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Chef Spotlight: Executive Chef Mark Russell of GREAT PERFORMANCES and Chef for THE DEAD 1904 by Irish Repertory Theatre

Chef Spotlight:  Executive Chef Mark Russell of GREAT PERFORMANCES and Chef for THE DEAD 1904 by Irish Repertory Theatre

As the executive chef de cuisine for New York City's sustainability oriented catering and food service company, Great Performances (GP), Mark Russell oversees seasonal recipe and menu development for the broad spectrum of events hosted by GP's social, corporate ad nonprofit clients. He executes off-premise events and leads the training and development of the culinary team. With an interest in foraging, fishing and gardening, Russell is an ingredient-driven chef committed to the creation of simple, honest food.

His more than 20 years of experience in high end catering in food service includes a stint as chef de cuisine at New York's Creative Edge Parties and as the executive chef for Dean & Deluca. Russell was also a member of Restaurant Associates' culinary team, which saw him working on menu research and development for the Guggenheim Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Chef Russell has created the menu for the current immersive production of Irish Repertory Theatre's performance of THE DEAD 1904 at the American Irish Historical Society on 5th Avenue. It is being performed now through January 7th. Destined to become a beloved annual New York City holiday tradition, THE DEAD 1904 is in its second year. The production is an adaptation of James Joyce's short story, "The Dead." Chef Russell's centerpiece meal is based on Joyce's description of the dinner presented by the Morkan sisters to their guests. The fare has been adapted by to accommodate 21st century tastes.

Chef Russell's menu for THE DEAD 1904:

Entrees, served family style include Roast Turkey Breast Stuffed with Sprigs of Parsley & Herbs and Beef Tenderloin, Fig & Cocoa Glaze, Spicy & Sweet Fig Sauce. The Sides, served family style, include Mashed "Floury" Potatoes, Cranberry & Pineapple Relish, Dried Figs, Raisins & Smoked Almonds. The Dessert is French served. For information The Dead 1904, visit: https://irishrep.org/show/2017-2018-season/the-dead-1904-2/.

Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Russell about his career and Great Performances.

What was your earliest interest in cooking?

I was raised by parents who viewed cooking as a chore on par with laundry or vacuuming. Food was nothing more than sustenance, meals, to be endured. You knew when a roast chicken was cooked by stabbing it several times with a large kitchen knife, if no liquid came out of its wounds, it was done. Food and the idea, that it could be delicious, came to me usually thru a shared meal at a family table of a friend's house. Their families cooked with butter, fresh ground black pepper, garlic. Exotic chilies and peppers. Copious amounts of wine. One friend's mother poured a bottle of beer over a pork roast. She made crepes on Saturday mornings with lemon and sugar.

They char grilled meat. Made salsa from tomatoes grown in their gardens. Sprinkled herbs into salads. Made dressings with olive oil and vinegars flavored with raspberry and tarragon.

Who were some of your career mentors?

My first impression of high cuisine, came from an elderly neighbor in Iowa, who demanded butter, not margarine, be used in her recipe for sugar cookies. A tiny detail from everyday life that, for me, proved to be a revelation. While she wasn't a mentor, her insistence on high quality natural ingredients used in simple preparations made an indelible impression that became the foundation of my approach to cooking, When I was older, visits to my uncle in Berkley, CA exposed me to what Alice Waters was doing at Chez Panisse and I realized the essence was the same as my neighbor's - all about good ingredients and extremely simple preparations. Professionally, I benefitted from working with Rick O'Connell of Rosalie's in San Francisco, whose food was also rooted in the quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of their preparations. For her an example of high cuisine might have been a perfectly braised cabbage. Working with Rosalie introduced me to catering, which has subsequently defined my career.

What culinary styles have influenced your career?

Clearly my style is based on simplicity and the challenge it presents to create delicious food without the superfluous gimmicky elements. There is a school of thought that the best way to evaluate a chef's, a kitchen's worth is a (simple!) roast chicken. It's one I subscribe to, because delivering a perfectly cooked bird boasting succulent meat and crispy skin is difficult. Even more so doing it consistently. As for what types of food I particularly enjoy preparing, that would be vegetables.

What do you consider the most distinguishing features of your work as a chef?

The editing process - getting rid of gratuitous ingredients and overinvolved techniques.

What is your favorite meal?

For me, a favorite meal starts with the people, because sharing a meal is what makes it special. Beyond that, it would be vegetable based and very informal. I never set a table... just pull dishes out of cabinets when food is ready and encourage people to sit wherever they want. It's all about ease and comfort.

Tell me a little bit about Great Performances.

Great Performances (GP) is one of New York City's foremost catering, food service and events companies, which was in the vanguard of the local sourcing and sustainability movements. We were the first such company in the country to own and operate an organic farm - Katchkie Farm , in Kinderhook, NY - and as far as I know we remain the only one. In addition to providing the food, service and often the décor for some of the city's most high profile and glamorous events, GP is an integral element of some of the area's most prestigious cultural institutions at which we operate restaurants, cafés, concession and food trucks. For instance, we created and run The Norm at the Brooklyn Museum, which is frequently cited as among the country's best museum restaurants; then there's Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center at the Garden Court Café at the Asia Society. They, like our events, utilize ingredients from our farm, with which we - GPs culinarian team - have a personal , ongoing relationship. Several times a year, we go up to help plant or harvest. In fact, those excursions serve as inspiration for new seasonal dishes and how to creatively utilize the leaves, stems and even roots of the price. The reduction of food waste is an underlying tenant of everything we do. And in this too, GP, was an early adopter of best practices and in the development of programs tailored to our operations.

Actually being a precedent setter is in GP's DNA. Recent examples include GP being the first catering concern to develop and oversee the food and beverage program for a luxury hotel as we have done for The Loren at Pink Beach, the first new build hotel to open in Bermuda in some 45 years. And, of course, preparing a meal on-site and presenting it within the context of a play to the cast and audience simultaneously as a sit-down holiday feast, which we are currently doing for THE DEAD 1904, is a first for a New York city theatrical production. Or at least I believe it was when we did it for the show's 2016 debut.

For more information on Great Performances, please visit https://www.greatperformances.com/.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mark Russell

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