Most people know Mark Simmons as the contestant on Top Chef Season 4 with the curly hair and charming Kiwi accent.
What they don't know about him: his commitment to sustainable agriculture, his flair for pickles and jams, and the fact that he used to play hacky sack with lamb testicles in one of his former jobs (it was not when he was a chef at Public, for the record).
Name: Mark Simmons
Location: Park Slope
Occupation: Chef, Get Fresh Table & Market
We understand you grew up on a sheep farm in New Zealand and that you worked in a slaughterhouse. What was that like? And how how has it influenced your philosophy towards food? Well, it really made me appreciate utilizing the whole animal. I watched my dad slaughter a lamb when I was seven.
Working on the slaughter board back in New Zealand, I was very curious to trying all the bits and pieces that were getting processed, my favorite was slow cooked lamb sweet breads. Cooked in the knife sterilizer for about seven minutes. Great for afternoon tea.
It's not anything new, the nose to tail philosophy that we live by, but I think because of the recession it has become a lot more prominent in larger restaurants that might only utilize the tenderloin of the animal which is only 1.5% of the carcass weight.
When did you first start cooking, and where did you get your start in restaurants? I left New Zealand when I was 18 to travel across Aussie. The easiest work to pick up was washing dishes. I got promoted from the dish pit, after hounding my chef at the time for a chance to cook the line.
How would you describe your development of techniques and personal style over the years, without formal culinary school training? I like to make my own adaptions on local cuisines that I enjoyed through my travels.
You recently took some of your Get Fresh staffers upstate to tour Nichols Meat Processing and Stony Brook Farm, who both work with Dickson's Farmstand, your meat source. Why was it important to take them there? What do you hope they learned from the trip? I am fortunate now to have worked the full cycle--from when the animal is born to when it hits the plate. Because of this, I have a profound and deep respect for the food I am serving, and want to pass this on to my cooks. Also, even though the servers were a little queasy at the sight of the slaughter, they now can explain the humane conditions in which the animals are treated.
Speaking of knowing where your food comes from, tell us a little bit about the garden you've got at the restaurant. It's going great and we should be harvesting our first peas, Asian greens, and beets any time now. It has become a real team effort with everybody chipping in.
[Ed. note: we checked in with Sara Franklin, the volunteer head gardener for Get Fresh, and here's what she had to add.] Mark and I met, talked about visions for the garden and our shared philosophy on growing food sustainably. Currently, Mark and I work together to design and tend the garden so that it's both aesthetically pleasing and fruitful. We have a variety of Asian greens, sweet peas, kale, lettuce, black edamame, spinach, chiogia and bulls blood (red) beets, blueberries, dill, cilantro, and lavender growing right now. As the weather warms up, we'll add a variety of tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, and okra.
Many people are familiar with you from your appearance on Top Chef Season 4. What was that experience like for you? Would you do it again? It was an amazing experience and yes, I would do it again.
Are you still in touch with any other Top Cheffers? Is there some sort of network you're all in now? Yeah, I feel like there is between the different seasons. We look after each other when we visit each others' restaurant.
Are you introducing New Yorkers to Kiwi dishes and delicacies? If so, what are some favorites? It was a surprise to me that New Yorkers really enjoy the vegemite custard that I serve from time to time. I make an heirloom bean succotash, this one lady would come in for it every night. I once approached her and let her know there were actually other items on the menu. (She still orders it regularly.)
Favorite bagel? Bagels are overrated.
Best late-night eats? Sidecar in Park Slope.
Undiscovered gem? Zu Zu Ramen.
Guilty pleasures? KFC.
Most memorable New York City meal? Café Grey at Time Warner Center. A couple of years ago before Valentine's Day, overlooking the park with snow falling--conditions were perfect.
Get Fresh Table and Market
370 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY (b/n 5th and 6th Streets; map) 718-360-8469
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