Row 14's Arik Markus on crashing kitchens, the day he was fired by Eric Ripert and the echo of Daniel Boulud
This is part one of my interview with Arik Markus, executive chef of Row 14. Part two of my chat with Markus will run in this space tomorrow.
Arik Markus is the chef equivalent of Iron Man on steroids. He races back to the kitchen to inhale a slice of sausage pizza that's gone in two seconds flat; he jogs toward the hostess stand to grab a phone call, then fields another one; he sprints behind the bar in search of Fernet; and through it all, he talks as fast as he moves. But then, he was raised for this work, a chef-in-training at the age of four. "As soon as I was old enough to see over the stove, I started cooking, and at four, I made my first dish -- scrambled eggs," recalls Markus, executive chef/partner of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar. His scrambled eggs sucked -- "They came out all flat, like an omelet," he confesses -- but instead of calling it a defeat, he called it a frittata.
The young Markus longed for sick days, when he could stay home from school and watch Days of Our Lives, the Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Martin Yan and Jacques Pépin -- all of whom knew their way around an egg pan, especially Pépin, whose scrambled eggs and omelets are jaw-dropping works of art. "The biggest single progression for me was watching Jacques make an omelet. I mean, there he was, doing omelet school on TV, and while watching him, I had this moment where everything clicked, and from then on, I was on a mission to make the perfect omelet," says Markus, admitting that he "fucked it up plenty" before eventually getting it right.
But while Markus aspired to be an omelet genius, he never thought about cooking professionally -- until, that is, he went to Vassar, "one of those fancy colleges," and started having dinner parties for friends. "Someone who was there said I should be a chef, and I was kind of blown away by the whole idea," he remembers, "but I went back home to Manhattan, told my parents that a friend had this crazy idea that I should become a chef, and then I hit the streets to find a summer restaurant job."
He crashed more than a dozen kitchens until one bit. "I'd never worked in a restaurant before, but the chef took me down to the basement, asked me to dice a red onion, and I guess I did a good job, because he asked me to start on the hot line that night," recollects Markus. Instead, though, "the chef threw me on the sauté station, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I got to make a lot of mistakes on someone else's dime, and it was a great gig. I loved being behind the fire."
Markus returned to Vassar and got a degree in art history -- but he'd already decided that he wanted to go to culinary school. He hit up his parents for money, but was told he should first go back on the line -- and landed at Restaurant Daniel, one of the best restaurants in the United States. "I went in, met with Daniel for 45 minutes, and he grilled me, but by the time we were done, I had a gig as a stage, working for free, sixty hours a week," says Markus.
He never went to culinary school. Instead, he stayed at Restaurant Daniel for a year and a half, eventually earning a minuscule paycheck as well as the nickname "Blondie." It was an "incredibly militaristic kitchen, and everyone got yelled at, but I saw the most amazing things," says Markus, who eventually exited Daniel's kitchen in search of a heftier pittance, a move he now calls his "single-most professional regret."