Mark Peel, Hotel and Restaurant Management
"It's the difference between knowing a song and knowing how to sing," says chef Mark Peel of the art of cooking.
For the past 14 years, Peel, who studied hotel & restaurant management from 1975-78, has been head chef and co-owner of the successful Los Angeles restaurant Campanile and its sister business, La Brea Bakery, with his wife, Nancy Silverton.
A native Californian, Peel began his career in restaurants 28 years ago starting with a part-time stint washing dishes in a small kitchen near his hometown of Santa Rosa. The restaurant was in Healdsburg, the heart of the state's wine country.
Peel worked in steakhouses in college before he heard about the hospitality management program at Cal Poly Pomona and decided to relocate.
"I really enjoyed it," he says of the then-new program. "A very important class I took was a facilities design class. There were other valuable classes in work flow, ergonomics, statistics-things I didn't use until I was in management."
That auspicious move to Southern California put Peel in touch with highly influential mentor Wolfgang Puck, giving him his first professional break.
Peel served as an apprentice chef under Puck at Ma Maison in Los Angeles. Puck, a transplanted European, was at the vanguard of bringing Mediterranean-style cooking to the American public. He emphasized the casual approach of rustic cuisine that favored an "open" kitchen plan and the wood-burning oven.
"Wolfgang taught me to cook," Peel says. "It's not so much what to cook, it's how; how to read recipes, how to be creative-technique, taste, attention."
Just a senior project shy of graduating from Cal Poly Pomona, Puck sent Peel to France for full culinary immersion, which comes naturally in the training process of most serious chefs. Peel spent four months there and learned epicurean essentials first hand.
In 1979, Peel went to work at Michael's in Santa Monica, where he met his wife and eventually rose to sous chef. However, he decided to go to northern California and study agriculture at UC Davis. It was there that Peel got his second culinary inspiration, working with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, a legendary and influential establishment in Berkeley. Waters' restaurant was known for a changing menu that reflected fresh, seasonal and local ingredients prepared simply-something most American restaurants were lacking at the time.
After a year at Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck asked Peel to help him open Spago in Beverly Hills and be his chef de cuisine, the first in command on the kitchen or "back of house" side of the restaurant business. Peel organized the commercial kitchen, hired cooks, wrote daily specials, and more importantly, opened up sources for cheese, fish and locally grown produce.
"Spago created a whole new category of restaurant," Peel says. "Pizza ovens, pasta, the informality of it. Spago became focused on ingredients. You get the very, very best and do it simply."
After three and a half years at Spago, Peel briefly tried his hand at the New York restaurant scene, but found food sources were not as fresh as in California. A short jaunt to Italy showed him the charm of the country trattoria concept, which is characterized by a home-style way of cooking.
Inspired, Peel and Silverton brought the trattoria concept to Los Angeles and in 1989 opened the "Med-Cal" (Mediterranean-Californian) style restaurants Campanile and La Brea Bakery in a historic 1929 building commissioned by Charlie Chaplin.
The restaurants, which reflect a California rustic appeal with strong Italian and French influences, have received numerous national distinctions and favorable write-ups for their menu, wine selection and service. Sample items from the menu include Rosemary Charred Baby Lamb served with warm potato salad with sprouted broccoli, spring onion and mustard butter; Butter Braised Halibut cavolo nero, roasted carrots, garlic confit & crème fraîche. And Gâteau Basque, roasted apricots & bitter almond ice cream for dessert.
Peel leads a kitchen staff of 25 and employs about 80 between both establishments. Silverton is Campanile's pastry chef, schooled at Le Cordon Bleu in London, and is the force behind the exceptional breads at La Brea Bakery, next door. Together, the husband and wife team have written Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton At Home; Two Chefs Cook for Family and Friends; and The Food of Campanile.