The City of Ate Chef Interview: 24-Year-Old Garden Cafe Chef Mark Wootton

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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.

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. How did you and your dad get into the restaurant ownership business? My dad started this spot as a hobby about nine years ago. He was retiring from a law career and for some crazy reason he thought that opening a restaurant would be fun. But, it turned into this monster. He had the place for a while and it wasn't going very well, they needed a new manager, and I just happened to be leaving Central 214 at the time. My dad was very seriously considering selling Garden Cafe or shutting it down because it had become a burden and the quality had gone down quite a bit. Things were just going downhill.

Were you nervous about running your dad's retirement project? I had only been cooking for six or seven years and hadn't even been a lead cook or sous chef, but I begged him to give me the job. Basically I came in as a lead cook, then after a month or two I was officially named the manager. He made me work for it at first though. Once he saw I was doing everything that a manager does he gave me the title.

Do you think he was doing you a favor by making you earn that title at first? Absolutely.

What did you change when you came in? We changed the processes for a lot of things, but in doing so slowed things down, which hurt a bit at first. We elevated the food and the sourcing of food. Then over time we figured out how to expedite it faster, as well. And now we're doing better than we ever have since we've been opened.

The other day you posted a question to your Facebook fans about transitioning to organic eggs. You asked your fans if they would be willing to take a dollar hike in the price of egg dishes to cover the expense. Overwhelmingly people were in favor the change. We've already made that change and are getting most of the eggs from Vital Farms.

Is it hard to source locally? There are actually a lot of farms around DFW, and I consider the local range to be 150 miles. But when I first started here, I had to figure out where they were, what they sold and when they had it. It was overwhelming getting started. It took so much research, more than I ever expected.

Are people gravitating toward organic and locally grown products? They definitely have in just the two years that I've been here. I was born and raised here and if I really think about all my time in Dallas, clearly things are changing. Just the number of Whole Foods and Central Markets in town, as well as all the restaurants with gluten-free menus and places like Company Café, Spiral Diner and Kalachandji's. And everyone misses York Street. I miss it too. So ... No booze? It's an old zoning ordinance that was passed a long time ago because of a court case. It pinpoints just this property. Basically the neighbors didn't want this to ever turn into a bar.

What are some of your favorite local spots? Kalachandji's. I also like the Meridian Room and the Amsterdam Bar, which are just around the corner for each other. I just really like that neighborhood a lot. I like Bolsa and really want to try Central 214 to see Graham there. I almost want to go work there.

Really? You have your own place here... One day I'd like to get this place running semi-automatically and get a part-time job and get my ass kicked again by a real chef.

Why? I've got so much to learn, and I miss getting my ass kicked and getting yelled at.

So, are you getting lazy here? (Laughs) I think so. I'm getting soft.

How old are you? 24.

Have you ever thought about culinary school? Yes, I think about that a lot. I think it's ridiculous for someone who wants to be a chef to start out with that. It's insanity and a waste of time and money; I feel bad telling people that who have already started, but it's the truth. I've worked with a lot of students who were about to graduate that were just terrible. Maybe they did great in class, but it doesn't transfer to working in a kitchen. But, in spite of that, I think about going back to pick up fundamentals. At the same time, I'm torn because I think that half of the time it's going to be a waste. What I'd really like to do is go stage somewhere.

Obviously it might be easier to just cook rather then run everything ... Well, I've become more of an accountant here. When I'm here I'm not just thinking about cooking, I'm thinking about the entire restaurant.

Like costs associated with everything? Not so much the costs while I'm back in the kitchen because I already have a pretty good idea of that. It's more about what's going on out there at that table? Why did they need that extra thing on the fly? Why wasn't it done properly the first time? Is everybody happy out there? Are employees checking on everybody?

So, if you got a job in another kitchen you'd have a totally different perspective? I'd definitely appreciate it more and I'd be a much better employee. I'd respect my manager's time better and understand how hard it is the schedule people -- trying to make everybody's schedule work. I look back and don't know why some of my old managers put up with me for so long. After managing people, I've realized how tough it can be. Mainly though, I want to work with other chefs because I have a lot of questions to ask. I want to be able to ask more questions.

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