Craftsmanship in the kitchen inspires a chef

Pilgrimage: Rooster CafM-i in Elkridge is Mark Schek's vision brought to reality.

Culinary spotlight

Howard Live

October 14, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chef Mark Schek not only wants to fill your stomach -- but also wants to touch your soul.

"There has to be something that happens when you eat food. It should elicit a response," said Schek, the chef and co-owner of The Rooster CafM-i in Elkridge.

Having his own restaurant gives him the opportunity to give customers what he thinks they deserve -- a beautifully crafted meal that is prepared with fresh and natural ingredients. He even makes his own ice cream. "When all the details are right in the meal -- the taste of the food, the pace of the service -- it's a chance to go beyond yourself," Schek said.

When it doesn't work, he gets angry. "It eats away for a bit," he said.

Schek's culinary philosophy comes from experience and pilgrimage. His training has taken him to famous kitchens in Washington and New York and across continental Europe and Great Britain. But it began at the kitchen table of his childhood.

Schek grew up in Montgomery County during the 1960s. Both parents cooked, and they used only whole foods. There were no canned goods, no tuna casseroles and no soft drinks in the house. "We couldn't eat Twinkies or drink Coke," he said. "There was no spoken phil- osophy about food," he added. They just lived it.

When he was 10, his father took him camping with friends. While his companions brought typical campfire food, Schek brought a fresh chicken to roast over the fire.

"It takes a long time to cook a chicken that way," he laughed.

Another time, he ran a hot dog stand at a neighborhood fair. In high school, Schek kept a vegetable garden. But what fascinated him most was what he calls the "craftsman part of cooking" -- the inter-relationship of creativity with tools, technique and food.

After high school, Schek went to Europe and hitchhiked around France, Germany and England for three months. When he returned to the United States, he joined friends in Greeley, Colo., and he started his first cooking job at a pancake house. From there, it was back to the East Coast, working in several restaurants, including a job as kitchen manager at La Crepe in Rockville from 1978 to 1979.

During that time, Schek had an epiphany. He saw The Turning Point, about the world of ballet, and he was impressed by the artistic endeavor of the movie's characters. "To do something, to do it right despite getting paid or not," is how Schek described that revelation.

This pursuit of excellence led him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. For two years, he studied technique and immersed himself in activities and clubs. He also participated in food shows at which he was tested on presentation and creativity.

"I was a culinary nerd," Schek said.

After leaving the school, Schek stayed in New York. He worked as the chef garde-manager at the Regency Hotel, fine-tuning his presentation skills on salads and mousses, and then as a pastry assistant at Le Perigord Park. After a failed relationship, he took solace in Switzerland, cooking at a restaurant in Zurich for three months before returning to the Washington area. He built his resume at some of Washington's finest restaurants, including Le Pavillion and the Morrison House.

Finding fulfillment in his profession proved elusive. Schek decided what he needed was to return to France for intense study. In 2001, using his kitchen connections in Washington, Schek secured an invitation to Lameloise, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Burgundy.

"It was a very transforming experience for me," Schek said. Although he mostly cleaned many famous French kitchens, as he puts it, he gained favor with various chefs as they demonstrated the French approach to cuisine.

"I understood what French cooking was about. They place a high value on craft, in the way you do things. Even the craft in putting a restaurant together," said Schek. "It's an emotional investment in what you're cooking."

He was allowed to copy recipes and to make daily market trips. He learned to appreciate the quality of dishes made with fresh, organic ingredients. He also learned to "respect the recipe," as he calls it, which means to make sure the ingredients come from the same geographic area and the entree and its garniture (side dishes) match in culture and texture. Schek thrived in the slower, more personal pace found in the small but excellent restaurants of France.

With this inspiration and vision, Schek came home and prepared to open a little French restaurant, which he did last year. He does all the shopping, going to the seafood and natural food markets daily and ordering meat that is free of hormones and antibiotics. The Rooster CafM-i has received excellent reviews. On slow days, Schek will also serve the meal.

The Rooster CafM-i, 6590 Old Waterloo Road, is in Lark Brown Shopping Center. Open for lunch Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Reservations preferred: 443-755-0600.

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