“Why you should avoid hopping from job to job without taking the time to really learn in one place for a few years”, With Chef Mark McDonald

Don’t worry about what you get paid and do your time. Too many young cooks make the mistake these days of hopping from job to job without taking the time to really learn in one place for a few years. This profession is not just about cooking or plating trendy dishes, it is about undying […]

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Don’t worry about what you get paid and do your time. Too many young cooks make the mistake these days of hopping from job to job without taking the time to really learn in one place for a few years. This profession is not just about cooking or plating trendy dishes, it is about undying commitment, management, numbers, slim margins, and much more.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark McDonald, Chef/Proprietor of Old Vine Kitchen + Bar in Costa Mesa, CA. He is an internationally recognized chef, restaurant owner, and restaurant consultant. In 2007 Chef Mark opened his award-winning restaurant — his menu offerings reflect a commitment to regionalism and the use of local seasonal ingredients, a hallmark of Chef Mark’s culinary training under Master Chef John Nocita at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy (ICI). Chef Mark now partners with the Italian Culinary Institute to lead annual Splendors of Italy tours, which are culinary-driven trips through various regions that treats travelers to hands-on cooking lessons from master chefs, winery and agriturismo visits, and multi-course meals of regional cuisine. The first Splendors of Northern Italy tour launched in 2016.

Thank you so much for joining us! What inspired you to become a chef?

As a child, most of the time spent with my family involved time in the kitchen. Whether it was learning to bake with my mom or studying my father’s every move as he cooked elaborate breakfasts for the family, the kitchen was a special place in my household. When my parents were not in our kitchen cooking, we frequently dined out at restaurants as a family where my brothers and I were taught invaluable dining etiquette. I loved food and everything about how it brought everybody together, and for as long as I can remember, I dreamed of being a chef in my own restaurant one day.

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?

I was 13 years old when I acquired my first kitchen job as a dishwasher/prep cook and knew that the kitchen was for me. I spent the next 14 years working every position that a restaurant has to offer, both front of the house and back of the house. While working in restaurants, I spent years both at local community colleges, and at a small private culinary school learning the basics. In 2006, I attended the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy where I completed a Masters program studying under chef John Nocita and his team of chefs. This was a life changing experience, and launched me into a life-long culinary education.

Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?

My outlook on technique, raw ingredients, regionalism and life in general was forever altered after living and studying abroad at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy under Master Chef John Nocita. While Old Vine Kitchen + Bar is not strictly an Italian restaurant, many of the techniques I learned in Italy are used daily to create a fusion of cuisines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef? How about most inspiring?

Some of my most inspiring experiences have happened while traveling. For instance, in 2016 I was invited by my mentor, Chef John Nocita, to be an observer at the Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. The event showcases teams of culinary professionals from around the world who demonstrate incredible technique and execution. Reality shows pale in comparison to the immense creativity, competition, and forward thinking you see at the Culinary Olympics. It’s four days of non-stop inspiration.

What is your definition of success?

Success for me is maintaining the freedom to do what I love every day while continuing to learn, travel and grow. Old Vine Cafe has surpassed 11 years in business now (we are rebranding/reopening the concept as Old Vine Kitchen + Bar with expanded offerings), and some of my earliest customers have become close friends. Many people who work for me have become family. I feel successful knowing that I can afford to employ these amazing people, while maintaining a basic, comfortable living.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

There is no school that can prepare anyone for what is in store for entrepreneurs in the restaurant business. While there have been many mistakes along the way to learn from, all of them certainly have made me stronger and more adaptable.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

In addition to Old Vine Kitchen + Bar, I have been leading culinary-driven tours in Italy for more than nine years. We now offer two separate tours — one in fall and one in spring — which have grown significantly in the past few years. It is always exciting to introduce customers, clients, and friends to the beauty, food, and culture of Southern Italy, a place I think of as a second home. I am also in the beginning phases of an exciting new project, but it is too early to make any official announcements!

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

Don’t worry about what you get paid and do your time. Too many young cooks make the mistake these days of hopping from job to job without taking the time to really learn in one place for a few years. This profession is not just about cooking or plating trendy dishes, it is about undying commitment, management, numbers, slim margins, and much more.

What is the key to creating the perfect dish?

Simplicity coupled with the highest quality ingredients.

It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

I have had amazing opportunities to travel and teach, and am fortunate to learn from chefs all over the world. No matter where I visit, or who I cook with, food is common ground for bringing together people of all walks of life. In fact, in many places that my career has taken me, the only common language we speak is food.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The importance of mentorship: It wasn’t until later in my career that I learned the importance of mentorship. I was working as a chef for a boutique hotel and knew that I needed something more to broaden my culinary reach. At age 26 I enrolled in a Masters program at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy where I studied under Master Chef John Nocita. During my time in Italy and to this day, I am grateful for his mentorship and the opportunities to continue learning from one of the best.

Endless learning: Working in the industry throughout my youth and then attending a local culinary school to learn the basics offered what I needed to get started. My real education began as I traveled the world and studied abroad. These experiences sparked the realization that culinary education is infinite and knows no bounds — I will be learning forever.

Pay does not equal success: Early in my culinary career I thought that the money I made dictated my success in the field. Now, after over 11 years of owning and operating my own restaurant, I realize that monetary success in this business comes later after many years of struggle, and that truly loving what I do is the greatest success.

Stay true to your concept: In the beginning of my career, after working restaurants ranging from fast casual to fine dining, I did not truly understand the importance of consistently executed dishes and using the highest quality ingredients. It wasn’t until I had a restaurant of my own that I realized just how important these things are. The foundation and the continued success of my restaurant was built on never compromising quality to make an extra dollar.

You will get burned: While you will physically get burned working as a chef, I mean this more figuratively. I have employed numerous aspiring chefs and most move on amicably to become successful in their own right. Others become divisive or are willing to leave their crew high and dry with a no call/no show for their shift. This was a tough reality to face early on, but now I know it is just part of being in a management position in a kitchen. The lessons of being burned by someone that you trusted will hurt the most, but in time they just make you stronger and wiser.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The hospitality industry would not be what it is today without immigrant workers that work the most difficult and essential jobs in the industry. I would strongly support a movement to help undocumented workers obtain residency and/or citizenship. They have been the foundation of this industry for decades.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?

There is no one I would love to cook for more than my father, Earl McDonald, who passed away a few years before I opened Old Vine Cafe. So much of what I work for every day is to become half the man that he was.

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