Mark Rosenstein prepared a menu testing/tasting feast at the soon-to-be-open Smoky Park Supper Club
Farmer and Chef South Digs Deep:
Into the Fire with Chef Mark Rosenstein by Christine Sykes Lowe
There have been numerous opportunites and experiences where I feel fortuntate to have been a part of the process, if only to bear witness. Flames dancing, ash circling the air – a determined but fixed expression of pleasure on his face. Chef Mark Rosenstein, largely regarded in Western NC as a leading pioneer in the local food movement, is at his best when he is creating and cooking, with fire. From delectables emerging from a stone hearth pizza oven he lovingly helped craft by hand, to a wood-fired Argentian grill or “infiernillo” roasting dozens of tomatoes at peak of harvest – Iʼve seen and tasted it all. The flavors are uncompromising and shows his mastery on every level. Did I also mention he is also an artisan of homemade fireworks? Of course. It only makes perfect sense.
As a big contributor to Farmer and Chef Asheville, including writing the foreward that goes in-depth on the relationship between earth and table, we are honored to highlight his focused passion through a Q+A and a recipe featuring wood-fire cooking.
Christine Sykes Lowe: Where did you start your love of cooking with fire begin...is there a specific influence?
Mark Rosenstein: Cooking and cooking with fire started together, so this goes back 40+ years. Even though some of my cooking delved into the modern and complicated, in my core, I appreciate and practice simplicity. This simplicity dictates “fire”, as it is elemental and direct. Any specific influence really is all the general influences I have had – a Native American teacher, naturalist and mentor when I was in elementary school, some of the mountain folks I lived amongst when I moved to Highlands, NC, meals around the firepit with the sophisticates who were my clients in all my restaurants, and the timeless adventures I have had in my own yard, around my own fires, poking embers and rescuing tasty bits before they burned.
Rostenstein getting ready to play with fire
Christine: Tasty bits indeed. Do you think this cooking style is hard to perfect?
Mark: Cooking “elementally” is the most difficult to master, and the most difficult part is self-discipline: being mindful and present; fire is constantly changing, no two pile of burning wood is ever the same. You cannot write a recipe that says, “cook on high heat for three minutes” - as this can be meaningless. It is also difficult to master because you have to start by building the fire, or even before that, have collected the wood or made the charcoal. The process requires more time and most of us have become habituated to “quick and easy”. Take the use of a retained heat (wood-fired bread oven): the process begins days before you want to cook, building stored heat through constant “burns” over hours and days. A loaf of retained heat hearth baked bread is an act that never stops.
Christine: What are you working on personally and jointly right now? It always seems you have your hand in something new and exciting.
Mark: I am helping develop the menu and plans for Smoky Park Supper Club, a restaurant that will be opening in Asheville later 2015. Wood fires will be the primary source of cooking heat. Beyond that, truth be told, actually most of what I am working on is “old”, in the sense that I continue to delve into the relationship that I have with food. I have picked up the threads of an earlier project with my youngest daughter. We are once again working on the “Bennie and Boomer” story, which is our conversation about all the things that affect us, as we cook together and eat together. Our intention is to bring this to life through a web-based comic/video/story. I am also continuing to work a book about spices “The Little Book of Spice”, conceiving it as series of monographs about individual spices as well as about blends.
Christine: I can see how that “Little Book of Spice” would be a great accompanientment to any kind of wood-fire cooking... so as we round this up---your philosophy on food, and coming to the table– you touched on this in your intro for Farmer and Chef Asheville. Can you sum it up for us?
Mark: In a nutshell, the relationship we have with food is exactly the relationship we have with our family, our friends and our community. This food relationship is the basis of how we interpret (using interpret in the sense of “a way of behaving”) everything else we do, think and see. A quick example is: do you share food with strangers? At a restaurant, would you casually or randomly offer something to the table next to you or at the bar? Do you share food at home? And the such. Brillat-Savarin said, “tell me what you eat and I shall tell you who you are”. I would add to that,”tell me how you treat food and I will tell you how you love” (or some such nonsense...)