As chef/partner of Bacchus Management Group, Mark Sullivan oversees the culinary aspects of Spruce, The Village Pub, Café des Amis and Mayfield Bakery & Café. He originally entered a professional kitchen in San Francisco at Sol Y Luna, and leading up to being named to “America’s Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine in 2002, he also cooked at Bay Area establishments like Slow Club and 42 Degrees, plus PlumpJack Squaw Valley. We spoke with Sullivan on April 12 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, and he shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
It wasn’t a given at all. I didn’t choose to become a chef. It basically chose me. I actually started cooking just because I wanted to cook and enjoyed cooking. 10 years into it, one of my mentors, a chef at a restaurant, asked me to be the chef de cuisine in the restaurant. When I look back, I think, “Wow, you’re actually choosing this as a career.” I just decided at that point that I guess I should be doing this.
Who is it that you consider a mentor?
I have many mentors. I would say one of the biggest mentors was my father. He was a businessman and really taught the idea of discipline. He was a very disciplined man and that helped me through my career.
What was your very first night like in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was it?
It was lunch service, and it was the first time I was actually work on line during a very busy service. I just remember that I was really out of sorts. I didn’t understand the pace of the kitchen, and the chef was barking at me. It was a very defeating experience, but I was able to get through that.
Where was it?
It was at a restaurant in San Francisco called Sol Y Luna.
What’s your top selling dish at Spruce, and why do you think that’s the case?
I would say the top selling dish would probably be our pork dish. It’s a dish we’ve had on the menu since we opened, and it’s a very classic preparation. It’s pork and beans, but it’s kind of reinvented. Everybody loves pork and beans. Like tonight, you had that classic dish, waffles and chicken, but we did waffles and foie gras. This dish, we do pork tenderloin and it’s rubbed in zatar, which is a Northern African spice that has thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. It’s charred and we serve that with some really beautiful butter beans. We buy these beans from Santa Cruz. They’re very special. We use nice greens and au jus, so it’s a very simple dish. And to have that in a Michelin-starred restaurant isn’t something that you’d look for, but the presentation’s very elegant.
Is there anything that you don’t enjoy eating?
You know, I’ve never really liked brains. I don’t know what it is about it. I’ve tried them, but the idea of eating a brain for me, that’s not it.
What kind of music do you like to listen to while cooking, if any?
We have a quiet kitchen. I really believe in the music of the plates, the sound of silence. I was a philosophy major in college, and I think there’s a whole orchestra that’s happening in the kitchen, the bubbling, the crackling, and the sounds of pots and pans, all these different things that are happening. Also, there’s a time of reflection that’s important for people. In the kitchen, you get that opportunity.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I did. I was a wrestler in high school, and I wrestled in college as well.
How do you stay active these days?
I surf in the fall and the winter. In San Francisco, there’s really good surf then, so probably three mornings a week. I have a road bike, so I try to get out. As a chef, it’s very stressful, so you need that release. I try to surf.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
The first thing I look for is a gut instinct. I really believe the key to my craft and business is instinct. How do I feel about this person? I think that’s really important. Sometimes we forget to use our instincts when we’re hiring. We look at resumes, we look at references, we look at other things, but instincts tell you a lot. The next thing, obviously, you want to check references, because a resume can only take you so far. Someone may have an amazing resume, but if the references don’t check out, so use your instinct. And personality is crucial. I would rather have someone that I feel like has a good personality and has a willingness, and is inspired, than someone who is really, really skilled, without that sense of inspiration. I can teach people a lot, but if they don’t have the right personality, the right willingness, then they’re not going to learn.