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Mark Peel treated fine dining “like an artist’s workshop” and forever changed L.A.’s food scene

The influential Campanile chef passed away suddenly at the age of 66.

Written by
Stephanie Breijo

In 1989 one of L.A.’s most promising chefs opened what would become one of the city’s most influential restaurants. Under cofounder and chef Mark Peel, the commanding La Brea restaurant Campanile would spur decades of culinary talent that still finds kitchens creating and enduring under his influence to this day. Yesterday, on June 20 and at the age of 66, Peel passed away after being diagnosed with cancer only nine days prior, reports the Los Angeles Times

Before he launched one of the most lauded restaurants in Los Angeles, Peel spent his childhood in the San Gabriel Valley. At 12 he moved out of Southern California and north to Sonoma Valley, where he took his first kitchen job. Eventually Peel began cooking under Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison, then at Michael’s Santa Monica, then Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, and returned to Los Angeles to become chef de cuisine at Spago’s original location in West Hollywood. In 1989 Peel and his then-wife, chef Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery, opened Campanile: a restaurant that would grow to influence and serve as training ground for more acclaimed chefs than almost any other in Los Angeles history.

Silverton and Peel divorced, but Campanile remained open for more than 20 years—more than a small feat in such a mercurial industry. (The space is now home to République.) In the last years of his career, Peel opened Prawn Coastal, a quick and casual seafood concept inside Downtown’s Grand Central Market. At the time of its launch, he’d planned a small fleet of Prawn Coastal restaurants—he envisioned maybe 10 of them—all serving Michelin-quality ingredients, but done affordably, using his years of experience with Puck and Waters and Silverton to give diners everywhere a taste of spectacular food at a sliver of the cost: a Peel-made, sustainable-seafood experience available at around $15 or under.

In late 2017 we sat down with Peel in Grand Central Market at the site of his soon-to-open food stall for an interview on his Los Angeles roots, our dining scene’s evolving landscape, and his pivot from fine dining. A brief excerpt ran in an issue of Time Out L.A.’s quarterly magazine; today, in remembrance of Peel, we’re running the full interview for the first time. 

You grew up in Los Angeles, then left and returned, and have seen so many changes over the decades; what are some of the dining developments you’ve noticed over the years?

Well my memories from under the age of 12 are much narrower; I knew my blocks and the liquor store where I could get nickel candy, and that’s it. But when I moved back at the age of 20, of course I was driving and more broadly focused. What really struck me was how much of San Gabriel Valley had changed; some of it was pretty much just a white suburb way back when, and then it changed to become much more Hispanic, much more Asian—and much more interesting, let’s be honest. I love the markets and I love the restaurants out there. There’s something going on all the time.

Do you have any favorite San Gabriel Valley restaurants?

I don’t, really, because it changes all the time. But my feeling is if they’ve got a fish tank with lobster and crab and whole fish, I’m there. 

Do you ever find yourself returning to those stomping grounds for specific dishes?

There used to be a dish called the “pork pump.” Jonathan Gold reviewed a restaurant [Lake Spring] and they served a big lump of pork rump that was braised and glazed with chilies and rock sugar and it came out glistening and crisp in this shimmering broth—I’ve had it and I loved it, but I don’t know anyone who’s doing “pork pump” anymore. After this glowing review, within like six months, there were like 20 restaurants serving “pork pump.” And I want the damn “pork pump” back.

You came up in the kitchen with Wolfgang Puck, with Alice Waters—is there anyone you’d like to cook with that you haven’t yet?

I would love to work with David Chang. He’s outside of my wheelhouse, and I want to know how he cooks that beef tendon—it’s so tender and delicious. I wanna know.

We don’t realize that this is a moment in culinary history that’s going to change the United States, and it’s happening right here.

Prawn is of course going to be seafood-centric—what’s your favorite seafood market in L.A.? Where do you go to buy seafood for yourself?

Koreatown. There are all kinds of markets, but there’s one I love, Han Kook Supermarket, and they have great seafood: live lobster, live fish, live crab, all kinds of fun stuff in the tanks. There’s another one [Galleria Market]: It’s big and in the basement, has really fresh fish, really good produce, lots of things. If you need dried mushrooms, there’s an entire aisle of dried mushrooms. If you need buckwheat noodles, there are 17 kinds of buckwheat noodles.

You’re launching Prawn as a stall. What’s appealing about opening a restaurant in this way after years of fine dining?

Well it’s actually something I wanted to do for decades because I know that it’s possible to make good food relatively inexpensive. You just have to be willing to do it, and to trim away all the things that are not food: We have no wine list, we have no wine steward. We have no host, we have no hostesses, we have no bartenders, we have no bar. We have no cloth napkins, we have no china. We basically have stools at a counter. It’s like, “You want food? Here’s your food.”

Growing up in fine dining, it’s like this: Fine dining is almost like an artist’s workshop. You have really talented people, and you have lots of ingredients and you have really good equipment. You can do anything you want to, but nothing in quantity and nothing very fast. This is very focused; we can’t do everything, but we can do what we do fast and very well. So it’s a real shift.

Why is it that L.A. has mastered the food stall and the food hall?

Just heavy competition. We’ve got a lot of what we call “ethnic” cuisine—which is a terrible word, I hate the word but it’s shorthand for something that’s not WASP food—that has mastered that: Chinese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Mexican. They all make good food fast and inexpensively. That’s what I wanted to do. I said, “There are seven billion people in this world. Most of them eat every day. How do we do that? How is that possible?” Well, the Chez Panisse, Spago, Campanile model is not feeding those people, so I was trying to figure out, with my background, how are we going to hit the 70 percent and not the 5 percent?

It’s the business model where we have the broths and the syrups and the vinaigrettes and the pickles—we can do that in bulk. Quality does not suffer making 10 gallons of broth as opposed to one gallon, in fact it’s better consistency. We have to give people really good food at a price they can afford, otherwise the whole thing falls apart.

When you go out to a restaurant and you’re looking for the full fine dining experience today, where do you go?

I love seafood, so Providence. Michael Cimarusti is a friend; he’s not just an extraordinarily talented chef, he’s a really good person, and a person of integrity. And Spago, of course. I can’t not! I never worked at the Spago in Beverly Hills—I was the chef of the Spago in West Hollywood—but the feeling is still there: the warmth, the creativity, the care. It’s still there after 35 years. 

That’s why I think Los Angeles is sitting in a unique position: It’s a huge metropolitan city, and it’s also one of the largest in terms of land. You’ve got everybody here—you’ve got Vietnamese, you’ve got Cambodian, Afghans, everything. Everybody’s here, and so the cross-fertilization is amazing and people don’t really recognize it or understand it. We’re just here and we think, “We can try this,” or, “We can get good food,” but we don’t realize that this is a moment in culinary history that’s going to change the United States, and it’s happening right here. You just don’t realize it until you look back 10 years later.

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