Mark Henry talks Food Network, rock stardom and a blazing local scene

Last week we brought you the news that Mark Henry, executive chef at Brother Luck Street Eats, won the inaugural episode of Food Network’s Cooks vs Cons, earning even more national attention for the restaurant.

“This isn’t necessarily about me becoming famous,” Henry tells the Report, “but I think we have a lot of hard-working people in this city and if one of us makes it, we all make it.”

After working with some network flacks, we were able to chat with Henry about his experience recording the show in January, where he is in his career, and where he thinks Colorado Springs food is right now and where it’s headed. (Hint: Straight to the top.)

Rocky Mountain Food Report: How did the show come about?

Mark Henry: One of our friends was out here from Charlotte, I think, we were all talking, and we ended up finding casting companies online so that we could cast for things. So, we just started filling applications out and I got an email back about this one. It’s a brand-new show and I was like, “Hell, let’s do it. Let’s try it.” So it was kind of luck of the draw.

So they reached out to you and flew you somewhere?

Yeah. So, once you start talking to them, there’s a series of interviews you have to go through, like Skype interviews and phone interviews and all sorts of stuff like that, and then you go wherever they’re filming. … But they covered all that and put me up in a hotel for a night, and flew me home.

How did it compare to what you thought it would be like?

Honestly, I think it turned out to be a better experience than I initially anticipated. It was a little nerve-wracking, kinda going into it, but getting to meet the judges and get the feedback and advice from people that are that influential in our industry; that have really made it big time, doing the stuff that we do everyday, struggling to make it happen, and them give us the time of day and see how humble they are and they give such excellent feedback, it really made for a pretty awesome experience.

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What was an example of what they told you?

I think definitely on the second round there, the plating that I did, Graham [Elliot] was talking about proportions and how much of what I put on the plate because, I don’t know if he really genuinely enjoyed that dish or if that was more TV, but he seemed to really enjoy it, and [said] “Put more of this on there so you can eat it this way.”

Me and Brother at the restaurant right now are writing a menu and that’s one of the things that I’m focusing on as we write this menu. I’m not going to get the opportunity to have somebody like Graham Elliott tell me all the time how to do things, and to do just blow off what he says will be a real jackass move — and I’ve been known to make those, but I’m trying to mitigate that stuff here.

I’m really delighted to hear that you got some real-world applications from that.

It was really cool. And Geoffrey Zakarian was, you know as soon as I walked into the room and saw him, I was like, “Holy shit,” because he’s a big fucking deal, and I gotta be honest with you, he was one of the coolest people I have ever met. He’s just down to Earth, so you watch these TV shows with all these different people, you see all these people and you put them up on a pedestal and then when you meet them and get to interact with them, they’re just like us, and they’re still pushing the force forward for the same stuff that we’re doing. So, that’s pretty cool.

That’s awesome. So the dish that you did at the end there, the kimchi, is that going to be on the menu?

I don’t know if that’s going to be on the menu in that capacity. Currently, right now we have a shrimp-and-grit dish that we run at the lunch menu and then a pork duo dish that we run at dinner that has the coconut congee that I made on there. And then we have full-blown kimchi that we make at the restaurant, so those two components are there.

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So what was it like to win, then? What did you think when you heard?

I think it took a little while to set in for me. I’m not a really over the top kind of guy, so I think if I hadn’t won, my reaction would have been greater. I almost kind of expected to win because it was kind of apparent in the judging that I had done well. So, I had accomplished what I set out to do anyway, so I wasn’t necessarily worried about winning or losing when I went there. I knew that I was, number one, representing myself and my family, but also I was representing the restaurant, and our brand, as well as the people of our city and our whole industry out here. So as long as I didn’t put up a shitty showing, win or lose, I was fine and I felt I had accomplished what I set out to do, whether I won or lost. I didn’t want to come back and be like, “Man I really fucked that dish up, I hope nobody sees that.”

My goal in doing this show and any subsequent shows, it’s not for me to get famous. I don’t want to be a rockstar, but I feel like, I got a wife and three kids and I did my time in the Army and I was away from home a lot and now I get to come home at night. But I put a lot of hours in at the kitchen, so I still sacrifice a lot of time with my family and they sacrifice a lot of their time with me. I want for them to know that I’m out there doing something, number one, that I love and it’s not just that I don’t want to be with them, but also for them to know that I’m actually pretty fucking good at it, and that it’s worth something. And if it takes me to be the poster child for that, to go out and say, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of chefs in this town that are really talented at what they do and they have to give up a lot of personal time and make a lot of personal and family sacrifices in order to do what we do,” I think it’s important that everybody gets the credit for that.

So this isn’t necessarily about me becoming famous, but I think we have a lot of hard-working people in this city and if one of us makes it, we all make it. So I don’t care who it is, if it’s me, if it’s somebody else, but when you get the opportunity, you gotta seize it, so I just really wanted to represent for our city and our industry well, because we’ve got a lot of hard-working, talented people in our business in this town.

I love that, and it just feels like we’re due.

Right? I mean, come on. We’ve got the same ingredients that Denver’s got, we’ve got access to all the same things that Denver and Boulder and all these other big cities have, and we’ve got people that are working just as hard.

And you know, I’ve learned a lot in the last, probably eight or nine months. I’ve had two interns from Pikes Peak Community College that have really, really shown me a lot about being a chef that I don’t think I knew before. Like, having them come in and see that they’re interested in the same things I was interested in five years ago; where pigs come from, why we decide to work with the pigs that we work with, how they’re broke down, all the things that I’ve kind of become known for — I was learning that stuff [when] I was a young buck coming up through the industry. And now I’ve got people looking at me as one of the seasoned vets in the industry that they want to learn that stuff from and it kinda took these people asking and hoping for me to mentor them and then putting the work in while I was doing it for me to realize that I’ve got some things that I need to work on to become a better leader, but I’ve also got some things that I need to give to the next generation too.

So what has this appearance, and Brother Luck’s on Chopped, meant to the restaurant? What has the response been?

MH: We’ve definitely seen an influx of customers. A lot of people saw the show, it’s actually been kind of mind-blowing. I didn’t realize the far-reaching impact that it was going to have and how many people have come in. You know, it’s crazy to walk by a two-top that’s standing in the doorway and as you walk by you hear one of them whisper to the other one, “Hey, that’s the guy.” I’m just a cook at the end of the day, so …

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And now this is normal life.

So, to have everybody coming in, and everybody wants to say hey and congratulations, it’s kind of cool, because the reasons that I set out to do what I went there to accomplish, to see them come to fruition and see that people understand it and see all the support that we have, it’s great. Because a lot of times it’s easy to get caught up in, “Oh, that burger wasn’t the right temp” or “This plate didn’t necessarily look like I want” but to see the overwhelming support that we get from this community, it’s really awesome man.

And I’ve kind of been in the community spotlight for a while, with all the Ivywild and other stuff we were doing at Blue Star, and then now to be able to work with Brother and be able to be a creative, food-driven company, which is something that I’ve always been looking for — and me and him have just really clicked — to now have all this support, it’s going to sound really cliche: It’s almost really like a dream come true. It’s cool. It makes going to work a lot of fun.

What about your own restaurant?

I do, at one point, want to have ownership in a company. I think Brother’s been a great mentor to me, as far as ownership goes and all the lessons that he’s learned, and he doesn’t safeguard those: He’s very honest and open with me and passes that information along. So, yes, I do want ownership at some point, [but] I don’t want it on my own. I’m much more interested in a partnership with Brother than I am going out and making mistakes that maybe he’s already made or he has avoided because of knowledge that he has, and us partnering up. Because we really have a very harmonious partnership going there.

Sounds like you guys are right where you want to be. What about the space you’re in?

Obviously Brother started out at the restaurant down at the Triple Nickel, and then quickly outgrew the space. We’re in the current location and we’re right at the breaking point for that space too. We need a larger space. We need more capacity. And instead of me looking for my own space so I can do what I want, or Brother looking for his own space, we find spaces and we go look together and we talk about the opportunities and the pros and the cons and we weigh things.

There’s points in your career where you want out from underneath the management that you’re currently in, and you delve out and look for your own things; and there’s where I’m at now, where we’re really looking at what’s best for the company. And we think that us together is a great thing and there’s no reason to change that. So, whatever we got to do to make this thing work long term and get the right sized space and the right location — and continue doing the food that is innovative and speaks to us and that helps to bridge the gap between the larger cities and Colorado springs, which is kind of tertiary market — that’s kind of our niche. And we love it.

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With a larger bird’s-eye view, could you  speak to where Colorado Springs’ food scene is and where we’re headed?

Denver is obviously pushing hard and they’ve got a lot of great things going on up there and there’s a lot of people that we communicate with and that we try to partner with or get products from: people like Alex Seidel and Justin Brunson and Lon Symensma from ChoLon and all his numerous projects he’s got going on.

But I think Colorado Springs is right on the cusp. Denver’s definitely doing it right now, and you look at places like Boulder and you never really hear much about the Boulder food scene; not because there isn’t one, but because Boulder gets wrapped up into the Denver food scene. And Boulder’s an hour away from Denver, give or take, and Colorado Springs is an hour away from Denver give or take. And I don’t think that it’s going to be long before Colorado Springs gets bundled up into that Denver food scene, where we’re starting to get the national recognition and the EATER awards and possibly getting people looked at for James Beard Awards, and just bridging that gap.

And I think there’s a lot of talent in our town, there’s a lot of talent in Denver, there’s a lot of talent in Boulder. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for all of us to start collaborating and really pushing the food scene on the Front Range, and I really think that we’re just right on the cusp of something great and it’s really cool to be a part of it. Man, being a chef right now is almost like being a rock star. Like, everybody loves chefs, it’s cool to cook, food’s right in everybody’s wheel house right now. … Look at the Burrowing Owl, and everybody’s involved in food to the point to where we’ve got a vegan bar doing their thing. … Food is in everybody’s mind right now. 

It’s really cool to be in that mix. When I was in culinary school, I didn’t want to be a manager, I didn’t want to be an owner. I didn’t want to do the paperwork, I didn’t want to do any of that shit, I just want to cook. Now, I think being involved in all of that management side of it and knowing all the ins and outs of the business and the management side of restaurants actually makes me a better cook, and it allows me to be able to each people differently. And it was something I was vehemently against a long time ago and now I’ve embraced it, and it’s actually made much better than I ever would have been. And I think it’s the same for a lot of people in this town. There’s a lot of talent here, and we’re going to make it. And I’m just super pumped to be able to be a part of this industry at this time in this town.

[Images: Courtesy Mark Henry]