If you’ve been following the South Florida dining scene for any length of time, you surely know Chef Mark Militello, who is currently working at Josie’s Ristorante in Boynton Beach.
Not only is he one of the most highly regarded chefs in the area, he also has made Food & Wine Magazine‘s list of “10 Best Chefs in America,” won a James Beard Award, and was an original member of the Mango Gang. So without further adieu, let us introduce you to Chef Mark Militello.
Q & A with Chef Mark Militello
Florida Food & Farm: Tell us about your first kitchen experience.
Mark Militello: I was washing dishes and the chef walked out. It was one of those well-known chicken-wing places where they were making probably the perfect chicken wings.
FFF: You were 14 at the time?
Mark Militello: Yes, 14; and I don’t think I legally could work in there until I was over 16 or 18.
FFF: Did you know the shop owner — or how did you get the job?
MM: No; I just told him I was 18. They needed a dishwasher, and a bunch of us would cover the weekend shifts and then, you know, someone was always busy. We had three or four of us that would jump in. And then when the chef quit, I started cooking.
And one thing led to another — and that became jobs for the summers. My father used to design restaurants. Part of the deal was that he would he would design and build your restaurant — and that you would have to put me to work through Easter break and Christmas break and summertime. So I actually hated it and had no intention of ever ending up in the kitchen.
FFF: What changed?
MM: I went into pre-med. I was pre-med, and then I still didn’t want to end up in the kitchen. But I went into the culinary school and hotel school at the State University of New York, and then I ended up coming down here and finishing up in the Hotel School in Miami at FIU (Florida International University).
FFF: What about secret talents? Do you have anything that you’re hiding?
MM: I played hockey. I played three sports through college. Played hockey, soccer and tennis. I played for Marquette, played for the State University of New York, and I continued to play hockey down here until I was probably almost 50. I tore some ligaments.
Men’s games are like at 11:30 p.m. After 12 hours of working in the kitchen and then going to play hockey — and trying to stay healthy — you end up getting so warmed up in an hour-and-a half game that everyone had to go out and drink beer till 3 or 4 in the morning. So it became counterproductive.
FFF: Do you have any advice for people looking to become a chef?
MM: I think the most important things really are that you read. That’s extremely important; you can learn so much just by picking up books. And in this day and age, everything you can watch on the internet. I mean, it’s changed immensely. But originally, it was always reading, traveling was huge, and then I think schooling is important, to a degree — especially if you want to end up in this business as an owner or a manager.
FFF: Do you recommend going to culinary school?
MM: I think culinary school helps. But I don’t think you have to. I think there’s a lot of us that haven’t gone to culinary school, but I think culinary school really rounds you. It’s just not everything about cooking. I think it’s the whole program, and it is a science and, you know, there’s quite a few applications and very important classes.
FFF: You went to FIU?
MM: I went to SUNY (State University of New York) at Morrisville, and then I finished at FIU in the hotel school.
FFF: So back to new chefs coming into the industry. Do you have any recommendations for them to get involved in the chef community?
MM: You need to get involved. Whether it’s with the local charities or S.O.S (Share Our Strength), it’s hard to just stay in a restaurant. I think you need to be part of the community and participate; get to know others’ shops and see what’s happening in your area. Really pay attention.
FFF: As we move into season, what are you most looking forward to?
MM: Our local greens. Right now, I mean with this heat and everything that’s going on in the country, a lot of our produce and products are looking absolutely terrible. And I think once we get into our growing season, you know all the farms around that produce great products. We work with Jodi Swank (at Swank Farm) quite a bit and with a few other farms.
FFF: What about your seafood? Where do you get that from?
MM: Quite a few people. I mean, that’s a phone call, and every day, it’s “What did you catch?” You know what looks best, and you know it’s going back if it’s not perfectly fresh. I have generally three or four companies that I work with. So it’s the phone calls, and they pretty much know our standards.
The late-afternoon call, early evening, and they’ll say “Here’s what came in, and here’s what you should have on your menu.” We take it from there. Seafood is not always standardized. We change things quite a bit, so we’re looking for the best product that we can really put on the table.
FFF: Who’s helped you get to the place you are now?
MM: Probably my wife — being patient. I mean, I guess we’ve been married 40 years and she’s always been my largest supporter. And I mean there were times when she wouldn’t see me for weeks, with my working 12- and 16-hour days. And you know, back when you’re young, you might think “Wow, this marriage is never going to work.” Now we quite often work together. We really enjoy what we are doing with food and travel.
FFF: Is your wife in culinary?
MM: She is almost a chef. She’s as good as most chefs. She’s cooked all over the world with me. So normally, when I’m invited to cook down in Chile or in Spain, a lot of the guys will bring one of their chefs or guys from the kitchen — I would always drag my wife along. She knows the routine pretty well.
FFF: Did you have any other mentors or anyone else you looked up to?
MM: I’ve worked with so people over the years. Robert Mondavi flew me out one year to cook Christmas dinner. There is one chef that I really liked working with, one I used to really look up to — John-Louis Pallidon from The Watergate. We worked together quite a bit around the country. I’ve also worked with Julia Child on her TV show.
So, there were really, really neat people all along the road. Julia was special. I actually prepared the food for her 80th birthday or 85th birthday.
FFF: So back to Josie’s now. Why should we love the restaurant? And what are you doing there that’s truly unique to the restaurant and to you as a chef?
MM: Well, we’ve changed directions quite a bit. I was originally on and off with these guys for two and half years or so. And in the beginning, it was just a little house salad or a cup of soup with your dinner. There were no salads. We’ve changed food directions tremendously.
Back then, there was homemade pasta, and back then, I would say it was more of a pizza, kind of a spaghetti-and-meatballs type of restaurant. Now, what I mean is, we’ll get phone calls asking us what we are braising, or “Do you have lamb shanks?”; or “What kind of fish came in?”
I think a lot of this has to do with that this area is changing and growing tremendously. It’s becoming a lot younger. Last week, I had foie gras on the menu, and we had rabbit. We’re featuring items that you may see in Italy, and people are beginning to expect some of that here when they come in, and it’s great.
FFF: Is there anything on your agenda that we should know about?
MM: We’re obviously in the process of possibly maybe moving this restaurant with all the construction that’s going on. So that is a slow process. You can see next to next door is completely built out. So we still don’t have a definite answer, and there’s been talk about doing another restaurant, and we’re even throwing around a few concepts. What I’d really like doing is, say, a fish shack and rum bar.