggle. It takes time and a lot of work to get things where you’re happy with everything. There is a learning curve. As you build a restaurant there are always struggles and changes. You learn to not get too upset about it all.
Who buys the seafood for each restaurant?
Each chef does his own. There are certain purveyors we use. [All of the chefs] fight for the fresh fish. Ninety-five percent of the seafood we use is local from the same purveyors, including Two Bills Seafood out of Fort Lauderdale. The rest is flown in from New York. [The menu is] rounded out with neat products from the Northeast to change the texture. Fish from the Northeast is a little different.
We’re farm raising conch and clams here; there’s phenomenal product [in Florida].
I also just brought in some organic chinook salmon. All the products [at Mark’s restaurants] are fresh. I only have a little freezer for ice cream.
I only use shrimp if it’s fresh farm-raised. Some comes from Texas and the Keys and from Peru. They have a great shelf life. Wild shrimp is washed in a solution, and I can taste it.
I’ve always been well known for fish. The only other place on the water I would find interesting is San Diego.
Do you have other restaurants in the works?
None at the moment.
How much time do you get to spend in each restaurant?
I’m headed to South Beach today. I pop in here and there. It’s a lot of work. You really need to enjoy it.
You seem to travel a lot.
I travel a lot. This year I’ve been traveling like crazy.
I am in charge of the main functions for the South Beach Culinary Arts Festival, and Florida International’s hotel school is the beneficiary. After that, I’m working for Celebrity Cruises, where I teach a little bit. It’s a one-week cruise in the Caribbean. I worked with them last year; it’s a nice little getaway. I take it as vacation time. I didn’t think I’d like it, but it’s relaxing and you get a chance to read.
What do you like best about traveling?
Anguilla was great. I recently did a celebrity chef event in Beaver Creek, Colo. It’s hard to say, I travel a lot. I even tell my kids that there are three ways to learn: reading, school and traveling to experience different cuisines, products and cultures.
Is there a species that you wish you could menu more often but have a hard time sourcing?
I love flying fish, which I had in Barbados. I can’t figure out how to get them here. I was in Anguilla, and there was a little crayfish. When it came to the table it looked like a spiny lobster. I can’t figure out how to get those, either.
We spend a lot of time sourcing. Cost isn’t the focus. Getting unique products is hard, but it’s required for fine dining.
What is a typical day like for you when you’re not traveling?
I order fish at 7 a.m. from home and find out what came in last night. We’re lucky here; it comes in the night before from the Keys. I have coffee and am done ordering by 8 a.m. I shower, then I’m in the restaurant by 9 or 9:30. The menu changes daily. Then I work through to 1:30 for production, then start on the computer and answer e-mails before service.
When do you find time to develop new menu items for the restaurants?
It’s an ongoing thing — it’s individual menu development. It’s not really done together.
You took part in Julia Child’s “Lessons with Master Chefs” a few years ago. What was it like to cook with Julia?
It was special. I don’t know how to describe it. It definitely was a day I’ll never forget. I cooked for her 80th and 85th birthdays.
What is your favorite seafood recipe?
[My wife and kids] love fish. I like it very simple. A few favorites are plain, simple grilled spiny lobster, and golden crabs from Florida. My wife is from the Jersey shore, and she likes to steam them.
Your list of awards is quite impressive. How do you handle all of the attention you’ve garnered over the past decade?
I don’t pay any attention to the attention. We still do what we do. It’s nice and I’m flattered.
What do you do in your spare time?
I drive my daughter around to travel soccer. I play tennis, use a road bike — I like to ride. Travel soccer is killing me, though. She doesn’t play in our city, but for another team.