Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cafe 305 Field Trip! A Day With A Real Live Chef! (or two)

It’s not much of a secret that Marc Copenhaver is my favorite local chef. It’s not just the delicious food he prepares at Marc’s on Market, either. It’s also personal. A few years ago, his wife and co-chef Sara and I struck up an internet friendship and became lunch buddies before I’d even eaten at their restaurant. Then P. and I ate at Marc’s on Market and fell in love with the food. Then I lost my mind and invited them over here for dinner. You know, so they could slum it a little. (Hey. It was free.) They brought their monkey, Clay along. I bribed him with the use of the special Curious George spoon and knife (which Sara informed me recently he was too old for now - AUGH!), he gave us his seal of approval, and the rest is history. I’ll take the liberty of saying we became fast friends. At least they do still come over for dinner, and they agreed to let me pester them all afternoon, so that’s something.

Having chefs as bffs (OK, now I’m probably pushing it) has its perks. In this case, it gave me easy access to a blog topic I’ve wanted to explore. What is a day like for the chef/owners of a small restaurant? So I called up Sara and said “Hey, home girl, how about it?” and she said “Who IS this??” and I said “It’s your BFF Andie” and she said “Andie who? Seriously, who IS this?” and we got that sorted out. Then we got a visit planned, then Marc said “Well, if she wants to see a day in the life of a chef, tell her to meet me at Costco at noon.” So I did.

“COSTCO???”, you’re shrieking, “a chef shops at COSTCO??” Obviously not exclusively, but it did lead me to my first question, which was to get a rough breakdown of his food sources. Marc said of course it varies by season, but around 10 – 15% comes from local sources like local growers and meat purveyors, then 40 – 60% comes from wholesale markets and the rest comes from purveyors, like his Fish Purveyor Inland Seafood in Atlanta.

Now, before you get all up in arms with the local-sustainable, local-sustainable stuff, let me, well, let Marc explain why that’s difficult to do 100%. There are several realities. First is availability of local purveyors. There are some, but they are not abundant, and they don’t always want to sell Marc the quantities that he needs, which are smallish, at a price he can afford. Second is the menu. He simply has to take into account what his customers WANT to eat. And American customers are used to being able to have whatever they want, whenever they want it, whether it’s in season or not, and whether it came from here or not.

He does keep his menu seasonal, but he did point out that not many people would be thrilled about coming into the restaurant and having the only fish offered be flounder and drum (or great white shark or pufferfish, or whatever we have around here besides shrimp and flounder - can you tell I don’t know anything about our local fishing?). And his customers want salmon, occasionally. Which I DO know isn’t local. Third, in order for him to keep a good relationship with his larger purveyors, get high quality product from them, and keep his costs somewhere that allow him to remain in business, there is a certain volume he needs to maintain with them. And that being said, that food purveyor in Atlanta? Well, guess where their flounder and whatever other stuff local to our area comes from? Yep. Southport. 30 minutes away. Then it’s distributed out through the warehouse right here in Wilmington. Which is about as local as it gets. (I’ll also point out that while I was in the kitchen watching them bustle about, there were two local farmers who came by to drop off their greens deliveries. More about that later.)

Back to Costco. Marc picked up whole, unprocessed packs of ribeyes, plus some other meats (no fish), along with some standard pantry ingredients like canned tomatoes, sugar, powdered sugar, trash bags, etc. The ribeyes surprised me and I asked him about that. I said that the street wisdom is that the chefs in the restaurants pretty much get the best cuts of meat from suppliers before they even got to the consumer level, leaving us to pick over what was left. Marc said to a large degree, that’s true. The best meat gets sold through purveyors and usually chefs get the bulk of that. But a very large part of the dish is what you DO to the meat before you serve it, and THAT, my dear, is what separates the men from the boys. Or the chefs from me. Whatever.

From Costco to the kitchen we went. Sara was there, and guess what she’d just made?!

Oh, my head! That’s my butter cake! That I just blogged about! She made one and put it on the menu for the night! Don’t worry. My ego got beaten back down in no time when I watched her ALSO make a coconut layer cake AND chocolate pies.

Sara is a pastry chef and makes most of the desserts at Marc’s. Marc says you can always tell when he’s been messing around in the kitchen with desserts because a chef brings to bear their normal cooking techniques to desserts, so they’re “weirder” and have strange ingredients. Nothing “weird” about what Sara was making. Just delicious butter, eggs and sugar.

Here’s Sara’s recipe for her cake layers. I told her she COULD enter that in a computer and print out a new copy. She just stared at me like I had eels coming out my ears.

See? Look at that. A little kitchen heaven right there.

She was in the process of making three desserts: Chocolate pies, My butter cake (already done – I hope I got a byline on the menu) and a coconut layer cake. There’s a lot of multi-tasking that goes on in a professional kitchen. She had the layer cakes in the oven, had the ingredients set up for the pies, and was talking to me and making the icing for the cake.


See? Multitasking.

While Sara and I were bonding over butter and sugar, Marc was making us a quick lunch.

Ravioli with salmon and some veggies. The man is unstoppable. I’m going to start heading out there every day at lunchtime and tell them I’m still working on this blog and need more information. Maybe he’ll keep feeding me. Please don't mention it's already posted.

While we ate lunch, I talked to Sara about what it’s like to be a restaurant owner and chef and mother to a monkey. “Hard.”, she said. She talked about the fact that Clay is in school now, which makes it easier for her to do the baking and business management without having to juggle activities for him. But she says he could probably get you anywhere in town because he grew up strapped in the back seat running all the errands that go into owning any small business, the bank, the accountant, the office supply place, etc. Then throw in the markets for the food part of their business, and you have even more scurrying around town. Now that their schedule is a little more predictable, Sara has more rhythm to her day.

She gets Clay to school, talks to Marc about what they need to do for the day, then bakes, manages, takes deliveries, and deals with whatever has come up at work. Unless it’s an errand day, then she’s driving all over town (see above). Then at 2:40, she’s out the door to meet Clay’s bus and spend some after-school time with him. 5:00 she hands Clay off to the sitter. He now goes to bed at a reasonable hour so he can go to school and learn how to be an electrician or a plumber or an A/C guy so Marc and Sara can have someone on free on staff to fix all the stuff that breaks in a building. That’s Marc’s plan for him, anyway. Sara scoots back to the restaurant to get there by 5:15 SHARP so she can eat dinner (she's not exempt from being on time), put finishing touches on any desserts she’s made and set up the bar. Then it’s time to serve customers. Sara is always in the front of house, tending bar, waiting tables, greeting their long-time loyal customers and making an effort to meet the new faces she doesn’t recognize. They believe strongly in good customer service, and they know a lot of their patrons personally.

We finished lunch and the description of Sara’s typical day, and it was back into the kitchen, where Marc started doing prep on the ribeyes. It was highly educational. And a lot of work. Marc made it look like a party, but I’ve trimmed beef before, with a sharp knife, even, and I know it’s not that easy.

I got a good lesson on taking the meat out of the cryo-vac packaging when I buy it in larger amounts. (That's Pootie's voice you hear talking to Marc occasionally. My voice is a little higher. Not much.)


Then Marc tells us about what makes their steaks special


and what the best fat to meat ratio is and why.


Because I like Brown Food, I often order the steak when I go to Marc’s on Market. And he’s right. It’s a REALLY good steak. Without big gunks of gelatinous fat blobbing around in the middle. (Nice image, isn’t it?)

Sara had to leave to go pick up Clay at the school bus, leaving us to play in the kitchen.


After Marc finished with the meat trimming (or “protein fabrication”, as he called it), a couple of deliveries arrived. Ernie, a really nice guy who grows hydroponic greens, brought some gorgeous little micro greens.

Aren’t they pretty?

Then Marc turned his attention toward planning the specials for the evening. Watching him think it through was fascinating. He started the way a lot of people do for dinner – “what have I got in the fridge and pantry?” And then the magic started. He had Corvina and decided to use that for the special. Then he started thinking about colors and presentation. Since Corvina is a white fish, he decided to make it “pop” visually on the plate, he’d give it a marinade in a soy dressing, which would give it a pretty dark ring around the edges. From there he started thinking out loud about what textures and flavors to use along with that, mulling over whether to go toward Asian flavors because of the soy sauce, or go with a completely different flavor profile. Marc loves to plan specials with his sous-chef, Tyson. They work well together, playing off each other’s strengths and coming up with some seriously hittin’ food combinations.

Simultaneously, he was trying to think of what to prepare for the Staff Meal. They all eat together at 5:15 SHARP. Marc said there’s not a lot of time to fool around at that point, so they’re either there at 5:15, or there’s nothing left of Staff Meal by the time they arrive. He laughed and said that’s his hardest meal of the day to plan – he wakes up in the night being haunted by the STAFF MEAL. It’s because he LIKES his staff – a lot – and wants them all to be happy with dinner. And there are varying tastes, obviously. What’s interesting is that the most popular meals are often the simplest. Grilled chicken sandwiches and a big Caesar salad with chicken are always hits.

The staff at Marc and Sara’s is hugely important to them. Most of them are a little older, are married, have kids – in other words, they’re grownups – no offense to the young kids. Marc said “There isn’t anyone here hooking up except Sara and me.” (He means with each other. Behave.) They’re mature and professional, friendly, relaxed, and act like they feel vested in the place. Marc said a lot of that is due to the layout of the kitchen, which was very deliberately planned. He explained that in a lot of restaurants, the front of house staff is kept separated from the kitchen staff, sometimes not nicely, and some animosity naturally evolves over time. In Marc and Sara’s kitchen, it’s an organized family hubbub of servers grabbing bread and plates and whatever they need for their stations, dancing around the making of salads, the sautéing of filets, and the serving of food. There isn’t a pass-through for dinners that keeps them in the front and the cooks in the back. They go back in the kitchen, where there’s a big wooden block table right next to the cooking stations. He applies the same democracy to cooking in the kitchen as well. He explained that it’s vey non-European, where cooking stations are strictly divided and that’s all you do. In Marc’s kitchen, everyone cooking does everything.

Where the magic happens.

To keep things fresh and interesting, as much for themselves as the customers, Marc and Sara recently revamped their menu. It took a lot of planning, but they’re pleased with the results. They’ve designed the menu to go from lighter fare to heavier fare, top to bottom. And on the flip side of the menu, they have lighter wines to heavier wines, thoughtfully matched to the dinners on the other side. Clever, no?

We left Marc after he’d decided on the special, raised my estimation of him even further, and reduced my own cooking self-esteem to smoldering ruins. He’s just that good. And he and Sara run a great operation. It’s hard work, but they find it rewarding, and we’re lucky they do.


Anonymous said...

Why did Marc and Sara have to leave Colorado? We need them here!

Carol said...

I can't wait to try their restaurant. Marc and Sara seem like a great team. Their emphasis on the Staff Meal, kitchen design, etc. is really smart. Great post Andie. And all the best to Marc and Sara.

Anonymous said...

I've eaten at Marc's on Market several times, but haven't been there yet for the new menu. Can't wait to try it. Everything is prepared with care, the staff are all wonderful, and you always leave feeling almost like you were a visitor in Marc & Sara's home. I'm ready to return immediately!