Meet Mark Woll,
hometown Winchester, N.Y.
favorite crepe Cinnamon and powdered sugar.
favorite holiday treat Stuffing with sausage and chestnuts.
supports obama because “I always wanted to be black as a kid. Almost all my friends were black. I respect people who have to work harder to get where they want to go than those who are given it.”
Q How did you first get involved in food?
A I’ve always enjoyed working hard and making money, but school was never my thing. So I cooked in high school and eventually went to the Culinary Institute of America. I worked in New York at famous places, a few of the top 10 restaurants in the country, like Le Cirque.
Q Working in such prestigious restaurants is a real challenge — lots of hot tempers, right?
A The chef has total control of the kitchen. It’s a non-English work environment too, and these guys are passionate about what they do, and sometimes tempers flair and cooks really loose their cool. I remember when a cook flipped a bowl of boiling-hot soup onto a waiter’s tuxedo front using the tip of his 13-inch chef knife. Another time Chef screamed at the accountant, calling her every kind of swear word, in front of twenty commis [junior cooks]. She balled and cried and told her boss, and then Chef swore at [the boss] for a long time too.
Q By the way, what’s that you’re cooking there?
Q What was it like working in such a high-intensity kitchen?
A I couldn’t take it at first. You have chefs screaming at you two inches from your face and constantly pointing out what you’re doing wrong, not praising what you get right. But I was dedicated; you really feel like a family in that environment, because that kind of work is more than a job, it’s a way of life. I was dedicated and knew I could meet my chef’s standards. I lost 15 pounds in a month and started having heart palpitations, but I eventually calmed down. One time I got in a bad motorcycle accident, and any other person would have gone to the hospital and taken a month off, but the next day I went to work because Chef was counting on me. He saw I was limping and let me go home, but that’s what the environment’s like.
Q So how did you wind up in New Haven?
A I wanted an executive position — I had fifteen years experience and hadn’t led my own kitchen. I moved up to Guilford and took over a place that had a really bad reputation — I turned it around and got it three stars in two years.
Q Why did you open Gastronomique?
A After Guilford I worked in four or five other places, but I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t get with a very successful restaurant owner — they were in the business for the wrong reasons. I reevaluated my life when I got into another motorcycle crash that put me in a coma for over a month. After that I decided to go for broke and take my entire life savings, $22,000, to open Gastronomique, my own place, and it was worth every penny.
Q What do you eat day to day?
A It varies. One day it could be a 99-cent sausage biscuit at Dunkin’ Donuts, a whole pineapple, a rack of lamb or a crêpe. At first I ate all of my crêpes that came out badly and gained 15 pounds doing it. I love home cooked meals, and I don’t judge how they come out. I try not to eat my own food very often.
Q By the way, what’s that you just pulled out of the oven?