To run a successful restaurant, you need to serve good food. Behind the scenes, you also need a good numbers guy, and Mark Reggiannini of Cafe Marmotte happens to be both. Reggiannini, who owns the casual French bistro with his wife, Mairen Reagan, got his start as a math major, and though he’s been cooking for decades, he says the degree still comes in handy. Math has “taught me to look at the root of problems and situations,” he says. While Reggiannini has seen his share of high-octane kitchens, he cherishes his time in far less intense ones, too, such as his kitchen at home, where you might find him with his daughter, baking cookies in an Easy-Bake Oven. Keep reading for more of our conversation, which has been edited for length.
Westword: How long have you been in the business?
Mark Reggiannini: Approximately 25 years. I didn’t set out to be a chef; I majored in math at the University of New Hampshire, but couldn’t stay out of the kitchen.
What are a few career highlights?
My passion for cooking led me to a culinary degree from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduation, my wife, Mairen, and I settled in New York City, where I worked under some of the city’s most influential chefs: Scott Bryan, Todd English and, finally, under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where I worked as sous-chef at Mercer Kitchen.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person teach you that still rings true today?
Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I always liked his powerful but peaceful approach to running his kitchens.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
My first week in New York, I went from the garde manger to saucier at the Mercer Kitchen. Jean-Georges fired the chef and took over the helm. The Mercer Kitchen had just opened. I really thought I was going to puke every day from the pressure, but I pulled it off, and it started my New York experience on a high note.
Cafe Marmotte is your second restaurant, the first being La Marmotte in Telluride. Why did you decide to expand at this juncture?
La Marmotte has been open for 29 years. Mairen and I purchased La Marmotte in 2003 and have enjoyed carrying on the Telluride tradition ever since. After years of searching for a location that could replicate the intimate feel of the original, I brought the beloved flavors and air of La Marmotte to Denver at Cafe Marmotte. The comfortable Washington Park neighborhood is the perfect spot to keep the “Telluride dream” going.
You own it with Mairen Reagan, right?
Yes, we own both restaurants together. Mairen is in Telluride running La Marmotte with our beautiful daughters, Emma and Kaleigh. I get back often, and soon I will get home even more as the Denver location gets settled with a consistent staff. The family will be up here when the kids get out of school and the skiing is done for the season.
Competition is fierce in Denver now. How do you describe Cafe Marmotte’s niche?
Cafe Marmotte is a chef-driven, French-inspired restaurant with approachable but extraordinary French bistro fare. We focus on simple, authentic and outstanding French cuisine. Residents of Washington Park have already fallen in love with Cafe Marmotte, and we are enjoying our new regulars. Cafe Marmotte has a frequently changing menu, based on the French philosophy of embracing seasonality and changing the menu according to what is available fresh and locally. We are establishing relationships with local growers and producers, just as La Marmotte has in Telluride. It’s a restaurant that has a lot of soul.
What’s the bestseller, and is it the same as in Telluride?
Our coq au vin with red-wine-braised chicken, bacon mashed potatoes, braised red cabbage and pearl onions is a real classic…. Julia Child is the inspiration for the coq au vin at La Marmotte and Cafe Marmotte. I was doing a cooking demonstration the day she died, and I was making coq au vin. I created that dish in her honor, and it has been on our menu ever since.
Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes?
I get my inspiration for new dishes by eating out, going to markets, looking for ingredients and traveling. Being in Denver has been a huge inspiration to do that more often.
This is a hard business. What keeps you motivated?
What keeps me motivated is working with young chefs and helping them in their own culinary journey.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I started cooking because it was something I always had a passion for.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Definitely lobster. My grandmother loved to eat lobster. I reminisce about seafood from Cape Cod. Digging for steamer clams, fishing for striped bass and, of course, eating fresh lobster.
Do you have a signature dish?
Creamy French onion soup with tempura cave-aged Gruyère cheese.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
I am sure there are a few, but I can’t seem to remember any.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
I know this is cliché, but foie gras.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
Oysters. It seems like there are a lot of new farms growing interesting and different varieties.
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
Do you ever cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
My daughter Emma got an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas, and we made spritz cookies.
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Best tip for a home cook:
Don’t cook at home. Come to Cafe Marmotte.