At the Table with Chef Mark Connell

Chef Mark Connell at Max'sWhen I first tasted Mark Connell’s cooking at a special invitational sampling just prior to the relaunch of Max’s, the cozy downtown eatery in the Guadalupe district, I couldn’t believe my taste buds. I was already a fan of prior chef Brian Rood’s simple, ingredient-driven menu, most of which came from the Farmers’ Market. Connell had recently become working chef/partner with proprietor Maria Renteria and Rood had temporarily left the restaurant (Rood now acts as Connell’s sous chef). Word on the street was that Max’s was closing, and then suddenly a new chef and direction appeared, and a buzz slowly started to build.

The dinner that night was perplexing. I had heard that young Connell had worked briefly for Thomas Keller and had incorporated the sous vide cooking technique into a few of the dishes at Max’s. I wasn’t yet sold on the notion that cooking food in a plastic bag in a temperature-controlled water bath did anything to improve its flavor or enjoyment factor, so I was surprised by the results.

I talked to Connell that night, and he seemed a nice enough guy. He talked about his dishes with enthusiasm and knowledge and expressed excitement about trying to make his own impact on the local food scene. I suggested a quick sear on the chicken dish to give it a more interesting color once it had been freed from its cooking sack–an idea with which he concurred. Though his boyish appearance made him look a bit “wet behind the ears” (he is just 30), I was totally blown over by the meal and was prepared to sit back and wait to see how far this potential star would go.

Little by little I kept hearing from fellow foodies that they, too, had experienced amazing cooking at Max’s. I always agreed, and then, playing devil’s advocate, said that I was waiting to see if these early reports were indicative of Connell’s ongoing skill. Since the young chef had worked with Master Keller, my suspicion was that perhaps Connell was copying dishes he had seen at Keller’s French Laundry and was cooking from rote, recreating dishes he had learned.

Finally the buzz I had been hearing started to approach a roar; over and over people pulled me aside to rave. It was time for me to return to the scene of this gastronomic hullabaloo as months had now passed since my first introduction, dine again and then meet this new culinary kid-on-the-block for an interview.

Dinner the night before our meeting did not disappoint–what if, I thought, if my faith in this chef had been a fluke? Happily, that was not the case. I did notice a gentle increase in prices, (ah, success), but the dining room was full of diners that represented exactly the niche that serious Santa Fe restaurants yearn to fill, with a few out-of-towners thrown in.

The late summer menu was still in place and had dishes that represent current food trends, include the sous vide cookery (more on that later), and offered a smattering of fashionable ingredients, such as heirloom tomatoes, Wagyu beef, foie gras, wild mushrooms, sweetbreads and lots of pig–things you expect to find in a restaurant worth its salt.

Connell adds nice touches here and there that raise the level of sophistication and help exhibit his skill and experience. The house-made sourdough rolls are leavened with a hundred-year-old starter from Evergreen, Colorado. The kitchen makes its own butter to serve on the yummy, crunchy rolls. Oysters on-the-half-shell were accompanied by a Prosecco Granite. The heirlooms boasted a tart, creamy goat cheese sorbet. A favorite salad of the night had shaved slices of nectarine, peach and fennel, artfully designed with a zippy balsamic reduction.

I rarely order fish in a restaurant but was intrigued by a sous vide Sturgeon Filet with salty olive and caper crusted potato side, and luscious artichoke pepper puree–it was delicate and very tasty. The sous vide beef dish was absolutely fork tender, amazingly so. The other hit of the evening was a Suckling Pig Tasting that sported pork three ways: crispy skinned confit, slow braised shoulder wrapped in chard, and a seared loin. Even my vegetarian friend’s Farmers’ Market Tasting plate encompassing Ratatouille, Snap Pea Salad, and a Corn and Mushroom Ragout Sauté was intriguing, although we would have needed a double portion were we really hungry, or better yet, considered ordering it as a shared side dish next time.

Dessert continued to be unique and provocative–Lychee Mousse, Macadamia Cake, Raspberry Sorbet and Black Sesame. Connell’s food is as pretty as it is delicious. The night finished with a one-bite white chocolate orb filled with passion fruit puree that absolutely exploded in your mouth–a food play that convinced me this guy was the real McCoy. I was ready for my interview.

I scheduled our discussion to take place at Café Pasqual’s, the 31-year-old culinary icon that I felt would be a nice juxtaposition; I would pick the brain of the new wave of cooking talent in the temple of established acclaim. Breakfast fit both of our schedules, and I was thrilled for an excuse to devour my favorite a.m. entrée there of Smoked Trout with Gruyère hash potatoes, poached eggs and tomatillo salsa.

So, on to the man. Connell was born in Billings, Montana but moved to Reno, Nevada when he was 12. Mom wasn’t a particularly good cook. “She doesn’t really like cooking,” he remembers. “I did make pizzas with my dad and was tasting pasta to see if it was done from the time I was eight.” A job busing tables when he was 16 introduced him to the world of restaurants and an early mentor, Julius Weiss, the Austrian chef that owned the Inn, inspired the curious youngster to think about a future in cooking.

Mark remembers an incident when Weiss dropped a huge bowl of beets that spilled all over the floor of the kitchen, Connell moved to clean it up. “The chef said to me that since he had made the mess, he would clean it up; that really impressed me.” Connell headed off to the Colorado Community College to pursue his new-found interest and, after receiving an associate’s degree, started what would be nearly a decade of apprenticeship and work experience that would prepare him for his leading role at Max’s.

“After college I felt the urge to go to Europe and ended up apprenticing in Trento for four months at a little restaurant owned and operated by a family. I didn’t really speak Italian, so it was both interesting and difficult. But we made fresh pasta every day using 100 percent semolina. I learned to make all kinds of shapes, including agnolotti that are garnishing my Sweet Corn Soup.” Each of Connell’s tales includes a key point about what he learned from that experience.

He continued building his resume with stints at the Studio Restaurant in Laguna Beach (“it had the most beautiful kitchen I ever worked in”) a summer on Nantucket (“a great summer working at the Straight Wharf Restaurant”), and the completion of the pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St Helena. His instructors there saw the potential Connell exhibited and voted him most valuable pâtissier in the class.

Finally an opportunity to “stage” (meaning work for free for experience) with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry presented itself. “I worked in many of the stations in the kitchen and the restaurant’s farm, which was amazing. Chef Keller taught me about the importance of attention to detail. When he walks into the kitchen he sees everything: how pots are arranged, what cooking is going on. He shakes everyone’s hands and calls everyone Chef.”

Next came a week stage at Alinea in Chicago, famous for its groundbreaking molecular gastronomy and deconstructed cuisine by Chef Grant Archatz, who taught Connell that, “flavor is still the most important thing.” Then he served a stint as sous chef at the famous Salts Restaurant in Cambridge working with Gabriel Bremer, winner of Food & Wine Best Chef in America accolade in 2007. There is no doubt in my mind Connell soaked up everything he saw, tasted and cooked in all of his eclectic jobs, and now I think he’s ready for his turn.

Connell’s travels often include employment stopovers in towns with ski resorts; Lake Tahoe, Vail. “I needed to ski,” he explains. During his voyages, he was dating a young lady who stayed put while going to medical school. That young lady is now his wife Hallie, who works in the ER at St. Vincent’s Hospital. “Hallie got the job in Santa Fe first, so I tagged along and worked at Restaurant Martín from the opening.”

Hallie saw an ad on Craigslist that Max’s was looking for a working partner to reboost it during the economic crunch. He met with owner Maria (Max) Renteria and took over the stoves in early July.

I ask Connell to explain his dabbling in the sous vide cooking practice that Thomas Keller has made famous. “I once tasted carrots that had been sous vide cooked in carrot juice; they were the most amazing carrots I had ever tasted. I don’t do it for every dish, but it does intensify the flavors.” He likes the trend of flavored foams, “I think it helps you add another texture to the dish and can help control where the other sauces on the plate go.” Connell is a big fan of foie gras, “I have seen how the ducks are treated at the Hudson Valley Farms. It’s very humane.” Connell tops a seared scallop with a foie gras ravioli that bursts with flavor.

I ask him to critique his palate. “I tend to be a heavy salter, but seasoning is so important. I am very self-critical about everything I cook. It’s important not to think that every dish you cook is great. I sneak lime juice into my risotto and underuse pepper.” For inspiration he looks at ideasinfood.com on the Internet. “I read a lot, too, cookbooks and food magazines. I am always looking for new ways to manipulate ingredients, but I don’t like to alter flavors too much but rather be creative with technique.”

The best part of the job is, “Having fun in the kitchen. I love working with Brian Rood. Any cook I work with I am always in collaboration with.” I ask if he has any words of wisdom for anyone coming up in the ranks. “Don’t move up too fast, it’s hard to go back down. Read cookbooks, do lots of apprenticing. Be prepared to not worry about money, just do the work.”

Café Pasqual’s chef Katharine Kagel sends over two gorgeous French Canneles from the pastry case. Connell had never tasted the luscious bees-wax-enrobed, rum-scented delicacy and nibbled it with a detective’s inquisitiveness. “Wow, the outside crust gives way to that soft, almost custardy filling. That is amazing. I wonder how they achieve that texture–these are fantastic.” Connell had dissected and marveled at every bite of our fabulous breakfast together. This continued appetite for knowledge and experimentation, I think, make him the next talent to watch in our food-crazy city. His cooking is great now; I can’t wait to see what he does next. Foodies place your bets. JV

 

Max’s is located at 403 ½ Guadalupe in Santa Fe. 505.984.9104. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. www.maxssantafe.com.

 


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