Root for the home team; and feast on culinary delights

Published 10:56 am Thursday, July 18, 2019

Going to culinary school doesn’t automatically make you a chef.

Education gives you the tool kit – so you can take what you learned and build with it. To learn how to build, you need to expand knowledge by traveling, eating out, and conducting research. You also need experience working under different chefs.

A broad range of culinary experience is precisely what made Mark Thrower the perfect choice for a position as executive chef for the Winston Salem Dash baseball team. His skills are based on a classical interpretation of food, bringing a wide selection of fresh, garden-grown regional foods to the local level.

When in school, there’s no class on southern cooking. Mark learned how to cook collard greens, cornbread, and other basic southern staples throughout his career. Then he applied his experience and knowledge in fine dining to elevate traditional southern fare to another level.

“People overuse the word gourmet sometimes. It’s a French word and means nothing more than just taking something common to a new experience,” he said.

For example, even if cooking macaroni and cheese, by putting in a smoked Gouda or other cheese, the addition takes something ordinary to an extraordinary level.

Describing his meal creations: “I like to create a well-written letter. That is, to have an introduction, a greeting, and a full body of flavors, and then I like to have a salutation – an ending. I think the residual taste should not linger but finish.”

Haven’t you gone somewhere and had dinner, but on your way home, you still tasted it? Mark tries to avoid that as much as possible and prefers the taste to have a start, a middle, and an end that closes it out.

Using multiple cooking techniques and not just grilling, the chef enjoys using everything in his repertoire as much as possible. He combines techniques, and then adds different textures and colors, as well as flavors that complement one another.

“Just some of my cooking techniques are slow roasting, hard searing, braising, marinating, steaming, and frying and then combining that with a balance of sweet and sour, tart, and bitter.”

The chef started cooking at home in his early teens. His mother was working and went back to finish CPA school and take the exam. He’d come home from school, and there’d be no food prepared to eat.

“Out of necessity, I started cooking for the family, whether it was just spaghetti or chili.”

That’s where it all began. When Mark played soccer in high school, the state championship tournament was held, and he cooked for the team while they were staying in a dorm.

“My coach gave me a ‘spatula’ award at the end of season banquet, and that act was kind of like saying I won the prize for taking the initiative to cook and had talent in that area.”

After that, Mark went to UNC in Charlotte and majored in math. One of his jobs was waiting tables to get through school – and that spurred greater interest in cooking. He was fortunate to get a job cooking at an artsy restaurant there called The Pewter Rose.

Sharing his first experience, Mark laughed, saying, “I had a long run there making salads and doing dishes.”

Every chef starts somewhere, and that position opened the door to discovering his culinary talents and realizing what might be available to him in the industry.  Mark refers to the period as his “enlightenment era.”

Once encouraged, he enrolled in Central Piedmont College’s two-year culinary program, which was in its infant stages. He worked at another restaurant named Vintages, like wine “vintages,” known for its French influence.

Mark continued to work in the culinary field from that point on. Another chef for whom Mark had worked, persuaded him to relocate to Boone, and train as his replacement as executive chef for the Tumbleweed Grille.

“It was here where I learned all the magic.”

Continuing to work his way up the culinary ladder, Mark worked under Dean Mitchell for five years at Morels in Banner Elk, which was a 40 seat, fine dining restaurant.

“The education I got from Dean was invaluable to my career – we had no food processor – and everything was prepared by hand and cooked from scratch.”

At that point, the chef had fresh mesclun greens grown for him long before one could order them through any food purveyor. The fish products they got in were top of the line.

“It was cooking with all crude, raw ingredients, from start to finish.”

“Dean didn’t just take a recipe and do it. He taught me to put my own twist on it. That’s what I liked about him. He was like a Julia Childs – in fact, he knew her.”

Mark calls the man his mentor due to the significant influence over him during the time they worked together.

“Some chefs are like, ‘You didn’t do it the way you were supposed to,’ but Dean recognized there’s a unique ability in each chef regarding the way they prepare food.”

Later, Mark landed a position as banquet chef at Roaring Gap Club in Roaring Gap. His responsibilities were coordinating sizable club events and private in-home dinner parties. “I worked there for 12 seasons or 12 years. I spent my summers in the mountains.”

Little by little, the chef’s culinary experiences were broadened. From the mountains, Mark shopped around a bit before settling on a company in High Point called Visions that catered weddings.

“We actually did 17 weddings one Saturday and averaged between 10 and 12 every Saturday. While there, I learned about mass food production.”

The chef went on to Raleigh – settling into a position that served to enhance his career in a few ways. Working as the catering chef for the restaurant, Irregardless, he learned dietary based cooking styles such as vegan and gluten-free.

Over time, Mark’s experiences culminated to where he is today as an Executive Chef with Legends Hospitality at BB&T Ballpark and contracted by the Dash.

With the diverse culinary experience he’d accrued over his career that included fine dining, high volume, and different dietary needs, the chef was an instant fit.

Now approaching his 2nd year with Dash, Mark shared, “It’s the best view I’ve ever had.  If I walk out the door of the kitchen, I have a wonderful view of the field from each direction.”

As far as the food selected for menus, he said, “I try to do what is familiar and incorporate a lot of southern foods such as shrimp with grits, mac and cheese, pot roast, and other southern favorites. I think about what my clients enjoy eating, where they chose to dine, and I try to incorporate their favorite southern staple foods.”

Much of his job includes catering for many occasions from proms and weddings to corporate Christmas parties. Between Dash and private events, the chef stays busy.

“Catering kicks up in September, and then, of course, the holiday season is huge, especially in December. Twenty-five percent of our catering is December alone with all the Christmas parties.”

Some parties are held in the Flow Club or on the first-floor concourse, and private suites are available for more intimate parties. Trade events such as food shows are often held there, too.

The third floor Flow Club can be transformed into a dining hall or night club with a view of downtown. The club seats anywhere from 300-350 for a dinner party.  On a typical game day, they expect about 400 people, and maximum game-day seating is 700.

Proms for Reagan, West Stokes, Mt. Tabor, Davie High School, Davie Early College, and  were held at the stadium. The chef’s also done offsite event catering for schools held at the Greek Orthodox Church and Salem Lake, which gives one an idea of their versatility in catering.

To showcase foods, Mark brings in different restaurants for events such as Outback and Carrabas. He also highlights the food products of team sponsors. Four flavors of pimento cheese by Red Clay Gourmet are showcased. The beer on tap is from their sponsor, Foothills, and Childress Vineyards offers a unique blend of white and red wine just for the Dash stadium. Another sponsor, Dewey’s Bakery, complements the chef’s menu with cake squares.

Mark also gives credit to the internationally known and classic, French chef, Jacques Pepin, for having significant influence over his career.

“He was probably 7 years old, and his family moved him from Paris to live with his grandparents in the countryside during World War II for his safety. That’s where he learned to live off the land, make cheese, and gather eggs, which is similar to how my grandparents lived.”

Mark’s grandparents lived in Rockingham, where they grew most of their food. His grandfather was a hunter, shooting squirrel, and rabbit for meat and fishing while his grandmother raised chickens.

“They pretty much lived with a grocery in their back yard. My grandfather was also a beekeeper and produced his own honey.”

Working in a different field, Mark’s father was an aerospace engineer. He was an aircraft brake designer and traveled the world with his job.

“His travels probably had an influence on me – I was enlightened by aspects of different cultures – especially the food.  He’d always bring me back soccer jerseys from the places he traveled. I enjoy traveling now, when I have time.”

Having admiration for Vivian Howard, owner of the restaurant, Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, Mark complimented her: “I think she’s doing a wonderful job with bringing our local – what we think of as mundane items – cucumbers, watermelons, and such – up to a culinary stage or gourmet level.”

Mark met Vivian when she prepared a dinner in Winston-Salem, and he was fortunate to get the chance to say “hello.” He admires her for an ability to separate her New York training from North Carolina yet still be able to bring NC cuisine up to the same level as NY.

Trying to maintain his life and laundry are difficult for Mark as there are long hours and work periods when in the culinary business – all while trying to balance family time with the love of career.

“I have 400 people a night, and they might be of similar backgrounds, but they have different life experiences, and the question I ask myself is how do I make all those people happy? How am I going to make something that’s interesting and suitable for all?”

Sharing one of the worst experiences of his culinary career, the chef described the versatility one must have.

“I was catering a pig picking at the barn at Tanglewood, and the cooker was rented and delivered with no fuel. So I started it, and it went out in the first 30 minutes.  I thought it had cooked for two hours. It was pouring down rain, too.”

The chef ended up going to a grocery, where he bought smaller gas tanks.

“I was standing on a picnic table, literally, carving a whole pig to break the meat down into smaller pieces that I could get cooked, which miraculously, I managed to do. I was drenched.”

Innovative thinking is what being a chef is all about. Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

One of the best perks of the job is when Mark receives positive affirmation.  “Personally, when you get comments like, ‘that was the best meal I’ve ever had,’ – inside of me, that’s what makes me tingle.”

Mark feels a great sense of accomplishment when he begins with something raw and ends up with something remarkable through planning, execution, and teamwork.

“It’s neat to work around sports. It’s fun. Weddings are stressful, proms are busy, but sports events are fun. I cook for the players and get to meet them. It’s just different than working for a country club – it’s actually a professional sporting event.”

And the chef never knows who he’s going to meet either – or who’s going to walk through the door. There are some folks from the White Sox who come down – coaches, players, corporate – and everyone he’s met are friendly and fun people.

Mark sometimes gets special requests. Justin Jirschele, a former player and now manager for Winston-Salem Dash, had some pheasants in his freezer from hunting and wanted Mark to prepare them for him.

“I stuffed jalapeno peppers with the pheasant and wrapped them in bacon and made jalapeno poppers for him.

“There’s never a destination; it’s always a journey. You can learn something from everyone you meet. Stay humble.”

FANCY PIMENTO CHEESE

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup grated smoked Gouda

1/3 cup mayonnaise

¼ cup softened butter

¼ cup minced green onions

¼ cup chopped pimentos

3 dashes of hot sauce

Combine all ingredients, mixing well. Chill. Can be used as an appetizer with crackers. As a spread for baked cheese sandwiches, cover one side of bread with cheese spread. Roll tightly, and place close together on a greased baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

BEER BAKED SALMON FILETS

6-8oz. salmon fillets

¾ cup beer

½ cup orange marmalade

½ cup soy sauce

3 Tbsp. sugar

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

2 tsp. minced fresh garlic clove

1 tsp. minced fresh gingerroot

3 sliced green onions

Place salmon in a large zip lock plastic bag. Combine beer, marmalade, soy sauce, sugar, oil, garlic, and gingerroot in a bowl, and mix well. Pour over the salmon and seal. Turn to coat all salmon.  Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours and turn occasionally. Drain salmon from marinade. Reserve 1 cup of marinade. Arrange salmon in a single layer in a 9×13 greased baking dish. Pour the reserved marinade over the salmon. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until the meat flakes easily and is opaque. Remove to a serving platter. Sprinkle with the green onions.

PEPPERCORN ENCRUSTED BEEF ROAST

5-6 lb. boneless rib eye roast

½ cup coarsely cracked black peppercorns

½ tsp. ground cardamom seed

Marinade

1 tbsp. tomato paste

½ tsp. garlic powder

1 cup soy sauce

¾ cup vinegar

Rub meat with peppercorns and cardamom. For marinade, combine tomato paste, garlic powder, soy sauce, and vinegar. Add meat to marinade, and refrigerate for 24 hours. Bring to room temperature, remove meat from marinade, and wrap in foil. Roast in a shallow pan in a 300-degree oven for 2 hours for medium rare. Then remove and reserve drippings. Brown roast uncovered in a 350-degree oven. For au jus, strain pan drippings, skimming off the fat. To each cup meat juice, add 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil. Serve roast au jus or thicken gravy with 1 ½ Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in ¼ cup of cold water. Slice the roast and serve with horseradish on the side.

GOURMET RELISH HOTDOGS

8 all-beef hot dogs

8 hot dog buns

½ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

9 oz. jar of any fruit chutney

For relish, in a bowl, mix onion, cilantro, mustard and chutney. Chill. Grill hot dogs at medium heat for 3 minutes per side or until you see grill marks. Heat buns for 1 minute per side. Insert dog into a bun, and add an extra spread of mustard. Cover with fruit relish.

FRESH CREAM SCALLOPED POTATOES

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 medium chopped onion

2 minced garlic cloves

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme

1 ¼ tsp. salt

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 ½ lbs. peeled, sliced 1/8-inch, russet potatoes

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup whipping cream

2 bay leaves

4 oz. grated cheddar cheese

In a skillet, melt butter, and cook onion 4 minutes or until soft and translucent. Add garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add sliced potatoes, chicken broth, cream, and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer, cover, reduce heat to medium, and simmer 10 minutes or until potatoes are almost tender. Discard bay leaves. Transfer potatoes to a 1 ½ quart greased baking dish. Sprinkle the top with cheese. Cover with foil and bake in a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes or until mixture is bubbling. Remove the foil, and return to oven, and cook 30 more minutes until cheese browns. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

STEAMER OF MIXED VEGETABLES

½ head broccoli

½ head cauliflower

1 peeled, sliced carrot

½ crushed, dried chili pepper

½ tsp. mustard seeds

¼ tsp. crushed cardamom seeds

1/8 tsp. mace

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup sesame oil

Cut the florets of broccoli and cauliflower from their stems. Mix the spices together. Put the sliced carrots in a steamer over water. Cover and steam for 5 minutes. Add the broccoli and cauliflower. Sprinkle the spices over the vegetables, cover, and steam for 6 minutes or until tender but still crisp. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle the oil over the top. Toss gently to coat.

CARROT, GRAPE AND RAISIN SALAD

2 cups peeled, shredded carrots

½ cup flaked coconut

¼ cup golden raisins or dried cranberries

½ cup halved, seedless purple grapes

½ cup sour cream

In a bowl, combine carrots, coconut, either raisins or cranberries, grapes, and sour cream. Mix well. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve chilled.

LIMA, PEA AND PEPPER SALAD

1½ cups cooked, drained tiny lima beans

1½ cups frozen and cooked peas

1 chopped red bell pepper

¼ cup chives

¼ cup parsley

2 tsp. dill seed

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

1 tsp. lemon juice

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

¼ tsp. paprika

In a large bowl, combine lima beans, peas, red pepper, celery, parsley, chives, and dill seed. In another bowl, make a dressing with mayonnaise, sour cream, and lemon juice. Fold dressing into the lima and pea mixture. Add salt, pepper, and paprika. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve chilled.

FRESH CUCUMBER SALAD

3 peeled, thinly sliced cucumbers

1 cup white vinegar

¾ cup water

¾ cup sugar

2 Tbsp. fresh parsley

1 Tbsp. fresh basil

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except cucumbers. Heat mixture until sugar melts, and then pour over the sliced cucumbers. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve chilled.

LIMED CORN SALAD

2-16 oz. pkg. frozen yellow corn

1 tsp. salt

8oz.drained, minced pimientos

4oz.drained, minced jalapenos

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 tsp. salt

2 minced fresh tomatoes

1 minced red onion

2 Tbsp. lime juice

1 Tbsp. lime zest

¾ cup basic vinaigrette

Basic Vinaigrette

½ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup white vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the corn according to pkg. instructions and set aside. Add the pimientos, jalapenos, cilantro, salt, tomatoes, red onion, lime juice, and lime zest, and mix well. For the vinaigrette, in a covered jar, add oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper, and shake to mix. Add ¾ cup of basic vinaigrette to the corn mixture, mixing and coating well. Cover with wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours. Serve chilled. Makes 6-8 servings.

FYI: For more information on ticket options, the Flow Club, Carolina Club, mini-plans, group outings, birthday parties, and private hospitality, call (336) 714-2287. As a Flow Club member, you have access to the exclusive, indoor restaurant that includes an all-you-can-eat buffet, three alcoholic drink vouchers, a reserved parking pass, and exclusive membership events. All menus include hotdogs, peanuts, popcorn, beer, wine, soda, water, and desserts. Homestand menus include entrees of beef stir fry, herb roasted chicken, fried fish, honey baked ham, BBQ pork chops, fried chicken, and marinated flank steak, to name a few,  plus a lengthy assortment of side dishes. Special nights feature local restaurant cuisine. Watch the game from the air-conditioned club or outdoors from a seat.

The Winston-Salem Dash are a minor league baseball team and play their games at the BB&T Ballpark in Winston-Salem. They are a Class A-Advanced team in the Carolina League and have been affiliated with the Chicago White Sox since 1997.