E: Talk to me. You opened the kitchen for Halcyon, Flavors From the Earth, (for Marcus and Teed of Something Classic) in such a way that forces you to keep food very local and fresh. You’ve got no freezer and only a small walk-in cooler. This goes right along your menu, geared towards a passion for that which is local and fresh. Since you opened it in that way, it is natural to you. How hard would it be for an existing restaurant to change their nasty ways and get ‘with the program‘?
MARC: First off, “nasty” might be a bit too harsh. Most restaurants are “fresh” now-a-days, and many are “local”, as well. The Charlotte dining scene unlike, say Charleston, isn't being defined by a cuisine “style” as much as it is by our chefs’ dedication to working with local agriculture. Chances are, if you've heard of a particular chef and/or his/her restaurant, you can pretty much count on finding them at a local farmers market, purchasing for their kitchens. As to how hard it would be for those NOT doing this depends on how much time they want to dedicate to sourcing and adapting their menus, as well as if their customers are willing to support that change with their hard earned cash. Local and heritage ingredients do cost more (sometimes up to four times as much), but in exchange you get a healthier, fresher product. It's taken me 10 years to build a solid network of farmers/shepherds etc. that range from Virginia to Georgia and over to Tennessee and Texas. But in the last few years a few different foragers have come on the scene and made it easier to source a better quantity of product.
As for the small cooler, it always gets down to size, doesn’t it....
E: Is the menu consistent or are you constantly changing it? Is everything then a ‘special’?
MARC: I do major changes 4-6 times a year, meaning full re-writes, but because we buy the way we do, we are forced to follow the season, so I have to word the descriptions somewhat vaguely. This means that I might start with a curly kale and have to move to a red Russian kale then finish with caldo nero. So, yeah everything is sort of a special.
E: Can you ‘turn it off’ or are you creating a dish right now as we chat?
MARC: I think, like most chefs, that we're always thinking about food, being inspired by others...and let’s face it, we're a competitive lot! We all want to be top dog, but I think that this is positive, it’s a mutual admiration. I get stoked on a dish that Jamie Lynch is doing at 5Church, or something that Joe Kindred put up on his chalkboard at Rooster's Uptown and think “DAMN!! That was TASTY!! How can I build on this? How can I make this my way?” Then there’s the heavy weights; Gene Briggs always has great flavor combos and the Moffett brothers always inspire me. And then there's just chillin' having a beer and, say, a Race Track dog at the Diamond and the music is great and there's a vibe in the air, and I wonder how I can translate this experience onto a plate at Halcyon. I tend to cook from some memory or certain “geography” (meaning I might envision a Texas farmhouse in August during the 40's, Hank Sr. playing on the radio, and try to put that on a plate). When I was at Prune in NYC, they sent out a dessert “omelet” and HOLY SH*T, it was my great grandmother's Polish crepe (right down to the correct amount of raw sugar sprinkled on it) and I was transported and, seriously? Almost wept...food moves me much like a great poem (it should tell a story). I don't know that it's ever “off” for any of us.
E: James Beard. You went to his house in New York, last week, to cook alongside two other local chefs (Gorelick from Fern and Hartwick from S.Classic). How were you selected?
MARC: Actually, there were three other local chefs. And also my Sous Chef, Brett Levan, who was also an invaluable part of this team; from working with us on ‘dreaming up the menu’ to ‘putting out pretty plates‘. (He's a laser-beam of intensity.) As for HOW we we're selected, I'm not certain of the process, but I'm certain there's a “solicitation” process from our end, then a “selection” process on theirs...I know that they loved us, we sold that place out (which isn't too bad for relative “unknowns”). I think our menu really spoke to NYC... I know we're welcome back anytime.
E: What does Southern-Inspired Artisanal mean?
MARC: It means that “local” and “farm to fork/table” now means as much as “organic” does. These terms have lost their meaning, as they've been co-opted by larger box restaurants (and the like). In my particular quest for ingredients, I started moving further from the “local” epicenter, mostly for proteins and grains, and in doing so, it allowed me more freedom and creativity on my menus. And this doesn't diminish the freshness; my hog farmer, Adam Musick, picks my order up from his processor (which is a gentle term for slaughter house) at about 7am, packs it in a cooler with ice, and drives it from Max Meadows, VA to Charlotte in a refrigerated truck (and I have it around 3pm). He's raising hogs the right way; 200+ acres for a small population of heritage hogs to forage the woods for nuts, and eat what Adam has planted for them (they‘re not stuck in some outdoor slop pen and misleadingly sold as “free-range”, or whatever term is hot right now). I buy none of my main ingredients (meaning proteins, grains, veggies, honey etc.) from anywhere above the Mason-Dixon (except for duck, because I prefer cold weather ducks, they shrink less during cooking, and I've been buying from this farm on Long Island for 15 or so years). I try to work with farmers, millers, shepherds whose hands I've shaken. That kind of relationship is important to me and the story I'm trying to tell...there's a movement that is trying to preserve an authentically American experience, and The South IS that.
E: You haven’t shied away from ‘teaming up’ with other chefs. Most chefs are proud to be control freaks. (But you’re open to it with the right friend.) What do you ‘take home’ from these collaborations?
MARC: I've always been about community, whether it was in the punk band/skateboard scene during the 80's, or the poetry/SLAM! scene during the 90's. Without outside influence, things get too inbred, but when we work together, we achieve success together. Someone once said I was like the Willie Nelson of chefs; I'll play with anyone (sing back-up as happily as be the lead singer). Who doesn't want learn a new riff and get to explore new boundaries? Being a “Control Freak” can sometimes just mean “insecure”...I don't find this to be true with those I've cooked with, it's always been fun, and I've always walked away a better chef with a new friend.
E: Any collabs we can anticipate in the present future?
MARC: Yeah I'm trying to get a dinner going at Newtown Farms in Waxhaw, with Joe Kindred of Roosters, Jamie Lynch of 5Church, and Luca Annuziata of Passion8 Bistro. I've only cooked with Joe one time at a farm dinner, so this will be real fun for me. I really admire the work these chefs do.
E: Pairing wines, do you get involved with that or leave it all up to Ashley (Swensen), your front of the house manager? Is there any beer-pairing going on?
MARC: Ashley has a great palette and understands my food and flavors very well; so she handles the wine list. Maggie Peirce, our amazing mixologist, handles beer and spirits. We collaborate together for special dinners, like the IPA dinner we did the day after Valentine’s day. It was Maggie’s idea to do a “bitter beer for bitter people” and we paired some awesome IPA's (including a firkin from NoDa brewing) with dishes like charred lamb heart ramen.
E: Talk to me about impulsivity and patience in your creative work.
MARC: I'm patient in the process. At this point in my career, I know that my creativity goes in cycles, so I think my impulsivity (to which I'm very prone) pushes me to put “dangerous” dishes on menus (or even bring them to James Beard). But I rely on my patience to get these dishes right. I RARELY put out menus without analyzing them to the point of almost over-thinking them. Like all chefs, I just want to put out food that speaks of where it was born.
E: What’s your management style, Marc; ‘tight ship’ or ‘seat of pants’?
MARC: I used to be the “tight ship” guy, until I literally had a nervous breakdown (resulting in severe panic attacks). “Surprisingly” this was the result of “control issues”. So, in the long run, “seat of the pants”. I think, it has made me a better chef to (A) surround myself with people who may do something better than me (for instance, I can’t bake for sh*t) and (B) by devising a system that adapts easily. Given what we're doing at Halcyon; this is key.
E: Okay, Helen Schwab … is it really a woman? Have you met this entity in Charlotte journalism? “She” seems kind to you.
MARC: I thought I've heard it all when it comes to Helen, but never that she was a he. I've always considered her the Kaiser Soze of the Charlotte food writers. So with THIS new rumor added to the mix, I can only say I've spoken with a woman whom I THOUGHT was Helen Schwab (and have heard the same voice on NPR), but I have never met him/her. “She” has been VERY kind to me, but has also “taken me to task” for things she felt weren't right, or that weren't up snuff. Overall I believe she ‘gets’ where I want to ’take’ whatever project I'm involved in, and measures against it accordingly. Helen, if you're reading this, my offer still stands; dinner with me (when you retire). Your choice and I'm buying!
E: Farmer’s markets… you (sometimes) do demonstrations at the one in Matthews (on Saturdays)? I can only assume they vary.
MARC: I do as many as I can, mostly in Matthews, but also at Atherton market. It's like going to church for me. No matter how tired/hung-over I may feel at 5am on a Saturday morning, once I get there that sense of community (that I find so necessary) is there. I've never done the same demo twice...seat of the pants is the way to go (let the day and products dictate).
E: Other than taking your sons to farmer’s markets and teaching them “man-grilling”, how are you fostering an interest in your kids for your craft?
MARC: My plan this summer is to get them to as many of the farms I buy from as I can. Not so much to get them into the business but just to share with them what moves me. As a chef, I'm not home as much as other fathers may be. I miss a lot, I guess I want them to have some connection to food; the way my grandparents and great grandparents did for me.
E: I can see that you have a love affair with food. What would you say is the sexiest food? The least sexy?
MARC: Things you have to eat with your hands, are pretty sexy; Moules Frites, for example. You crack off the top part of the mussel shell, dip it into the hot broth, slurp that sweet, briny goodness (and get your hands smelling of the sea), all while dipping your fries in there, too? Yeah, that’s pretty sexy. Moroccan food is TREMENDOUSLY sexy to me; the fragrant spices, the pillows, the eating with your hands? My food epiphany happened at a Moroccan restaurant, when I was like 8 years old. There was the hand washing ritual, and then, when we tore into our final savory course, I was so heady with all the flavors exploding around me, that when we starting tearing at the whole roasted chicken (with preserved lemon and more couscous), it seemed like we were possessed with a food lust that bordered on animalistic.
Least sexy? Canned anything; canned peas may be the worse. Also any plate where there is too much cuisine getting in the way of the ingredients. Chefs that don't “speak” with their ingredients tend to put out the least sexy food. I like when I can tell a chef has whispered to a tomato; “tell me what you want me to do you”. That’s the sexiest food of all.
E: Still skateboarding, like you’re a kid?
MARC: Still? Yes. Like a kid? No. My oldest son, Lucas got “bit by the skateboard bug”, in a big way, this year. Occasionally, I like to impress him with a cool trick, then limp to the tub and soak my elderly back.
E: What’s your favorite restaurant to patronize when you’re not at Halcyon?
MARC: That depends on the circumstance. Besides those chefs and restaurants that I've mentioned, I'd say Saigon Palace for Pho. I miss Las Ramblas; Blake was ahead of the Charlotte curve on that one. He took me to Casa Mono/Bar Jamon, when we were in NYC. This is where his inspiration for Las Ramblas came from. Oh, if only there was a place like that right now; I'd be there every damn day.
E: Favorite bar?
MARC: Thirsty Beaver
E: What’s your mantra?
MARC: Respect and simplicity; gather and give. That's the best way to achieve a narrative.
E: Do you prefer the beach or the mountains?
MARC: The beach; brings out the kid in me.
E: Rock or rockabilly?
MARC: Waylon Jennings.
E: What’s your dream reincarnation animal?
MARC: The bee.
E: Who’s the philosopher you associate with the most?
MARC: Nietzsche. And not the false “nihilist” badge Nietzsche, but the Nietzsche who's “Ubermensch” was the attainment of satori (not some Nazi bullsh*t). He’s one of the most maligned and used philosophers ever. He was more about the process than he was about proclaiming the truth; because truth is transitory.
E: What’s your favorite US city?
MARC: Austin, TX.
E: Favorite dining spot in the world?