In the Kitchen: Marek’s recipe for success

Peter Marek, owner and chef of Marek's Restaurant on Marco Island, poses  in the 'Library' of the restaurant on Monday afternoon.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY // Buy this photo

Peter Marek, owner and chef of Marek's Restaurant on Marco Island, poses in the "Library" of the restaurant on Monday afternoon.

Marek's Collier House

1121 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco

How do you have a simple conversation with a master chef whose culinary achievements have been recognized worldwide with prestigious international awards, and who’s been awarded a surfeit of gold and silver medals at Culinary Olympics and competitions that would make a merely athletic Olympian weep?

No, your reporter isn’t taking the easy route and listing every one of those accolades amassed by Peter Marek, M.C.F.A., and C.G.-Chef/Owner, that cover two large pages set in Bold Italic 12 point type. Truth be told, Penny Marek graciously made me copies of those pages enclosed in the same book-like folder that also contains several of the restaurant’s menu pages.

That having been said, here we are at Marek’s Collier House Restaurant at 1121 Bald Eagle Drive, Marco Island. The Marco Eagle’s professional photographer, Jason Easterly, is taking glorious pictures everywhere in the historic circa 1882 Collier House that Peter and Penny Marek lovingly restored and opened as a restaurant Dec. 15, 1995. At this particular moment Jason is capturing images of the two-story-high, luxuriously appointed central dining room suffused with late afternoon sunlight pouring through the skylight and setting the crystal chandelier suspended above all-aglow.

Your reporter was sitting at one of the tables (covered with a pristine white cloth identical to the ones covering all the adjacent tables) and had been conversing with Peter Marek prior to Jason’s arrival (actually chef talked, I listened). Now, I’m all ears, listening intently to channel each syllable of his detailed description down to my palate, and I can almost taste the dish he’s planning to make. Actually he first explained that the inspiration for the dish occurred earlier when he went to the market and spied a display of butternut squash and sweet potatoes and decided they could be pared, cooked and pureed to combine nicely in a chilled soup offered as a special for that evening’s menu, Chef Marek said.

“Cold — finished with heavy cream — I’ll serve it with a garnish of fresh blue crab meat and a touch of Pernod drizzle or even,” he hesitates, “I also like truffle oil for finishing a dish,” he confides, “I’ll show you.” He jumps up and while your reporter is busy scribbling he re-appears holding up a nice-sized, slender glass bottle that looks imported. Of course, it is imported and I can read the label that says White Truffle followed by sunflower oil. Wow! My puny bottle of truffle-infused olive oil pales in comparison when he removes the cap and holds it closer so I can experience the earthy, almost erotic scent — ahhh!

“I even like to use plain sunflower oil,” he adds sliding the conversation along: “Funny thing — you find one of them (sunflower oil) you like and then it’s no longer available!”

Alas, available reminds me that I can avail myself of the splendid opportunity to ask what exciting things Chef Marek has planned for Marek’s Collier House Restaurant — “Cooking classes, tasting dinners, wine pairings? I ask, feeling dumb for pulling the trendy card. “This is our 12th season — a lot of people living here now don’t know us — we’re doing a prix fixe dinner for a couple of weeks — give them a chance to try us out,” Chef Marek explained.

“Not a big menu — a glass of house wine, offer a choice of three appetizers, two middle courses a soup or salad, one fish, a couple meats and choice of dessert for $26.”

Fortunately for me, Chef Marek is on a roll food-wise and the best is yet to come.

“We change our menu all the time — I really like fish — what I get fresh that day I put it on the menu,” he declares. “Tonight, a lovely Chilean sea bass,” he says smiling and his expression becomes thoughtful: “Wine tasting” he said in the same tone a poker player says “I pass.” While I wonder if any more of my words will come back to bite me.

“Thing is we tried,” he explains earnestly, “People don’t drink that much,” and drops the other shoe — um, plate. “We did an Indian Night — it went well,” he says, noting there was no special menu and only beer with an appetizer and main course — one fish, three lamb.” He found it a strange that seasonal venison, e.g.: rack of venison or a double rack was quite popular, he said, adding it comes from New Zealand and was quite popular at the restaurant.

“I’m not much on European, Chef Marek said. “Seems like everyone is doing it.” I take that remark as opportunity to ask if he thinks organic food tastes better.

Chef Marek agrees that organic is big now, so rather than switch the menu to totally organic, this season he plans to try it partly on the menu, utilizing organic fruit and vegetables that are locally grown whenever possible. He’s also big proponent American Colorado lamb.

“Much better” he relates, “In texture, taste and quality,” he claims.” Lot of places sells other cuts but I sell only racks!” He gave short shrift to New Zealand lamb racks ever-present on menus, saying there was so little meat on the bones when a rack was cut up into chops, it was no wonder they called them “Lollipops!”

“I like to try different things,” he said, giving buffalo meat, particularly steak cuts, from Canada a thumbs up. “I did that (buffalo steak) with a red wine sauce and blue cheese gratinee’d it — just wonderful!”

He likes to make comparisons between chefs and artists.

“Food is like painting, lots of colors, lots of flavors,” Chef Marek says, “I like to play with it (food). Make a mistake, taste it — good! So you make yourself a mental memo so you can do it again.” This reporter’s reaction for such honesty was to ask the obvious anyway.

“I was born in Kenya but I went to school in England,” he begins. “I was going to be an aeronautical engineer in college and then I decided to sort myself out and that led to deciding I wanted to become a chef. My mother was very angry — she didn’t think it was a proper job and vice versa.”

So, this is obvious and this reporter is thinking I shouldn’t have asked, but as it turns out, Peter Marek had a lot in common with Oliver Twist! For four full years Peter Marek was a student at The School of Hospitality & Catering at Westminster Kingsway College followed by apprenticeship at the prestigious Savoy.

“They used to beat the heck out of us, you know, they (the chefs) had a stick and they’d beat us if we got a speck of food on our uniforms and send us out to change,” Chef Marek said, almost cracking up with laughter in the telling of it and that led to more.

“I met Penny at Westminster, you know, she was taking hotel management,” he began, “Her parents had a resort hotel — bar, restaurant, nightclub and all on the Isle of Jersey.” Your reporter ventured a remark about the famous Jersey cows (don’t ask) and Chef Marek noted that they were brown and the Isle of Guernsey nearby was the birthplace of the equally famous black and white Guernsey cow.

Anyhow, Peter marries Penny, and subsequently they raise a family there and run the hotel.

“Manage family, manage the hotel and corporate sales is hard work — I’d rather be in the kitchen,” is how Chef Marek sums it up even though he remembers the day when they used to make mayonnaise by hand for a thousand people and coke (a coal by-product) not electricity fueled stoves in restaurant kitchens. Now, fast forward to the present and Chef Marek is still managing things and speaking of kitchens:

“The dinner rush is about over in the kitchen and I decide to come out to the dining room and make the rounds. I stop at a table occupied by steady customers and their guest and exchange a few pleasantries. Mind you, I’m dressed to the nines — tall toque on my head and all in white. The lady looks up at me and asks, ‘What do you do here?’ That’s why I wanted to go back in the kitchen.”

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