James Mark (above, center) recently opened north with partners Tim Shulga and John Chester (above, left and right), where they’re all cooks – please, don’t call them chefs. “Chefs are a bummer,” he explains. “We use it as an insult. ‘Your butter is getting a little dark there, chef.’” They bring that sort of no-fuss attitude to the tiny space formerly occupied by Ama’s in the West Side’s Luongo Square. Mark, a Johnson & Wales alum, once worked at David Chang’s Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko in New York City, and north will very much be in that model of what he refers to as “chef’s counters” or “food bars” – small, casual restaurants that offer high-end, ambitious food without the fine dining stuffiness. The menu is a fusion of influences. “We love New England food,” explains Mark, adding, “Some of our best friends in Providence are Guatemalan; we are completely enamored with their culture and food. The flavors that can be found in the Cambodian restaurants and markets of this city have also astounded our palates; we have no choice but to try to replicate them... Our only rule is that it has to be f---ing delicious.” The three cooks previously worked together at Thee Red Fez, where they did things like put crumbled cheese balls and kimchi on hot dogs until the wee hours of the morning.
Everybody knows cooks don’t get to eat at normal hours like the rest of us. Where are you eating late night?
Olneyville NY System. I try to not go that much anymore, but it’s really delicious/terrible. Two all the way, a cheeseburger deluxe and a mousetrap [restaurant shorthand for grilled cheese] is my standard order. The 3am line is amazing. It is the great equalizer of this city. Hood rats, club kids, guidos, cool kids, dirt punks, cooks and clean cut dudes all end up here – never too many fights, never anyone sober. The System is a wonderful/terrible Providence icon. Bonus points if you leave your wrappers in a friend’s car or house. The smell never gets out.
Name a dish or recipe from a restaurant other than your own that you wish was yours.
Ben Sukle’s [of The Dorrance] soft shell crab dish is amazing. The roasted crab broth blew my mind the first time I had it. He did a charred asparagus broth once – charring the tough stems really hard then putting them through the juicer. Brilliant.
If you could pick one food trend and end it, what would it be and why?
There are plenty, but if I had to pick one it would have to be this farm-to-table circle jerk. We don’t need to list every single farm that every component comes from on a menu. People should train their staff to know where these ingredients come from, and by all means we should be purchasing our product from our neighbors. But by this point it should be a given that we are all sourcing locally. “Slow poached Bumblef--k farms hen egg with Hill of the Farm house-made bacon, Lincoln Woods foraged chicken of the woods mushrooms, and Singing Brothers Farm ricotta salata” makes me want to tear my eyes out.
You’re in an elevator with the producers of a food/travel show and you have one chance to convince them to do an episode on Providence. What’s your 30-second pitch?
The immigration story of Providence is incredible – from the Italian, Irish and Portuguese populations of the past to the Cambodian, Guatemalan, Dominican and Korean populations today. Seeing how their food and cultures evolve and change when thrust into an area with strong New England traditions is really amazing, and I’m sure it would make compelling television.
What do you think of the state of the Providence dining scene right now? How far has it come in the last 5-10 years?
The state of Providence’s dining scene is a complicated question. It is better than it has ever been. The major change is the product quality. Five years ago no one except maybe Matt Gennuso [Chez Pascal] was breaking down pigs on a regular basis; now Nicks on Broadway and others are breaking down whole pigs every two weeks! There were no serious farmer’s markets five years ago; now we have the Farm Fresh system, which freakin’ delivers to your door! The connections that have been forged between restaurants and farmers/fishermen are amazing.
There have been some really exciting places cropping up – Flan y Ajo and the Dorrance kill it. I had an awesome sandwich at Dok’s Deli the other day. (Plus, they have a Roadhouse sandwich – “Pain don’t hurt.”) It’s exciting to see young dudes coming up, and I’m hoping that they and the more established restaurants in the city keep pushing themselves to find our own distinctive voices. We certainly will be at north.