This weekend I sat down with insightful veteran chef Mark Schmidt of the historic Rainbow Lodge. We talked about seasonal cooking, his childhood summers spent in England, and his experience as a guest chef at the James Beard House.
Eating Our Words: Can you start by telling us about your background, and why you started cooking?
Mark Schmidt: I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was a little kid, at five or six years old, I pretty much knew it's what I wanted to do. In Texas in the '70's, cooks didn't make a lot of money. My very first job as I cook I made $2.45/hour -- that was minimum at the time. So I decided to go to college, study geology and, in order to pay my way through college, I worked at restaurants. And I always preferred that. I worked in the oil business after graduating and hated it. Then the oil crunch hit in '82; they cut out my whole department at the company I worked at, and they gave me a nice severance that I used to buy my knives, pay my rent for a year, and then I started working at as many restaurants as I could.
EOW: Was there a defining restaurant that you worked at that really inspired you as a chef?
Schmidt: Again, this is Texas late '70's early '80's, it's a totally different scene nowadays. Back then, continental was the big style of cuisine. What really inspired me to keep going, was not so much the restaurants in Texas, but I grew up back and forth between Texas and England. I would spend almost every summer in England, and over there, the markets, the ethnic food, this whole farm-to-table thing that's going on right now, that's the way people have always cooked. Except in very recent times,starting with the late '50s through basically the early '90s, that was the only time when people didn't really do farm-to-table, because of mass production, the whole efficiency in food processing and stuff like that.
EOW: So Alice Waters wasn't really an innovator, she was just bringing back something that's been around for thousands of years?
Schmidt: I wouldn't call her an innovator, and I don't think she calls herself an innovator. I think she's just like, "This is the natural way to cook." I think the biggest thing that Alice Waters did was to employ people to cook who went on to do other things. You've got Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, David Tanis who's written two amazing cookbooks and spends half the time there, and half the time in Europe... I mean, when I was a kid in England, we'd stop at the local farm to pick up the eggs, go to the village and buy bread at a bakery, the meat at a butcher, we'd buy our groceries at the green grocer. It wasn't until later, especially in England, that supermarkets came around. In the early '70s, Safeway came around, and these huge supermarkets that carried everything hurt a lot of local business.
EOW: You were self-taught; for some of your initial chef jobs, what were some of the specific advantages you felt you had?
Schmidt: It's kind of a misnomer to say self-taught. I didn't go to culinary school, which up until relatively recently with the rise of Food TV, not many people went to culinary schools. Up until 10 to15 years ago, we had three major schools in the U.S.: CIA, Johnson and Wales, and New England Culinary, and those were the three big schools. And by the time I was college age, I already had four years in restaurants. I looked into some of the culinary programs at the junior colleges, and it was stuff I already learned. As a teenager I worked at a restaurant where I learned to butcher legs of veal. The chefs would buy the whole leg, and we made our own bratwurst and scallopinis; it was just the way I learned how to do it.
EOW: You've been cooking for a while. Is there a specific period since you've been cooking professionally that has been more exciting than others?
Schmidt: To be honest with you, I think right now is really exciting. Because, I think, a lot of young chefs that didn't grow up in a smaller town, that weren't near farms, are all of a sudden discovering local farmers. You know, throughout the '70s and '80s huge agribusiness put out so many small farms, and now you have a lot of ex-professional types that are going back and trying to do something with the land. Here in Houston we've got Revival Meats raising heritage pork; just go to the farmers' market, and you've got all these different local farms. It's kind of a double edged sword -- it's great that these people are producing these wonderful ingredients, but it kind of drives up prices for chefs. People need to realize that if you want to use good, quality products, that yes, it's going to cost a little bit more, but in a few more years, it will level out to where it's not so much a niche product; it's just how it is.
EOW: What would you say are the counter-cultural movements with food that are going on right now?
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Schmidt: Well, it's not so much counterculture, but sometime it's perceived as counterculture: the whole idea of cooking seasonally. It's very commendable, but it's also kind of tough. When I had my restaurant (Cafe 909 in Marble Falls), I only did asparagus when it was peak season in the spring. Then in the wintertime, I had no asparagus on the menu and it was all autumn squashes, root vegetables and mushrooms, I'd get customers who wanted a steak and a side of asparagus. Well, I didn't have asparagus because it wasn't in season, but they could get it at the grocery store. Chefs would love to be able to cook seasonally, but you have to realize that this is a service industry, and if all your customers want a vegetable year round, you're obligated to give it to them.
EOW: I've heard you've been invited several times to the James Beard House. How has that influenced you?
Schmidt: The first time I went to James Beard House was '96 or '97, then again in '99, 2000, 2003 and 2005. It's an honor to get invited, it's not as hard as people think. The James Beard Foundation is a charity, so you basically have to get in touch with them and see when they have an opening, then volunteer to come up and do a dinner. They make more money by filling up the dinners with guests. The more well known somebody is, the more they fill up the seats. So it's an honor to get a Friday or Saturday night. I've been lucky that I've always had well-received dinners there.
Be sure to check back in tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview with Mark.