A Conversation with James Mark

IMG_7363I am a big fan of north. By far one of my favorite restaurants in Providence, the food is always deliciously unexpected. So when I got
the chance to talk with the restaurant’s owner and chef, I was more than a little excited. James Mark is impeccably talented at bringing together flavors from around the world and crafting ideas that are familiar yet new. But he wasn’t always the radical new chef he is today.

“I was very picky when I was younger, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t eat a lot of the things I liked,” he told me. “One of the rules in my house was that I could eat whatever I wanted, but I had to make it myself. If I wanted French Fries, but I had to make the French fries myself. We didn’t buy anything in a bag. I could have pizza as an after school snack, but I had to make the pizza. We never had delivery or prepared foods, no canned soup or canned vegetables.”

This was the beginning of James’ interest in food that would later grow into a life of hard-work in what he says “a very tough industry.” Growing up in New Jersey, James recalls being fascinated with food, although the food he ate as a kid was mostly hamburgers. Eating Chinese food in Chinatown every week was never a fun experience. His parents tried to get him to taste everything, but he just didn’t want to. Eventually, they sat him down, gave him a fork, ordered him the one or two dishes he liked, and talked around him.

IMG_7352As a young kid not even yet a teenager, he read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. “To my generation especially, it was a very important book. It very much opened, for a lot of us, what a life in a kitchen could be like. The idea of this pirate-crew kitchen mentality of tough-guy-whatever is incredibly appealing.” James remembers a particular story in the book involving Bourdain’s parents taking him and his brother to France. His parents would go to fancy restaurants, attempting to bring their kids, only to hear that the kids really wanted hamburgers. Eventually Bourdain’s parents got fed up and left the kids in the car with some comic books, while the parents ate inside. This upset Bourdain; he wondered what was going on in the restaurant that he couldn’t be part of. To protest against his parents, Bourdain started to eat everything.

The next time James went to Chinatown after reading the book, he realized his parents were essentially plopping him down and ignoring him. They even talked Chinese around him (a language he doesn’t speak) and told him what he would eat. Inspired by Bourdain, James outdid his parents by eating everything they wouldn’t eat. It was, as James put it, “A social power struggle.”

After reading Kitchen Confidential, being excited and scared by the flavors of Chinese food, and always having cooking as a prominent part of his life, James started cooking professionally. On the cusp of his fourteenth birthday, he began working at McCormick & Schmick’s, the first of many restaurant jobs. He worked at a New Jersey branch first, before coming to Providence to attend Johnson and Wales University. He then moved to Charlotte for a year, opening another branch of McCormick & Schmick’s. In total, he worked with the business for 3 1/2 years. “It was longer than I should have worked there, but it was a good job for me at first. It was a very busy restaurant, not a great level of cooking, but it was busy and that taught me certain skills.”

IMG_0343Next, he headed to North Wales in Great Britain for an internship abroad at Maes-y-Neuadd. It was a hotel/restaurant with 15 rooms and 30 seats in the restaurant. “It was very…different than anything I’d done before,” James said. “Only three guys worked there, plus a dishwasher, and I was one of them. It was very high-pressure and I was responsible for a lot. You had to write a brand new menu everyday and there was a lot of classic stuff, like terrines, which I had never done before. It was the first time I baked bread, the first time I’d worked with chocolate, the first time I planted and picked a vegetable. It was also the first time I’d understood all about the food before it comes through the backdoor of the restaurant. The kitchen also had a garden which was an acre and a half, two acres. I worked five days a week in the kitchen and one day at the garden. Everyone lived in a staff house at the bottom of the mountain and it was a very good, very intense experience.”

Once the internship was over, he came back to Providence to start school again. After getting the baking bug at Maes-y-Neuadd, he began work as a night baker at Maxie’s in North Smithfield, RI. According to James, wholesale bakeries are “all about the numbers” and Maxie’s didn’t make enough to support its staff. While he was working there, the bakery closed and James headed off to work at L’Epicurio, located where Aspire is currently. He worked there for the rest of college. In an exclusive Providence Monthly article in 2012, he wrote that the job could “Easily be considered my wilderness years.” Strangely enough, this would be where the north team started to come together. Jenn Wittlin, north’s current front of house manager, worked at L’Epicurio as a cook. During this time he met  Mike Lawyer and Tim Shulga who came to cook at L’Epicurio. James now describes them as his “college buddies”. They became very close friends and Mike and Tim are now north’s head chefs.

IMG_7377Once L’Epicurio closed and James had finished college, it was time to leave Providence. Seven years ago, the Providence restaurant scene was very different and he was tired of everyplace he worked at closing. In short, it wasn’t working out. After reading a New Yorker article about David Chang, he fell in love with everything Chang talked about. Mark describes him as “really prolific, a really smart guy.” He wanted to work for this man. Chang was preparing to open Ko, his third Momofuku restaurant, and the concept immensely appealed to James. The idea behind it? 12 seats and a focus on the cooks, an open kitchen with diners seated on stools close enough to the chefs that every element of preparation would be visible. James said, “There were only sushi counters before this. Now there’s restaurants like Atera, Blanca; it’s become a thing. It’s almost passed being a thing and less are now being opened.”

James applied for a job through Craigslist, but because Ko wasn’t open yet, he got a stage [unpaid internship] at Noodle Bar. He felt completely comfortable with the fast moving nature of the restaurant and was promoted to work at Ko. He worked there for two days before realizing he wasn’t very good. He was demoted to morning dishwasher which was, in some ways, discouraging. “I knew I was f—king up, I knew I was not ready for what they needed, so it was a relief in a lot of ways.” He then started from the ground up, “Learning to cook again in their style: it was harder than anything I had done prior with very long hours, but it was also a very beautiful moment in my life. Intense periods of your life are really when you learn things, it’s really when you come to terms with things. To see yourself improve skill-wise because you’re doing something 15-16 hours a day, six days a week, that’s awesome.”

IMG_0336Nine months later, talks of a Momofuku bakery surfaced. At the time, the party department was in the basement of Ko. James’ had baking experience from Maes-y-Naued and Maxie’s and had even baked bread for Ko staff meals, so he began as Momofuku’s bread baker. James said “I can’t say what I should or should not have done, but it was a very important lesson for me because I did not do well in that capacity.” With so many expectations and only just getting a handle on doing well at Ko, the job didn’t work out. James had only shaped and kneaded bread, never actually mixed it. After one year of going into work at 10:30 at night till 4 or 5 in the afternoon and working by himself in a dark restaurant, he was intimidated and depressed. It wasn’t working out financially for them and he wasn’t happy creatively. The time had come to leave New York. With not much money left, he headed back to Providence to meet up with Mike who similarly wanted a break from his job in Cleveland. They stayed at Tim’s house and planned to go hiking for a while. They only lasted a week.

Mike headed back to Cleveland and James started working with Tim at The Red Fez. With complete creative freedom, he became the restaurant’s late night cook, doing whatever he wanted from 9 pm to 2:30 am. Aside from potential talks of buying the restaurant with Tim, the biggest thing he got out of it was that it led to another job. He and Tim were big fans of Nicks on Broadway’s brunch. He noticed that they didn’t make their own sausages. James had recently gotten into making hot dogs and sausages as part of the late night menu at The Fez and so he brought Derek Wagner, executive chef of Nicks, some sausages to sample. James asked Derek if he wanted him to make some sausages and maybe some english muffins and biscuits too. He started working part-time at Nicks, just a couple days a week. Once Derek offered him full-time hours, James said yes and left The Fez. He worked at Nicks for 2 1/2 years.

“Working at Nicks was a really cool part of my life. That restaurant changed a lot while I was there. I’m very proud to say that I was a very important part of it. It went from a place that brought in filets of salmon and sirloins to a place that was suddenly butchering 200 pounds of whole fish a week and half a cow every couple weeks. We really pushed the butcher program and what ‘local’ meant. I’m immensely indebted to Derek for allowing me that time.” It marked a lot of accomplishment for James: not only did he grow as a better cook, it was also the first time he successfully built a bread program in a restaurant.

He had heard rumors that Ama’s (a West Side restaurant located in Luongo Square) was for sale. After tracking down the owner, he awkwardly asked if he could buy the restaurant. Six months later, a deal was struck. “We really got by on the skin of our teeth.” With under $50,000 spent mostly on equipment and ingredients, north was opened.

Opened in late summer 2012, north’s original menu was very small and quite different from today. “I personally cook here a lot less than I used to. Mike and Tim are the chefs of the restaurant now.” The format however, is the same. The food is all meant to be shared, just how James likes to eat. There are no large pieces of meat or minuscule garnishes meant for one.

IMG_7362Another important detail is that everything is under $15 (except the Almost Boneless Fried Chicken; a mammoth, deep-fried, sausage stuffed, $38 plate meant for 2-4). “I didn’t want to be an expensive restaurant, I wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant.” Unlike many other nearby restaurants, north is open seven days a week from 5:30 till midnight. And you won’t find any standard late-night sandwich-fare here. A must for the restaurant is the quality of product, explains James. He says the food is very, very seasonally driven; aside from pork legs from upstate New York and herbs in the winter, everything comes from Rhode Island. The menu is filled with local scallops, cabbage, squid, beats, chicken, and more.

In addition to focusing on prices, long hours, and quality, they also pay careful attention to music and service, which I can attest to. On a recent night, the server answered every question with precise detail, but not to the point of redundancy. The soundtrack was made up mostly of Beck, totally fine by me, and was just loud enough to be perfectly coherent, not so loud as to drown out conversation.

With these values in mind, James (with help from his friends) has grown north into a neighborhood standby just trying to dish out a “restaurant experience” as he puts it. “In the past, it’s always been a technical thing: ‘We have the most proficient cooks in the world and they can do things no one else has thought of, but we’re flying in ingredients from around the world.’ Now the level of cooking globally has improved and the advent of the Internet has made it so that ideas are being shared constantly. So the technical side of cooking, while still very important, isn’t enough of a differentiator between restaurants anymore.”

What differentiates north? Dishes unlike anything else you can find in Providence. From wintry cabbage to seared beef heart, fresh scallops to lightly charred beets, and roasted chicken ramen to fried chicken, the food here is truly unique.

IMG_7376 copySumming up his experience cooking, James said something that really stuck with me. “I’ve got a lot of good memories, a lot of terrible memories about cooking. I’ve spent a lifetime, over a decade, of really working hard in this industry. There are some really beautiful aspects to it and some really awful aspects. But at the end of the day, I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Good thing too, Providence is all the better for it.

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