Mark Liberman On Going it Alone
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
Last fall, Mark Liberman was convinced to apply for the Bocuse d’Or USA by Roland Passot of San Francisco’s La Folie, a member of the Bocuse d’Or USA Culinary Council and former Liberman employer, who called him on a weekly basis to sell him on the value of entering this contest.
“At first I wasn’t that interested,” recalls Liberman. “I’d never competed before.” But as Passot wore him down, Liberman began to think that the competition would be “a good opportunity, a good challenge.”
Liberman is a San Francisco native who was raised in Marin and Sonoma counties. He started his professional kitchen life at 15, as a dishwasher and prep cook, then attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, moving on to stages at Daniel and Aureole after graduation.
From there, he went on to apprentice with Passot at La Folie. After paying off his college debts, Passot set him up with a stage in Paris—at the Michelin two-star Le Carre des Feuillants —and from there gigs in Burgundy, Nice, and Lyon. It was great experience, but came at a price—he wasn’t compensated for his labor (the things young cooks do in their quest for knowledge) and ran out of money, so came home.
Liberman worked for a time at Charles Knob Hill, then rejoined the Dinex Group (Daniel Boulud’s company), as saucier at DB Brasserie in the Wynn Hotel, which in turn led to an 18-month job as chef de partie at Robouchon at the MGM Grand. Craving a non-French change of pace, he then worked at Valentino, also in Vegas.
Then Liberman made his move: an opportunity came up to be the executive chef of a new restaurant in Palm Beach. He’d never seen himself in Palm Beach, but it was an opportunity to work with his brother, a beverage/wine director and mixologist. He became the opening chef of Forte, and the early reviews were positive. But when the economy tanked and the restaurant shifted gears, he pushed off.
Liberman’s road to the Bocuse d’Or has been strewn with landmines, but he seems to have survived them all, beginning with his application getting lost in the mail, requiring him to fill out all the paperwork a second time, which was no small task.
Obstacle number two has been functioning without a kitchen of his own. The Bocuse d’Or USA website lists Liberman’s place of employment as Roxy’s in Palm Beach, where he did do some consulting. But the truth of the matter is that he’s currently a man without a restaurant having recently fulfilled his wish of returning to Northern California.
“I’m the first to admit that it’s been hard for me,” he says, speaking as much of his last year in general as of the Bocuse d’Or prep in particular. (A Tweet from Liberman on New Year’s Day emphasized this point: “All I can say is kiss my a** 2009 and looking forward to a great 2010!”)
Fortunately, Liberman’s been able to rely on the support and assistance of local chefs, such as Slanted Door’s Charles Phan, who has provided him a test kitchen, and Michael Mina, who’s made a lot of time available, and of course his mentor Passot.
Still, Liberman was handicapped by virtue of the fact that he had to do most of his training without his commis, CIA student Leland Cummings, at his side, because the two of them were on different coasts. When we interviewed last week, he had been instructing Cummings on what to practice in a sort of correspondence-course approach, and planned to get to the East Coast as early as possible so the two of them could get in at least some practice together.
For Liberman, who spent much of his ideation phase in solitude, things amped up last week when he invited eight chefs to taste his dishes. “Cooking for them was a kick-start,” he says. “By yourself in the kitchen, it’s hard to get motivated…Having those guys standing over me was motivation…I was very happy with my flavors and how they are coming out.”
And his audience of chefs?
“They were complimentary,” he said.
(The San Francisco Chronicle wrote a nice, detailed piece about the practice.)
To hear him tell the tale, his Bocuse d’Or experience is almost a microcosm of Liberman’s career—nothing’s come especially easy, but he’s only too happy to put in the effort to work it all out. He’s also, clearly, got a competitive streak. He played a lot of sports in his teens, including soccer and swimming. But his prep for the Bocuse d’Or reminded him of another physical pursuit he pursued in his teens: competitive gymnastics. This might help explain his ability to fly solo through much of his training. For Liberman itself, it applies to his mindset vis a vis the other candidates.
“This is almost more like my gymnastics vibe,” he says. “I don’t see myself competing with other candidates. I see myself competing with myself, similar to gymnastics where there’s a judge saying ‘You got an 8.’”