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An Evening with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier

From Left: Clark Frasier & Mark Gaier showcasing one of their amazing culinary creations!

On December 7th 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, the Chef-Owners of renowned Arrows Restaurant and MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.  Mark and Clark demonstrated an unforgettable five-course menu for De Gustibus Cooking School’s Glorious American Cooking class.  The delightful menu included their Mushroom Pie and ethereal Cider Poached Salmon.  Trailblazers of the farm-to-table movement, their cooking styles showcase the pure, clean flavors of the ingredients that they use.  Each dish was delicious and sumptuous without feeling heavy, evidencing the true mastery of these great Chefs.

The featured wines were provided by importer Frederick Wildman & Sons and included NV Champagne Pol Roger Reserve, 2010 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Les Caillottes and 2008 Potel Aviron Morgan Cote du Py.

After the class, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark and Clark and ask them some questions about their culinary careers and wine preferences. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier is below…

WC: Based on what I’ve read, you guys are trailblazers of sustainability and the farm-to-table movement.  What was the driving philosophy or inspiration behind the Arrows garden that you founded back in 1992?

Mark: The initial reason was necessity because we couldn’t find the produce that was good enough for our restaurant.  We had been in California before Maine and had access to nice fresh ingredients.  In New England, in the late 80s, it was still really difficult.  There were only a few local farmers and they were growing things and doing an okay business, some of them did a great business, but they couldn’t supply our restaurant with quite enough produce.  It was unreliable.  We felt that we needed to go with the spirit of the people that lived here 100 years ago and just grow what we needed. People used to be self sufficient in many ways and now of course most people aren’t.  We thought that with a restaurant like Arrows and five acres of land, we could have an incredible garden and it really worked out.

Clark: For most of the year, the garden sustains almost all of the produce for Arrows, about 90-95%, and about 20-30% of the produce for MC Perkins Cove.  It’s a lot. It’s the real deal and not just for show.  It is three quarters of an acre and one of the most intensely cultivated pieces of land you’ll ever find.

WC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up opening a restaurant in Maine?

Clark: We were trying to open a restaurant in Carmel, California and it kept falling through.  We had a backer, but Carmel is really expensive.  One day, Mark’s friends called and asked if we would like to buy this restaurant.  Mark said, “Yeah, sure, but we don’t have any money”.  They really wanted to give us the option to buy and encouraged us to come check it out.  So we loaded up everything we owned, got in the car and drove across the country.  We said, “What the hell, we’ve really got nothing to lose.”

Mark: I knew the restaurant because I had lived in that area of Maine before, I frequented the restaurant, but never really thought I would buy it.

WC: Can you tell me about the wine list at Arrows?  What is the philosophy behind the wine selections?

Clark: The wine list is split to a large degree between French and Californian wines, with maybe 1/3 devoted to other international regions.  We have a particular depth in Bordeaux because Mark and I like Bordeaux and because we can’t keep enough Burgundies on hand, mostly due to demand.  The Burgundies fly out the door so fast.  We used to have about 700 selections on the list.  We paired that down during the recession and made the list leaner and cleaner.  We have two cellars with a lot of capacity. We’ve tried to make the list as accessible and interesting as possible. We try to have a lot of interesting, lesser known wineries and eclectic options.  We still love Bordeaux, so we keep collecting those and try to have a fair amount in that area.

WC: What was your biggest challenge in getting Arrows established in Ogunquit 23 years ago?

Mark: The location was challenging, because it is very seasonal in Southern Maine.  We’re not in a town, but in the countryside and in sort of a middle class resort area and Arrows evolved into a really upscale restaurant.

Clark: And if you will, the prejudice of Maine, that Maine is for lobster rolls, blueberry pies and down-home and it took people time to acclimate to the idea of a “Great Country Restaurant” which is what Arrows became.  Rattle people’s cage, and present a really interesting restaurant that’s not in New York or New Orleans or Chicago, not in the city.  This was a pretty wild concept and it still is.  In the Americas, people still don’t really look to the countryside for their restaurants.  I think that was a really interesting challenge.  And frankly, at that time Boston was a real backwater with just a couple of good restaurants.  There was Jasper’s and Aujourd’hui, and that was about it.  That’s why the Zagat guide kept having us as the most highly rated restaurant in New England.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Mark: Working for Jeremiah Towers and Mark Franz at Stars [in San Francisco], had a strong influence on us.  We consider them mentors.

Clark: The story I told during class about living in Beijing and the seasons.  And Mark and I travel all the time.  That really not only influences our food, but for example, all of the uniforms at Arrows are hand made in Thailand.  All of the plates, a lot of the things at the restaurant are made for the restaurant from our travels.  The food and the whole sensibility are influenced by our travels.  We both really enjoy reading historical things, that’s really influenced us a lot.  For years we’ve done dinners that revolve around historical menus: Renaissance, Belle Époque etc.

Mark: Reading, research and travel are all elements that inform our cooking.

Clark: And then of course, the people who work with us have a big influence. Justin Walker has worked with us for 15 years and has had a real impact with ideas like foraging.  Mark and I don’t really forage, we’ll go out with him, but he’s the expert.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Mark: I love Champagne.

Clark: We both love Champagne.

Mark: That would definitely be a favorite.  For me, Champagne and then Burgundy.  I like Burgundy more than Bordeaux. Clark prefers Bordeaux. I really love Burdundies…Drouhin is a favorite. For Champagne, I loved the Pol Roger earlier.

Clark: We love the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill, which a friend brought for New Year’s one year, a huge Methuselah sized bottle.  We love rosé Champagnes too, especially Billecart-Salmon.

Mark: That’s probably my favorite producer, especially the rosé.

Clark: Gosset is another favorite Champagne producer. I love Bordeaux, old and young, but it really has to do with the food for me.  I like lighter wines now, as I get older, which is really odd.  I always liked big wines, and now I’m more into light, food-friendly wines.

WC: If you could drink one wine every day, what would it be?

Mark: Bubbly.

Clark: Yeah, I could drink Champagne every day.

WC: What is your current favorite ingredient to work with?

Mark: That’s a tough one. Probably the mushrooms that we’ve foraged lately.


An Evening with Chef Mourad Lahlou

Chef Mourad Lahlou with his Date Leather

On November 7th 2011, I attended the De Gustibus Cooking School’s fascinating “Culinary Destinations” class taught by Mourad Lahlou, Executive Chef and Owner of Aziza, the highly acclaimed, modern Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco.  Mourad’s energy, passion and focus were apparent as he prepared a stunning seven-course menu.  This was all on the tails of guest starring on the Martha Stewart Show, that morning!

Mourad was born and raised in the ancient Medina of Marrakesh amongst his large extended family.  At 20 years old, he came to the United States to study economics at San Francisco State University. It was during this time that he began teaching himself how to recreate his favorite Moroccan dishes with local ingredients using his own creative techniques. This experimentation blossomed into his career as a trail blazing Moroccan-American chef.

Mourad’s talent has not gone unnoticed.  In 2008, he was named a Rising Star Chef by StarChefs, and in 2009, the Chronicle raised Aziza’s rating to three and a half stars. Also in 2009, Zagat named Aziza one of the top 10 Bay Area restaurants of the decade, and Mourad won Food Network’s Iron Chef America by a record-breaking margin. In 2010, Aziza became the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin Star.  Needless to say, I’ll definitely be making reservations at Aziza the next time I’m in San Francisco.

The bright, exotic flavors of Mourad’s menu were perfectly paired with three delicious wines from the New Zealand Complexity portfolio.  The citrus and apple flavors of our favorite New Zealand sparkling wine, the NV Quartz Reef Methode Traditionelle from Central Otago, were a sublime pairing for Mourad’s Lentil Soup with date balls and celery salad.  The fourth course, a Salt-Roasted Thai Snapper with lettuce puree, was beautifully paired with Complexity’s Spy Valley Envoy Riesling from Marlborough.  The third wine selection, Amisfield’s Pinot Noir from Central Otago was delightful with all three! Cous Cous preparations that Mourad demonstrated.  This incredibly versatile Pinot sailed us through the rest of Mourad’s menu, pairing with both his Basteeya recipe (Moroccan meat pie) and his Beghrir (Moroccan pancakes).

After this energy packed class, I had the opportunity to ask Mourad some questions about his background and culinary career.  The attention that he gave to my questions was impressive, especially considering the whirlwind day that he had. The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Mourad Lahlou is below…

WC: I’ve read that you studied economics at San Francisco State University before becoming a Chef.  At what point in your life did you decide to pursue a culinary career?

Mourad: Basically I just stumbled on it.  I never knew that I was able to cook, I never knew that I had a palate that was clean and sophisticated enough for me to even taste good food.  Initially, when I started cooking, it was as a student.  I always invited people over because I didn’t have any money and I would cook for people for their birthdays.  That was literally what I did.  Instead of going to a restaurant, I would bring my friends home and cook for them.  I would prep for a whole day, sometimes for two days, and then people would come and we’d get together and eat.  My friends would say, “This so good, this is the best food that I’ve had”.  I would think, “You’re just saying that because it’s free, of course you’re going to say that.” I never believed them to be honest with you.  It became more and more precise in terms of people telling me why they liked the food.  Little by little, I gained enough perspective on food that I felt that I could actually make food.  Not just repeating dishes made either by somebody here, or back home, but I started actually intellectually trying to dissect and deconstruct every single thing that I was doing.  Trying to understand the science, the physics and everything that happens in the dish, and once I get a grasp on that, I say, “Okay, this is what I could possibly do. It would be really cool if I take this out of it and introduce it back in a different form or texture.”

WC: What do you consider to be the worst clichés and misconceptions about Moroccan food?

Mourad: The worst thing that I could possibly think of is probably that it is a food that is only enjoyed in the cliché setting of the tent, sitting on the floor and eating with your fingers and having a half naked woman shake her ass in front of you before you enjoy Moroccan food.

WC: Aziza’s wine list is very unique and eclectic.  Can you explain the philosophy behind the list?

Mourad: The list originally was put together by Mark Ellenbogen.  He was doing my list for about 15 years.  He was interested in biodynamic, organic wines.  He hates wines from California, so we had no wines from California whatsoever, and people took offense to that.  People would come to Aziza and see the list and say, “How can you be in a place like San Francisco and claim to be local and sustainable.  Why are you bringing wines from across the world?” His argument to that was that he doesn’t believe that the wines and winegrowers and makers in Napa have the same depth and the same philosophy as winemakers in Europe.  When he first put the wine list together, he used to have it categorized as the “old world” and the “new world” and he really believed that the grapes that were grown in Italy and in Austria and Germany were far more superior than the grapes that were used in Napa.  He also believed that the alcohol level in the wines that are made in America is a lot higher, so basically wine was made to make you drunk in a way, because of the percentage of the alcohol in it.  He really believed that the lower alcohol levels in European wines made them more suitable for food, rather than just as a cocktail.  He was more inclined to use wines from Europe.  And he went with the Rieslings, because he felt that they paired really well with the spices of the cuisine and the sweetness.  So, that’s how he put it together.  About two years ago, Mark decided to open his own restaurant, so now he’s partnered up with a couple other people and opened Bar Agricole, and when that happened, a lady by the name of Farnoush Deylamian is the one who’s taken over the list and she’s been doing the list for a year and a half now.  The list is more popular now than it was before because she’s not so opposed to having wines from Napa but has picked them in a way that is so unique.  She has great talent and is the same lady that does all of the cocktails as well.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Mourad: The friendships that I have.  My friendship with Daniel Patterson, the Chef-Owner of Coi, and David Kinch, the Chef-Owner of Manresa, those relationships have really been an inspiration.

WC: Is there a market in NYC that you would recommend for sourcing Moroccan ingredients?  Do you have a favorite NYC marketplace?

Mourad: Kalustyan’s Spices and Sweets on Lexington Avenue at 28th Street (123 Lexington Avenue).

WC: Do you have an all-time favorite ingredient to work with?

Mourad: That’s a tough question, but I’d have to say it’s time.  I don’t like to be rushed.  If you skip a step or leave an ingredient out, the dish is not going to be the same. When making a Vadouvan spice blend for example, which is a French version of curry, every step is really important.  I have to say that time is my favorite ingredient.


An Evening with Chef Ben Pollinger

Chef Ben Pollinger with his Loup de Mer en Papillote

On October 17th 2011, I attended a riveting “Across the Seven Seas” cooking class at De Gustibus Cooking School, which was taught by Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef of Oceana, NYC’s Michelin-starred shrine to seafood.  Ben was joined by Oceana’s Executive Pastry Chef Jansen Chan, who concluded the class with an impressive demo of four ethereal custards.  Pollinger’s dedication to showcasing the pure flavors of the ocean through his innovative cooking techniques was palpable in every bite that the class enjoyed that evening. Pollinger’s informative demonstrations included boning and filleting a whole fish (a branzino) from start to finish.

A New Jersey native, Ben Pollinger graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, as class valedictorian.  Ben’s distinctive cooking style is heavily influenced by his work and travels in France, Italy and Spain.  In addition to sustaining Oceana’s Michelin star for five years in a row, Pollinger is a father of three, an avid gardener and also makes the time to contribute to various charitable organizations including City Harvest, Share Our Strength, Autism Speaks and the James Beard Foundation.

Pollinger’s five-course menu was magnificent, elevating the fresh seafood flavors with nuanced, expert preparations.  The featured dishes included Striped Bass Sashimi with peach chutney and macadamias, Loup de Mer en Papillote and Whole Roast Branzino stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and olives.  The menu was paired with three delightful Italian wines from the Banfi Vintners portfolio: Vigne Regali Pricipessa Perlante Gavi Sparkling, 2010 Vigne Regali Gavi Principessa Gavia and 2009 Vigne Regali Dolcetto d’Acqui L’Ardi.

The Wine Cellarage’s exclusive interview with Chef Ben Pollinger is below…

WC: I’ve read that you have a 500 square ft organic garden, where is it located?

Ben: It’s a home garden. I live in Oradell, New Jersey.  Just to be completely honest with you, when it was 500 square ft, I was living in Lodi, New Jersey.  It’s a little bit smaller now, probably 300 square ft.  I moved last year, last summer, and had to replant my garden and it’s still a very large garden.  Just because of my yard layout, I have another thirty pots with all different kinds of herbs, so besides my vegetables and such, I probably have about 30 different herbs.  This year, I  also planted a peach tree in my yard.

WC: What suggestions do you have for New Yorkers interested in urban gardening?

Ben: You need living soil for any kind of garden, but particularly for planters and potted plants.  You need good living soil, not just sterile topsoil that you find at the garden center.  You need living organisms in there.  If you can, this is probably exceptionally hard, but if you can get farm soil, I would do that. I would suggest going to a farmer’s market and asking a farmer, “hey, can you bring me a five gallon bucket of dirt and I’ll buy it off of you.” I would start with good Hudson Valley black dirt, North of NJ, old alluvial soils from ancient times and it’s rich, black and really great. Try to buy a bucket of black dirt off of a farmer.  If you can, amend your soil with compost. At the farmer’s markets in the city, you can buy organic compost with worm castings and stuff like that.  That’s going to give you living microbes and living microorganisms. That and some worms, and each season, I would continually refresh your soil with fresh compost and get your hands on a mix of leaves.  Keep your soil vibrant and alive.  I know this is hard to do in an urban setting.  In my garden, I add all of my leaves every fall.  I dig them into my garden and they break down.  Every summer, I take my grass clippings from the lawn and spread them like mulch in between the plants.  Continually amending the soil with living matter. If you’re ambitious, I would buy a composter for your sink with red worms in it.  They look like earthworms, but they’re small and red. If you can deal with worms in your place and you have enough room, get a composter.  The key is good living soil.

WC: As a father of three and Executive Chef, how do you find the time for your philanthropic endeavors?  How do you balance it all?

Ben: It’s time management and organization.  A balance of committing to what you can handle.  Unfortunately, you can’t fulfill every request.  Every cause that you’re asked to do is a great cause, but you can’t fulfill every request.  It’s a matter of supporting the causes that are closest to you and good time management.  It’s a challenge.  Long days.

WC: What experience(s) have had the biggest influence over your cooking style?

Ben: I would say, two main experiences. One is not a particular moment in time, but the general experience of having worked at Tabla for Floyd Cardoz, was the most significant experience that I’ve had for several reasons.  It opened up an entire new world of cuisine, a style of food, a cuisine and ingredients that I had never been exposed to before.  In terms of the whole Indian pantry and certain Indian techniques.  Things that I would not really have ever learned anywhere else, and those things affect me not only in the way of knowing how to work and use Indian spices in an Indian manner, but just the general sense of how to use these ingredients now, and also the flavor profiles.  Different kinds of flavor profiles that exist in that cuisine, things that I have been able to work into my cuisine now.  Whether it will be some dishes that are Indian inspired or will seem Indian, but there’s even a Greek dish on the menu tonight, incorporating dill and anise seeds, as well as adding fresh dill, gives another layer of flavor.  Taking spices that I understand how to work with from an Indian perspective and using them in a non-Indian way.

The other main thing is working under Floyd is really where I learned to be a Chef.  As opposed to being a cook or even a good Sous-Chef.  He really taught me how to manage the business side of running a restaurant.  Food is first, but you also need to hold the business side together.  He really taught me how to do that.  How to manage the labor and ingredient costs, how to manage scheduling and planning a menu.  How to maintain a restaurant.  He taught me how to run a restaurant.

The other main experience overall would have been the year that I lived in Monaco and worked for Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV.  The life experience of living overseas and living in a different culture was just huge.  The general flavor profile and style of cooking and food that exists in the French Riviera and the South of France.  More in general, the Northern Mediterranean, South of France, North of Italy, Coastal Spain, there are a lot of similarities in those areas that really affect my cooking.  A lot of them are really driven by the same kind of lightness of flavor, clarity of ingredients.  This may sound like a cliché, but olive oil instead of butter.  It’s really a lighter, cleaner style of cooking that I think overall really defines what I do, defines my style of cooking.

WC: Where does your affinity for preparing seafood and fish stem from?

Ben: Most restaurants, particularly at our level, generally break down the cooking responsibilities.  They create stations based on either ingredient and/or the equipment that you’re cooking it on.  A lot of the restaurants that I worked in were very classic, where you have a cook who cooks fish, a cook who cooks meat, a cook who cooks vegetables, and as a cook, the fish station was my favorite station to work.  I love cooking meat, and I’m very good at cooking meat as well, but I really just like the fish because there are so many more different varieties out there than meat. I think that fish can require a little bit more finesse to cook and it’s a little less forgiving, so it’s a little trickier to cook and a little more challenging.  It’s kind of more reflective of how I like to eat these days, a little lighter.  I still eat plenty of meat, but I like how fish is generally a lot lighter than any given meat.  As well, from the perspective of being a Chef, from an artistic perspective, you can apply a broader palate of other ingredients and styles and flavors to fish that are a lot more challenging than what you can do with meat, you can do a lot more with fish.

WC: Do you have a favorite wine region, if so, which is it and why?

Ben: Champagne.  It’s so refreshing and crisp, there are so many different styles within Champagne as well.

WC: If there were a wine you could drink every day, what would it be?

Ben: Champagne. I don’t drink anymore, but when I did, I really enjoyed the bolder Champagnes.  A blanc de noir or even a full-bodied yeasty Champagne, like Bollinger, Ruinart, Krug. Bigger, fuller Champagnes would be my preference.

WC: Do you have an all-time favorite ingredient to work with?

Ben: Good question.  Olive oil.  I use a lot of olive oil and there are so many different styles of olive oil.

WC: What is your wish for the future of food and dining in the U.S.?

Ben: I hope we get to a point where people have a better understanding of where their food comes from.  And not that everybody has to be into everything, some people tonight were squeamish about when I was taking the guts out of the fish. That’s fair enough and you don’t have to be into that, but I think that people need to really understand that their food comes from a living animal that had to be killed to be put on their plate, and to respect that process, and that your produce comes from the land.  Your chicken doesn’t come from a Styrofoam package in the store, it comes from a chicken.  I think we need to have an understanding of where our food comes from because the next thing we need is to live our lives in a manner, and eat in a manner, that supports overall sustainability and good health of the planet.  I’m not against farmed protein or even farmed fish, but I think we need to have all of this stuff in a manner that’s sensible.  We need to have more of our food come from more natural sources and raised in a manner that is natural.  We need to raise our protein in a way so that we don’t need to jack them up with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, or with hormones to get them to grow faster.

I wish we could get to a point where we treat food less as a commodity, and more as an actual ingredient that we’re going to eat.  There’s a quote from this book Tomatoland, a farmer is asked what he thinks about the way that his tomatoes taste.  He responds that he doesn’t get paid by the taste, he gets paid by the pound.  We need to grow foodstuffs that are for taste first, and support artisanal production.  We need less industrialization of the food process. We need to have an understanding that quality food costs money, quality food can’t be cheap.

In terms of food and dining, I think there’s room across the spectrum of restaurants, for everything from very casual street food and small Mom & Pop restaurants, all the way to ultra-luxe dining, there’s room for all of it, but I wish we got a little bit closer, particularly on my end of the spectrum, to cooking more from a natural perspective.  I don’t want to say that we should be stuck in the past and not move forward with new technology, but I want there to be a bit more emphasis on teaching folks how to cook, how to cook traditionally, and then move on to more modern things.  But you have to understand where you came from to go someplace.