Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chef James Mark of north – Providence, RI

by Sean Kenniff
April 2014

Sean Kenniff: north’s recipes that you submitted to us had a particular style. Instead of standardized measurements, you used units like the three-finger-pinch. Can you tell us a little about how this reflects your cooking style?
James Mark: I wrote those recipes in the most honest way I could. The way we cook here is a constant evolution and very reliant on teaching our cooks and interns how to cook; how to rely on their senses and develop their palate in ways that will allow them to make a dish beyond just a recipe. Ultimately, someone may make a dish slightly different, but hopefully they have been taught to make the dish taste good. And that is the key to our kitchen, to our cooking. 

On top of this fact, I don't know any restaurant that measures out to the gram the amount of something that they put on a plate during a service. While a kitchen may weigh out what they put into a base recipe, the final pickup is often up to the discretion of the person cooking on the line that night. And I feel like it would be dishonest for me to say that we put exactly fifteen grams of basil leaves in each salad, or exactly ten mint leaves. We put a two or three finger pinch of something, taste it along the way, and make sure it goes out to the dining room delicious. Your plate may be slightly different from the next person’s, but it will certainly be just as delicious. 

SK: What is your favorite dish you’ve ever made?
JM: Hanging out at my best friend's house before we opened the restaurant, dumping a giant pot of lobsters, crab, and chouriço onto an old door held up by paint buckets. We had a ton of cheap beer, a raging fire, bottle rockets, and a handle of whiskey. It was one of those perfect Providence summer nights that inspired us to open a restaurant in the first place. 

SK: What were some of your formative kitchen experiences?
JM: My time, initially at Momofuku Ko with Peter Serpico, and then at Momofuku Milk Bar with Christina Tosi is really the period that cemented my cooking philosophies. 

SK: Tell us a little about your philosophy regarding your staff and the community at large.
JM: We pay our staff really well, good salaries. We pay for health insurance, all 15 employees. And 50 cents from every dish on the menu goes to the food bank. We donated $20,000 last year, which was more than my salary. 

SK: How does this philosophy apply to your menu?
JM: In food cost. We don't serve a lot of meat. Quality Rhode Island meat is really expensive. Seafood is dirt cheap, we never pay more than five dollars a pound. So, we focus on seafood. Six or seven fish or vegetable dishes and only 2 meat. 

SK: What’s the biggest challenge you face at north?
JM: Working with farmers is tough in New England in winter.

SK: What's your five year plan?
JM: We’re opening a bakery down the street. A non-traditional American bakery, a little different, in the vein of what we do here. Beyond that, maybe something downtown in a year and a half. We made enough money last year and now we have to grow. But with no investors or loans. We opened north with $40,000; a $35,000 down payment on the property and $5,000 to start. The same team is still here.