James Mark has a full head of long, youthful, dark hair and a full beard to match, but he speaks with the deliberate wisdom of a graying man. Before the success of his acclaimed restaurant north (and now big king), James helped to open David Chang’s renowned Momofuku Ko and Christina Tosi’s bakery Milk Bar. Now a James Beard Award Semifinalist: Best Chef Northeast, James reflects on his success, keeping the accolades and attention at a healthy distance. What gives the chef satisfaction is the way his work helps to preserve a dinner culture that he says is rapidly disappearing.
James is a New Jersey native but went to Johnson & Wales for his culinary education. During his time in New York, he would come back to visit friends who lived in Rhode Island and wound up falling in love with what the small state had to offer the burgeoning food scene.
“We spent time, we’d go canoeing or kayaking, you know, just exploring the city or the beaches...I really just fell in love with the city as a whole.”
Eventually he moved back up to the Ocean State, and after some time working with Chef Derek Wagner, owner of nick’s on broadway, decided it was time to start his own place to pursue his vision. north opened with the goal of sourcing the majority of the food from local farms and fishermen. When asked about his choice to make north an Asian fusion restaurant, he was quick to clarify that his cuisine is not Asian fusion. James says that by the nature of its very origin, his food is Rhode Island fare.
Following its success and a move to The Dean Hotel, north was nominated this year for a James Beard Award, an accolade that James is conflicted about. “I have a lot of complicated feelings about the James Beard Awards just because I don’t like the idea of outside groups determining worthiness, I don’t like the way it makes me feel. Either you win and you feel like an imposter, or you lose and you feel like you’re not doing good enough work.”
Part of James does want to win the award, but not to boost his ego. The award would be great for his restaurant, but it would also help to increase tourism in Providence, something that he is also passionate about.
What does give James fulfillment is helping members of his staff grow. Not only does he enjoy watching their progress, but the chef sees training his staff as a kind of preservation of dining culture that he says is disappearing.
“I think that in the next 10 years, unless we do something to address the stratification of wealth in this country, there’s going to be a lot of problems, but one of those problems is going to be – all restaurants are either going to become fast casual places…[or] there’s going to be a few $400 tasting menus and there’s going to be nothing in the middle. Because that’s the direction our industry’s going right now.”
If we continue going down this road, he laments, there will be a whole culture of skills that are lost. This is what his restaurant strives to preserve.
122 Fountain Street, Providence