The Tra-“Ville”-ing Chef

art epicureYou've gotta break a few eggs... aspiring chefs learn the basics in the Art EpiCure kitchen. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

After cooking his way across the globe, Mark DesLauriers teaches his trade in the kitchen of the Brickbottom Artists Association.

Mark DesLauriers’s road to Somerville was a winding one.

After high school, the Townsend, Mass. native hit the road, traveling around the country chasing seasonal kitchen jobs. It was the summer of 1977, when he was working on a dude ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that DesLauriers thought, “I’ll go to Florida for the winter.” He told a coworker, Wayne, that he’d drop him at his home in Indiana on the way, and the pair packed their bags and set off.

Alas, the trip was stalled when the car broke down—three times. By the time he said farewell to Wayne, DesLauriers was penniless and stranded. He instead found himself working in a kitchen in Indiana, at a Red Lobster-type restaurant that was “really awful,” he says today.

But while he was there, he learned that a coworker had landed a job at a posh restaurant in town, where a classically French trained chef was looking for another cook. “He offered me a four-year apprenticeship,” DesLauriers recalls. “I would get my regular pay for 50 hours a week and would work an extra 20 hours off the clock. I didn’t care, because he said he would make me a chef.”

DesLauriers isn’t flying around steaming pans 70 hours a week anymore. Today, at the helm of ArtEpicure Cooking School, he walks calmly—checking in on his amateur chefs, ensuring they’ve stirred the sauce enough. Books and works of art stretch across the walls of the ArtEpicure kitchen, which is located in the Brickbottom Artists Association, a live-work space for artists of all kinds.

art epicureYou’ll pass barbed-wire fences and boxy former industrial buildings as you walk to the Brickbottom building on Fitchburg Street, but the space has the warmth of grandma’s kitchen. There are quirks like a taxidermied ocelot, and a few things you’d be far less likely to find at grandma’s—like a container of caviar worth just shy of $6,000. A loft peeks out from curtains above the kitchen; this is where DesLauriers used to sleep. He now commutes to the kitchen from his fourth-floor apartment.

DesLauriers has been cycling through kitchens since he was just 8 years old. “My dad used reverse psychology. I’d say, ‘Dad, can I peel potatoes?’” DesLauriers remembers. “And he’d say, ‘I don’t think you’re big enough.’” His father owned a restaurant called The Corner House, where he cooked traditional New England Yankee dishes: pot roast, boiled lobster and clam chowder. This was where DesLauriers first decided he wanted to be a chef.

“I imagined I was a chef at the White House, working for Lyndon B. Johnson,” DesLauriers says, “and thought, ‘He’s going to have the best burger ever.’”

He hasn’t quite made it to the White House, but he has managed to cook his way through 12 states and six countries, from the Virgin Islands to Germany to Tunisia. “Now it’s so much easier to plan, because of the internet,” DesLauriers says. “When I moved to Belize, I just printed some resumes and bought a one-way ticket.” Even his loose plans would deviate. DesLauriers was on a boat to Belize’s tourist area that stopped along the coast so passengers could grab a drink, and the bartender told him their chef had just given his notice. When the boat returned to the seas, DesLauriers wasn’t on board.

art epicure

DesLauriers is practiced and patient in his actions and words. He answers questions as if he already knew you would ask them. Looking on like an observer throughout ArtEpicure classes, he waits for the right lull in conversation before sending you off the tenderize meat or roll gnocchi. He doesn’t blend into the background, but hangs back far enough to give the impression you’re doing this by yourself.

Now, DesLauriers mostly cooks French, Italian and Greek food with his classes. But the dishes he made weren’t always so… traditional. During his time working at a country club in Kentucky, for example, he had wild game night. “I remember making a consommé out of bear paw,” he says. “You got the forearms from bears with the claws on it. You would roast that, and then simmer it, and then clarify the stock. I’d make little dumplings out of the bear meat. I don’t even think about doing stuff like that anymore.”

“My wife jokes my food was more creative when she met me,” he chuckles.

His erratic history spent running around the world cooking outside-the-box food may seem to contrast with his calm and calculated nature, but perhaps that’s exactly how he was able to navigate the globe, coming to rest at Brickbottom. He’s been at ArtEpicure 10 years now, and he still travels when he can. “You don’t find many head chefs’ jobs where you aren’t working 70- hour weeks,” he says. “I look back and wonder how I did it.”

This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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