Holding the Onion

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By Alex May

He paddles out for one last set. His legs are tired but adrenaline gallops through his body, keeping him steady and agile on the board. This is Mark Sullivan’s reprieve before he heads into the office, where white shirts dance around grills and fryers and prep stations. The printer shrieks orders as spatulas ting, pans clink, and rib eyes hiss in the symphonic maelstrom of a Friday night.

Executive Chef at Bacchus Management Group, Sullivan joined Tim Stannard in 2001 to open the now Michelin-starred Village Pub in Woodside. Since then, the group has opened eight restaurants, including a single origin coffee roasting company, a five-acre organic farm, and San Francisco favorite Spruce in 2007, which garnered its first Michelin star in 2011, and like the Pub, has kept it since. When asked how it feels to have “the star,” he takes a long pause. “It feels like you’ve made it,” he says. Chef is modest about the accolades and expresses gratitude for all the moving parts that make the big wheel turn. The star belongs to the dishwasher, the line cook, and the food runner just as much as it does to him.

When Chef talks about cooking or the art of hospitality, his eyes glimmer. This predilection for taste began in his parents’ kitchen. He pestered his mother to help make breakfast. With saintly patience, she taught her four-year-old how to cook a proper French omelet, a mainstay on his menus and something Sullivan has all his new hires learn. “From a very early age, I can remember the idea that one can make a profession out of making food, which excited me.” The day he sat his parents down and presented a business plan to open their house up as a restaurant to friends and family, he was only six.

Chef speaks in measured tones now, with the journeyed timbre of someone who’s been in a thousand kitchens, shouldered between the precious few who find solace in the chaos. He learned all this by getting behind the grill, the pan, or the cutting board, not in the pricey classrooms of culinary school. Admittedly carefree in his 20s, Sullivan ventured to France to refine his craft in the Old World kitchens. He returned with direction in a career that, he says in the fondest of ways, swallowed him whole.

The philosophy degree on his wall from St. John’s University only accentuates his perspective on cooking. “It’s mystical, it’s like a vision,” he says, reflecting on his creative process. The ingredients appear in his mind and he pores over cookbooks in his study, but it’s not until he’s in the field smelling the eggplant or deconstructing the pig that the bulb flickers on and the dish appears. This tactile, sensory experience transports the philosopher outfitted in kitchen whites to the deep recesses of his subconscious. Only then do the dots begin to connect, bringing the once empty plate to life.

It’s been a while since Chef’s humble beginnings as a line cook at Jack in the Box or even the first few months at the Pub. Bacchus has flourished, and his work is needed outside the kitchen. “I can’t be the guy writing the menu everyday,” he says. His chefs de cuisine take point in the kitchen, with Sullivan close by until he feels it’s time to pull back. His philosophy is concise but weighty: keep it simple and cook good food. He has no formal training, but this is in his bones. You see it when he speaks with a prep cook, arranges the tenderloin, or holds the onion.

Chef knows that things come and go, counseling his motley crew to never strive for the star. The purpose will always be to create goodness and ensure nobody leaves hungry. Customers visit the mystic because they want the unknown—an ingredient they’ve never tried, a dish that hushes the picky, or a stretch of time where numbers blur on the clock and all that matters is in between the knife and fork. They’ve eaten these things before, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll taste it for the very first time.

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