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Chef-Parent Interview: Mark Sullivan

Chef Mark Sullivan Shares What Makes for Great Family Dining

As Executive Chef of Bacchus Management Group, Mark Sullivan commands quite the cooking presence. His elegant yet approachable take on food has landed him Michelin-stars at not one but two restaurants. You would never know that he doesn’t come from a formal culinary education.

When Mark isn’t busy running his 6 Bay Area restaurants, an Oakland coffee shop and SMIP Ranch, he can be found surfing up in Tahoe or exploring San Francisco with his wife and sons, Ezra, 11, and Sean, 7.  

By Joanna Augenbergs

You have young kids at home. Tell us a little about life at home…

I’m in the restaurant quite a bit and while we cook as a family when I get a day off, in truth my wife is really head chef in the kitchen. But we do cook together as often as possible. I have fond memories of my childhood and my mom teaching me how to make an omelet… so now I work on this dish with my sons – a cacio e pepe omelet, that my kids always ask for and that we make together… and we’ll do an omelet bar night or something like that.

Do your kids help you in the kitchen?

They are always involved in the kitchen. Sometimes doing projects like shelling peas. Or my younger son Sean makes an amazing vinaigrette and right now I’m working with him on balance and flavor, teaching him about culinary recipes and tools but also the philosophy of experimenting in the kitchen. I would say that my kids play different roles in the kitchen. Sean gravitates towards cooking and Ezra is the one setting the table but both are involved. We have an “open-door” policy when it comes to the kitchen in our family. It’s important to include your kids in cooking even if it takes longer or is messier or is less refined or doesn’t turn out exactly how you planned. We make sure to have a fun, festive environment in the kitchen.

What are your kids’ favorite foods? 

My kids have been to 15 different countries so they have had the opportunity to experiment with a lot of different types of cuisine and are not afraid to try anything. Ezra, my eldest son, just loves fish – and I think partly because we took to France when he was very young (maybe 6 yo) and that experience was imprinted upon him. We went to a town by the sea in France famous for oysters and he ate like 11 of the dozen we ordered. He thought it was a fun treat and we showed him how to eat it and the different sauces he could try… so no pretension, no predisposed opinion and yah – most people assume kids don’t like oysters but he loves it!

My other son Sean loves pasta… and we do lots of pasta nights at home or pizza on the green egg. It’s really fun; we involve the kids and play around with the toppings and then compare who made the tastiest one. And they both really like vegetables – Again, I believe when something is made well, kids are going to like it!

How has cooking and eating together as a family evolved over the years?

Cooking shouldn’t be a chore. Cooking should be a party. We spend time together as a family creating and constructing food — and then sitting and talking and enjoying each other’s company, especially as the kids have grown and gotten older. Part of their enjoyment in the kitchen now is that it Is part of their life. We have a whole Sunday ritual around chicken dinner. We really look forward to it every week even though it’s chicken every Sunday but it is so important to us, we really look forward to sitting down as a family and having a meal together.

How do you balance being a Dad with a very busy work schedule? 

I work a lot, typically Monday through Saturday and the hours can be erratic (the company is now 9 restaurants and I oversee all the kitchens, including Spruce and The Saratoga in San Francisco, The Village Pub and The Village Bakery in Woodside, Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto, and Pizza Antica in four locations). So, my kid time is typically in the morning, before they go to school. We’ll chat, play chess, read together. If my schedule is flexible, I’ll try and meet them for brunch. I make sure to come for dinner at least once a week, otherwise I generally get home around when they are going to bed. Where the balance comes in is: When I’m with them I’m with them. I’m 100% there. No other distractions. Just focused on them and what we are doing.

We also go to Tahoe quite a bit as a family to focus on the family. It’s our happy place… and we limit internet and TV. We play games, ski and talk… it’s great fun and we always look forward to it. We generally don’t cook when we’re up there… except for my wife’s amazing chili.

What influences your culinary creativity?

I am opening a new restaurant in Atherton/ Redwood city which is a big project and creatively that’s a lot fun for me, e.g. writing the menu, hiring, realizing the dishes, etc. As a chef, when you open a new place, you have to treat it like a lab. You look at a dish under a microscope and I get a chance to really dissect the menu — and sometimes I will make something 8-9 times before launch. Of course, with feedback from others because that is critical. I don’t create in a vacuum. I have a creative process and a vision of what I’m looking for and outcome I want but I also know that I’m not just cooking for myself. You need to be open enough and allow for constructive criticism. For me, that’s really important. To be successful in our business, you can’t have an ego that you have all the answers. I truly believe that being able to take critique makes you a better chef.

Do your sons get VIP treatment at your restaurant?  Do they give feedback?

No, but speaking of critique… [chuckling] Both of my sons will let me know what they think. In fact, one of my son’s friend’s dad is also a chef and he came home after a sleepover and said “So and so’s dad makes the best blah blah blah and dad I don’t mean to insult you but I think it’s better than yours.” [laughing] And I’m ok with it… but yah they are very perceptive when it comes to tastes and definitely have their opinions.

Where are your other favorite places to eat as a family? In San Francisco? Or beyond

We recently went to Zuni as a family and it was wonderful. They don’t compromise their vision and are so consistent in terms of what they do, even after all these years. They don’t feel like they need to compete with hottest, newest trend. They just make good quality food that is really well sourced. There is a lot of integrity behind what they are doing and let ingredients speak for themselves. It’s a casual venue for adults but upscale for kids. The kids had a nice meal without having to resort to a kid’s menu.

Oh! And there is an amazing Mexican restaurant in Dogpatch, my neighborhood, called Glena’s. It’s a husband and wife team where mom and dad are in the kitchen and the kids come to work with them. It’s very small but very high quality. The menu is limited but well thought out and delicious. They make a chicken sandwich that SFWeekly just wrote up as best in SF. It’s my current favorite place – tiny shop but cool story and the food is super high quality. I go there like twice a week.

Nibble+squeak’s is committed to normalizing restaurant dining with pipsqueaks-in-tow. What is your perspective on family meals and dining out?

I have a belief about kids and food: It’s all about exposing them properly to ingredients and different foods in a creative and exciting way (to anything really, all depends on the way that you approach it.) If you introduce a child to cooking and cuisine in a fun and adventurous way, without predisposing them to the outcome you feel they might have, you’ll be surprised by how they experience and accept that food.

Further, kids should be able to attend and enjoy any dining experience. For instance, if you go to Europe, kids are everywhere; they eat in restaurants. There is something morally wrong about places that outright exclude kids. Parents need to be responsible for a child’s behavior (and they should hopefully be respectful of another patrons’ experience and act accordingly). The job of the restaurateur is not to manage that. Our philosophy is: All things to all people. To be successful, we need to think about all of our guests — whether they are 6 or 76 — and ensure that they feel taken care of and that they are happy.