Mark Simmons, the former Top Chef contender with the dreamy New Zealand accent, has won Brooklyn acclaim for his simple and hearty fare (like Whole Hog Sunday) at Park Slope’s Get Fresh Market and Table. He recently took over the executive chef post at Melt (Bergen St. near 5th Avenue) and you can often spot him stirring steaming pots of home-made chutneys, jams, and pickles in the restaurant’s open kitchen.
The first Tuesday of every month (like tonight), Melt serves up Taste Life Tuesday, a $25 five-course tasting menu, with five paired wines for an additional $20. The deal is easy on even the most holiday-stressed wallets and it’s a great way to taste what Melt, and Simmons, have to offer.
Tonight’s menu: Butternut squash soup with pecan flat bread; warm salad of frisee, organic poached egg and cured salmon; slow poached lobster tail with bok choy and spicy tomato broth; BBQ braised pork rib with cauliflower puree and fried onions; and molten chocolate cake with malden salt and black pepper.
Brooklyn Based: So this is your first executive chef position. How does it feel different from your previous gigs?
Mark Simmons: I certainly take more pride in my work knowing my name is on the menu. The buck stops with you, you know? I have to take total ownership of everything coming out of the kitchen. I’m developing my creative freedom, which is really important.
BB: What’s your vision for the food at Melt?
MS: This time of year, it’s anything slow-cooked, braised, or cured. I’m also really into slow-cooking cheaper cuts of meat, you get much more bang for your buck, and the customer tries something they’ve never had before. I’ve strayed from my culinary roots, but not too far.
BB: So how would you describe your cooking philosophy?
MS: My style reflects bits and pieces from my travels throughout the world. Chefs in general are great travelers.
BB: Tell us the short version of your wanderings.
MS: I left home at 17, where I had been butchering and slaughtering, to go to Australia. I drove all over in my Cortina named Clarence that I bought for $450, and worked in butchering and trapping goats. When I got bored with that, I started traveling, washing dishes. I was excited and intrigued and curious about the kitchen, and I kept pestering the chef. Finally he said, “Why don’t you just stop asking and start cooking.” I was in Australia for eight years, and then I decided I wanted something very different, so I went to Japan. I was in central Tokyo-near the fish markets–for a year and a half, and just sort of winged it. In Japan I learned work ethic and a sense of purity about dishes, you know, simplicity. Then I came to the States, to California–the O.C. actually–and thought it was a fucking shithole. And I thought, well, I should go to New York before I write off America. And now I’ve been here about five years. My first gig was at Public.
BB: Do you miss the farm though?
MS: Definitely. I have to get out of the city regularly. My dream one day is to be self-sufficient living off the land. Maybe in New Zealand, it’s so beautiful and untouched.
BB: So all in all, favorite food destinations?
MS: Hmmmm…San Francisco. And Auckland, which is really underrated. And Melbourne, especially the restaurant Flower Drum, which is super fine Cantonese food.
BB: What are your favorite ingredients to use this time of year?
MS: Quince, figs, kale, rutabaga, and butternut squash.
BB: And what’s your favorite thing on the menu right now?
MS: BBQ braised long beef ribs. It’s my interpretation of Fred Flintstone goes to Korea Town.
BB: Okay, we have to ask…Top Chef, would you do it again?
MS: Definitely. It was a great experience, and it opened a lot of doors for me. Chicago wasn’t really my kettle of fish though.
BB: That’s why you’re here now! Favorite Brooklyn moment?
MS: Meeting my wife at Royale in the South Slope. We go there for our anniversary every year now.
Interview and photo by Sara Franklin, sent by Annaliese.