Mark Molinaro is Northern Arizona University’s Senior Chef Lecturer
Chef Molinaro spent the first part of his career working in luxury hotels including Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton properties. He now shares his passion for fine dining, with a focus on people, with his students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
How would you describe your cooking style and philosophy behind it?
I don’t serve meals as the end product of what I do, my goal is to be able to support and encourage students. It’s a different type of ingredient. You have lives behind it, as opposed to a product. And I think that’s what I’m really passionate about: being able to help these students get connected with and understand how food works.
Do you have a motto?
Take good steps. I say that all the time. When you’re making, say, an omelet, take good steps. How are you going to select the eggs? How are you going to select the garnish? How are you using technique? Is your pan the right temperature?
Also: great cooking is paying attention to small details.
Tell us about cooking techniques that you’ve established.
I love understanding how ingredients play together. I relate it to music; you have high notes, you have low notes, you have syncopation, you have all these different instruments. It’s the same thing in the kitchen. You have garlic. You have white wine. You have tomatoes. How are you going to put all that together to make music—make a dish that has harmony? I try and teach students how to create harmony.
Which culinary trends do you see going on in the world today, especially as an educator?
I encourage our students to think about where their products come from. Does what you do have a story that’s meaningful and adds value to people’s lives?
I feel like sustainability is a concept that we need to embrace and make a standard in how we select, process, prepare, and serve for others. And then the heart, having this passion and care about what you’re preparing. Knowing that this plate of food that I’m going to serve you, you’re going to put that in your mouth. That’s pretty intimate.
What influences or inspires you?
My travels. Traveling—meeting Anne-Sophie Pic, meeting Pierre Reboul, meeting Marc Veyrat, meeting Christian Têtedoie—these chefs who are pioneers in what they do in terms of highlighting ingredients that have terroir, a sense of place. Traveling and seeing how other great people are doing these things and use products that have meaning really inspires me.
What would you do as a chef if money was not an issue?
I would teach my class all over the world. Instead of tasting olive oils in the kitchen, I would try olive oils in Nice and Provence. I’d try olive oils in Tuscany. And then Greece. Go to the place where these things are from.
If you were to write a cookbook, what would it be about?
It would be about people doing amazing things with great products and telling that story. An example might be Pierre Reboul, he is in Aix-en-Provence and his restaurant, Chateau de la Pioline, is an ancient castle. Kings and queens used to live there, but he’s doing this modern food. So, it’s this juxtaposition of time and place; you’re eating liquid red pepper noodles with Thai curry and mussels in the same place that princesses used to have parties. It’s very, very modern food in an ancient place.
You currently work as Senior Chef Lecturer at Northern Arizona University. How did you start out as a chef?
After college, I hiked on the Appalachian Trail for four months. That’s where I found my passion for cooking. As I was hiking, when I came to a youth hostel, I would stay there and I would cook for all the hikers. Someone would loan me a car and I would go get chickens and vegetables and grains or whatever. I’d come back and cook. Instead of paying money, I cooked.
After that, I got a job at a five-star, five-diamond hotel‚ at the Omni Hotel at the Cleveland Clinic. And the chef took me under his wing. Then I went to New England Culinary Institute. And after that I worked at Four Seasons in Boston and then the Ritz-Carlton. Then I got a call from my alma mater and I started as a fine dining instructor. I eventually was executive chef and director for 10 years. From there I came to Northern Arizona University. It was perfect. I’ve been here seven years now.
What is something you never forgot from your first year as a chef?
When I first started, I didn’t even realize that you were on your feet for 12 hours. So, the understanding of how time works in the kitchen, I had no clue. You come in at 10 a.m., and all of sudden it’s like, 1 a.m.
Tell us about a moment of challenge in your career and how you overcame that.
I was a sous chef and working in the restaurant at the Ritz, and a chef saw that I was constantly getting frustrated every night. He pulled me in his office. He said, “Mark, what is wrong? You’re kind of overbearing and loud. And what’s going on?” I was like, well, the plates need to be perfect. And he said, “Mark, go make me a plate of food.”
So, I made him a beautiful plate of food, everything garnished. And I brought to him. And I was looking at the plate. And he took his hand under my chin and lifted my gaze. He said, “Look at the people, not the product.” I still get goose bumps from that story. It seemed like such a small thing, but he changed my focus from the product to the people. My whole attitude changed.
What situation helped you in your development as a chef the most?
That would be that story I just told. Having a feeling of the load of responsibility, this fear-based, ‘I have to make everything perfect,’ and having that perspective shift so gracefully. That was very powerful.
What are the best and worst aspects of working as a professional chef?
Being a production-based chef can be very limiting if you don’t connect that experience to something else, because all you’re doing is producing a plate of food. Am I producing beautiful plates of food? Or am I trying to create an experience, a memory for someone?
What’s a misunderstood part of being a chef?
That it’s always romantic. You have to be methodical; you have to love the work. You don’t cut one onion. You cut 150 pounds of onions. You get blisters. You get a sore back. You sweat all day long. You go home smelling like mirepoix.
How has being an educator changed your point of view?
My students are hungry, they’re very passionate, they want to make a difference. They’re getting the idea that they can weave into their work their desire to leave the world a better place.
How do you approach teaching students about cuisine?
I would say stick to great cooking technique. Don’t focus on ingredients or even culture at that point. Focus on basic techniques. Understand ingredient functionality. Once you have these foundational skills, you can do anything.
One example I give to my students is a melon. I give them a beautiful melon and they peel it and cut it in half and then I see them gouge out all the seeds. I say, “Where’s the sweetest part of the melon?” And then I’ll point to the seeds and ask, “What is the purpose of seeds? Reproduction. Where do you think all the energy goes to from this fruit? Right around the seed.”
And then they understand they don’t scrape out everything. They just carefully tease out the seeds. And what’s right under there is the sweetest part of the melon. It’s this understanding of the product, understanding each product in season and knowing how to treat it just right—not too much, not too little.
What location in the world would you most like to work as a chef?
I would love to be able to hop around: work in Brittany for three months, then work in Normandy for three months, then Shanghai, then Sydney. Seeing how ingredients are selected and brought to market and prepared and combined in different cultures for me is more exciting than just sticking to any one cuisine or one place to work. I think it would allow me to be able to be an ambassador of those places for our students. Food is a natural invitation to culture, without having to say too much.
What’s your point of view on nutrition and healthful eating in terms of cooking and what you prepare?
For me, food should taste great and should naturally be healthy. I’m not a big fan of companies that design foods for profit and not people. My biggest thing is cooking thoughtfully and cooking with nourishment in mind.
Where do you think your students are going to take the industry?
They bring a fresh sense of curiosity about what they’re putting in their mouth. On the first day of class I tell students they’re not allowed to eat anymore. You have to taste. Taste everything you put in your mouth. Whatever you’re drinking, whatever you’re chewing, you taste it.
We have to bring this intentionality, this focus, into our mouth, into our nose, as we experience food.
A lot of our students want to have their own businesses. They want to incorporate sustainability into their work. One of our graduates brews craft beer. Others are working with Google, cooking for some of the smartest people in the world. We have two students right now who are interning with Anne-Sophie Pic.
What do you want to accomplish in the future?
I want to start a culinary program here. Maybe with a partner resort in Scottsdale. We also want to incorporate more international programming and internships.
Which values count the most to you when you’re in the kitchen?
Passion, curiosity, and love. You have to have those three for a successful kitchen life.
What do you think are the benefits of coming to this program versus going directly into hospitality or working in a restaurant?
Coming to NAU before you go into the industry grounds you. It allows you to view the entire industry. It’s such a broad experience. Our program is like a wonderful Swiss Army knife, it gives you the tools to allow you to do a lot of things and to find your passion.
The School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern Arizona University is ranked #7 in the world by CEOWorld Magazine. Established in 1986, the program offers students a hospitality education that regularly rates among the best in the world.
Dicover Gastronomy at NAU: https://www.facebook.com/discoveringgastronomy/