Midway News and Views
Midway Views This week, to better get to know the people behind the amazing food at our Midway restaurants, I sat down with Mark Wombles – owner of Heirloom and Mezzo in Midway and also Distilled in Lexington to talk about the restaurant business. Mark’s beginnings took root with the fruits of the earth on Old Frankfort Pike. His parents had a small farm there and grew vegetables. “My mom was a gardener before growing vegetables and gardening was cool. My mom has always been a health freak too, before that was cool too,” said Mark as he sat across from me in a booth at his restaurant Heirloom, the first of three restaurants he has opened in the Midway-Lexington area in the past 13 years. “I kinda grew up with that. My father would till a big area and they would plant everything from cabbage and lettuce to corn and tomatoes, eggplant and squash to radishes to carrots. It was a hobby; something to do, the fun of just growing your own vegetables and being self-sufficient, and then cooking them.” Mark recalled, “It was cool, at 8-9 years old, watching the produce that came from the garden, appreciating the work that it took, watering and weeding and picking, but then getting to cook with it and eat it. My mom would make me try everything. But it was great making dinners around the produce from the garden.” Mark surmised the way he grew up has influenced his restaurant food choices today. “We try to use local suppliers as much as we can, especially during the summer months (for vegetables and fresh produce),” he said. “In the winter we can’t do that. “But on the menu now, we have mushrooms that are local, the baby leeks are local and the rabbit is from a local supplier. We order a lot of produce from Creation Gardens which is out of Louisville, they actually carry a lot of produce from local suppliers. “ … So, looking back I guess the vegetable garden, my mum cooking, all that really impacted me, but the biggest thing that impacted me was that I had a lot of fun when I was younger, I partied a lot and missed a lot of class because of it at UK. After that, I just thought that school was just not for me, I was more of a hands-on person, so I started cooking at Merrick Inn and took well to it and decided to go to culinary school,” he said with a laugh. “I had two choices at the time – Hyde Park, in upstate New York or the Culinary Institute of America (California Culinary Academy) in San Francisco. So, what brought me to San Francisco is that Hyde Park is cold – an hour and a half north of Manhattan – and San Francisco is pretty cool, has the appeal of the ocean, all the produce and seemed a cooler place to go! Culinary school was 18-months and then I worked at Aqua Restaurant for several years, which was one of Michael Mina’s restaurants. I had a really good time and learned a lot,” said Mark. Mark then came back and worked at a five-star restaurant in Cincinnati called The Maisonette (now closed) before coming back to Lexington to work first at Jonathans at Gratz Park, and in Midway at Bistro La Belle, which used to be almost next door to Heirloom. Then his father found the building available in Midway, where Heirloom is now located, and suggested Mark open his own place. “I thought at first that it would be too small for a restaurant. We opened July 6, 2006, so just celebrated 13 years here in Midway.” Mark has great fondness for his dad, Henry, who he described as the patriarch of his restaurant business. “Everyone knows him, he knows everyone,” said Mark, affectionately, of his father who is a daily regular at Heirloom, most often seen carefully driving to the Midway restaurant in his 1970s-era powder blue Mercedes. “I spend most of my time at Distilled, near Gratz Park, because there I am the front of house manager, the host and the private party co-ordinator, so I have to kind of be all of those things at once. It is also bigger. But I’ll come to Midway at least once a day,” explained Mark. “Our staff gets to taste all the food we have on the menu so that they can learn about the ingredients and the flavor profile. A good server can give good service when they know all the details about what they are serving customers. Our staff is long-standing – some have been here five years or more,” said Mark proudly of his restaurant staff and their food knowledge. Mark explained one of the biggest people to influence him in the restaurant business is chef Thomas Miller from San Diego. Miller’s mantra is “I believe that success comes not from a single person, but from the combined efforts of a dedicated and energized team.” And it is to this end that Mark admires Miller’s etiquette in the kitchen and the relationship he has with his team of chefs and kitchen staff. Mark explained “He said he has never yelled at any of his employees. That’s pretty powerful. So I try to create a situation in my restaurants where it’s sane, we can talk, keep things polite and respectful, and I think that’s been a big influence, hearing him say that he’s never screamed at any of his employees. He is a very calm guy and he attracts good talent. All of those things together, a good product, treating people with respect, the way you would want to be treated, I think that all comes back to you.” Balance is important to Mark. “I manage three restaurants, sometimes I jump on the cook line at Distilled if we are short-handed but I’m 43, run three restaurants, have four kids, I can’t really be in the kitchen and managing. It just doesn’t work. It’s all about balance.” The balance he was taught early in life, recalling a great friendship between his grandfather and grandmother and the Hall of Fame NFL player Johnny Unitas, who played his college ball at the University of Louisville. “My uncle used to represent him as an attorney and introduced him to my grandfather and they hit it off immediately and became best friends. He would fly from Baltimore and come to Hazard, where my grandparents lived and he would stay the night there and basically he would come and the joke was that he came only for my grandmother’s hamburgers – the Mary Burger – the ones we have on the menu here at Heirloom. He loved the seasonings; they were cooked in a cast iron skillet with onions.” “The story was that these boys showed up at my grandparents house one day because they heard that Johnny was there and they asked if he would sign their football. My grandmother relayed the message to Johnny. And he said ‘Yes, sure’ and he ended up going outside and throwing the football with them. That’s the kind of guy he was,” recalled Mark. “My grandmother asked him, ‘Johnny, don’t you ever get tired of all that; don’t you just want people to leave you alone sometimes?’ and he said ‘Mary, I’d be upset if they ever did’.