Chef J. Mark Hand is the new Director of Food and Beverage at the Niagara Falls Marriott Fallsview Hotel and Spa. He has been deeply entrenched in the Niagara culinary community for several years now, including being among the first graduates of the Niagara Culinary Institute. He was involved in the opening of “On the Twenty”, Canada’s first winery restaurant. He has worked as the Food and Beverage Manager at Niagara College, where he helped grow the Niagara Culinary Institute from a small town community college program to the envy of the province. Through the years and in addition to his culinary prowess, he has appeared in many television spots, travelled around the world cooking, lecturing and spreading the word about Niagara, fronted a rock and roll band, acted in 12 plays, raised two kids, and remained happily married. And now, if he has anything to do with it, every person who visits the Marriott, will leave with a (well seasoned) experience to remember.
What made you decide you wanted to be a Chef?
When I was young, it my responsibility to start dinner, so it just became part of my day to day. From a very young age, I was cooking with my mother, and it just became something that I loved to do, and it never stopped. And strangely enough, I never worked outside of the industry. It’s been four decades of working in the industry, and really, my youngest memories are of cooking pancakes with my mom. I transferred from George Brown when Niagara College announced their first ever apprenticeship program, so I transferred down, like a good Niagara boy, and I was in the first graduating class of the culinary program.
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
You know it’s funny, we just launched my new menus at the Marriott on Monday and I’ve already had three of the cooks say the exact same thing about it: ‘it’s really simple’. And I say, ‘yeah, it shouldn’t be complex, it shouldn’t difficult, and it shouldn’t involve tricks’. So my philosophy of cooking is fresh, simple food, if it’s treated with the skills we are supposed to have. A tomato doesn’t get much better than a ripe tomato. If a touch of salt and pepper and olive oil makes it unbelievable, don’t do something stupid to it.
Is there someone in your career that stands out as a mentor?
The chef that I did my apprenticeship with was named Josef Kohler and it was at the Auberge Suisse in St. Catharines. I was very lucky to knock on the door (this was in the day when you went and applied for jobs in person), so I knocked on the door and introduced myself and explained that I need to be trained properly and he sent me away. Then I came back, and he sent me away again, but his wife thought it was cute that I called him Chef and that I was so persistent, and when I got home the second time there was phone call from the Chef saying, ‘ok, you can come in tomorrow”. He was a mentor as far as my basis of culinary skills and background. I spent 5 ½ years in my apprenticeship, so it was a long period of learning to do things properly. And way before any superstar TV chefs, there was a guy named “The Galloping Gourmet” (Graham Kerr), and this was long before I knew Josef. Graham was this guy on TV who didn’t wear a chef jacket, he was just a fun guy who cooked, and he always drank wine. I used to sit glued to him and I’d think, ‘hold on, he’s cooking, he’s drinking and he’s seeing the world…that’s what I want to do.’ So Graham Kerr was my original cooking hero, and then thankfully I met Joe.
How do you stay educated on new food trends?
I wish I could say I read more, and I don’t really watch The Food Network, and I think everybody thinks that’s what we do, but I think more often then not, chefs of my generation probably don’t like The Food Network because it’s become such a circus. I look to people that I respect or restaurants that I know. You can always look up the Thomas Kellers’ of the world and see what is happening at their place. I probably look up food stuff on the Internet as much as I look up Notre Dame football stuff, which is a lot.
Do you have a favourite ingredient to use?
This is where I get very boring. I think people want to hear something really exciting, like, ‘oh, I love sea urchins’, but… I don’t. A lot of the guys that I respect locally, we have a term that we use amongst ourselves, where we say, ‘we are salt and pepper chefs’. It’s a skill that bad cooks don’t get. It’s important. So honestly, my favourite “ingredient”, is the ability to understand how to season food properly. I never stop thinking about seasoning and I never stop pushing it on my cooks. Chef Kohler used to make me “season the table” where I would have to take a handful of salt and pepper and season a table. And honest to God, he would come over and inspect it. The reason was, he knew that if I could season the table evenly, corner-to-corner, he knew that I could season a 15 dollar steak evenly. It seems boring, but I’ll take a salt and pepper chef over a guy who can turn a piece of shrimp into a piece of bubble gum and make it float to your table.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I’m lucky that I still get to cook. And as you grow through any industry, I think you fall away from the reason you got into something. The great thing is, even on the craziest day of office work, I can still go back at night and get on my jacket and apron and walk out and go, ‘ok boys, let’s do this” and I get to do what I loved when I was eight years old.
What kind of meals do you make at home?
We eat really well at home, but we don’t eat really fancy. We try to balance things out properly, and don’t eat a lot of processed stuff. Things that I don’t serve at restaurants. We eat well, we eat fresh and seasonal when we can.
What would be on the menu at your last supper?
I don’t have a favourite food, because I love so many things, but what I’m more concerned about is the preparation of it. So whenever the execution is going to occur, and I get my last supper delivered to me, I hope that it will be prepared well, whatever it is, because I just love food. Just cook it right. Treat it with respect and feed me good food.
What would you say is unique about the Niagara dining scene?
I think it’s very cool how far we’ve come in the last 15 + years. It only makes sense that a peach that we can pick here is better then a peach that gets shipped from somewhere else. I think that’s what I like most about the food scene here: we are doing what we should have been doing all along. We are celebrating food as it should be.
What has been your all time most memorable meal?
To me, it’s never about just the food, but the food is obviously why you are there. So one such meal was a number of years ago, when a bunch of us went to Chicago and we ate at Charlie Trotters’, and at that time, he was the guy. We had a seven or nine course meal, and there was probably three of the courses that were better than anything I’ve ever eaten before. Every step of the experience was unbelievable. And Charlie Trotter was really gracious to hang out with us afterwards. Now, I can’t remember what the meal was, but I loved it. It’s rare that you get that one that stops you in your tracks and makes you go, ‘wow, how did they do that?’
What do you plan on bringing to the Marriott Fallsview? What will be changing?
We’ll be working on Morton’s Grill…we go into renovations there in October, so this will be the last season of the Terrapin Grill. We are very much looking forward. We will be opening the first Morton’s Grill in Canada.
People come to the falls, and they are sitting there looking at this gorgeous scene, and we need to live up to that. So I want them to have those experiences that I talked about. I don’t need them to remember the meal specifically, but I want our guests to go away and remember Niagara, and that we were a part of it. I don’t need them to remember my name, I don’t need them to remember the steak they had; I want them to remember the experience.