The City of Ate Chef Interview: 24-Year-Old Garden Cafe Chef Mark Wootton
Garden Café is one of several little neighborhood jewels tucked away in East Dallas. The breakfast and lunch spot's most distinguishing feature is the large garden behind the quaint white brick building in which it sits. Plots of herbs and rows of veggies keep the butterflies and bees busy, and also supply a homegrown touch to many of the plates served.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
I recently spoke with Mark Wootton, who is the cook, manager and also the owner's son. He's worked hard for the past two years to bring the restaurant back from the brink of closing. We talked to him about that and more in this week's chef interview.
Are you a gardener?
My dad was, mainly. He always used gardening as a form of therapy and often says, 'I could have hired a therapist or started a garden.' When I was young we'd always grow things around the house. Instead of a lemonade stand, I always sold Ziploc bags full of fresh okra. But, in terms of gardening, I'd help him and he'd show how to grow different things.
Who takes care of the garden here?
Ideally we all spend a few minutes out there everyday, but it's mainly organized by Angie, who works in the front of the house, and Miranda, who is our pastry chef. They've kind of taken the helm. We want everyone to know what's going on out there and be able to explain things to customers, so everyone spends a little time out there everyday. Plus we just all get a better appreciation for it that way.
What do you mainly grow?
We grow a lot of herbs. Even though we have to buy cilantro for the pico de gallo, we're able to use herbs that we grow for almost everything else. Sometimes we create menu items based on something we're growing. We also grow all our own okra and only offer it in the summer so we don't have to buy it. Eggplant worked really well last year, and we're growing more of that. We have our own kale and Swiss chard also. But, in terms of percentage, it's probably only like five percent of what we serve. With the scale of what we serve, it's impossible to keep up with that small of a garden.
When did you initially get into cooking?
I've been managing the café since July 2010, almost two years. Before that, I cooked for about seven years at Hotel Lumen and Central 214. I actually hadn't really gone there (Hotel Lumen) to be a cook, I just needed a job. I have a friend who said he always knew he wanted to be a chef, but that just wasn't me. But, after I started learning things, I was hooked. I learned that cooking wasn't just throwing things in a pan and heating things up. It's chemical reactions and science.
Did you learn a lot about working in a fast-paced kitchen at those jobs?
At Central 214 I eventually worked with Blythe Beck. That was my first really intense experience on the line.
How was working with Chef Beck?
Sometimes she can rub some people the wrong way. She can be a little crass and, honestly, in the beginning I didn't like her at all. But, after a couple of weeks working on the line with her, I got to know her and really liked her. She could be really hard to work for, but then after service she always made a point to talk to people.
What did you learn from working with her?
Once a person came in that was vegan and we obviously didn't have anything vegan on the menu, so we had to make up something on the fly. Chef Beck jumped back on the line and just started yelling out ingredients, and I can't remember what it was exactly. But, not only was it very creative, it was also a beautiful plate. Just being able to create something that wasn't just a vegan dish, but a truly great dish -- something we could have had on the menu regularly -- was great.