BY RACHEL COTHRAN
For chef and self-described “food strategist” Mark Miller, the path to food nirvana has always been guided by his senses—and an insatiable curiosity. In 1967, Miller was an anthropology student at the University of California, Berkeley. He began exploring food in his home kitchen, and through a twist of fate—you might say it happened organically—he was soon working alongside Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, focusing on flavorful, adventurous dishes. After leaving to start his own restaurant, Fourth Street Grill, in 1979, Miller began to fully immerse himself in the flavors of Latin and Mexican cultures, among others. And by the early 1980s, his cooking style and commitment to pushing flavor boundaries had earned him a reputation as the founder of modern Southwestern cuisine. He is 40 years into his culinary career, but Miller’s point of view has remained constant: “My food philosophy is to engage people in a sensory, cultural world that they’re not familiar with.”
Many adventures, books (Mark Miller’s Indian Market: Recipes From Santa Fe’s Famous Coyote Cafe and The Great Chile Book, among others), consulting projects—and, yes, more restaurants—later, Miller is just as curious and hungry as ever. We caught up with the nomadic chef between trips across the globe.
Sous-Vide: Tell us about your upbringing.
Mark Miller: I was born and raised in Boston around a lot of conservative food. The sense that you could travel to other cultures through food really spoke to me. When I was a kid, all my friends wanted to go to camp. I wanted to go to India. I decided that I wanted to become an anthropologist when I was 10. At 12 I was collecting aboriginal art. And I later discovered that I have auditory processing disorder (APD). I can’t drive and have the radio on, for instance.
SV: How has that impacted your interest in food and your career?
MM: I have more cognitive ability for taste and smell. So it’s not a super palate, but a natural cognitive ability to remember a taste. I can remember a taste for years. I can remember the progression of flavors as it unfolds, identify the components, and create them from memory. I don’t really have a background as a chef. I have a bunch of degrees, though [laughs]. I’ve used my APD as a competitive advantage. What I realized was that [in America] people could take cooking classes, they could bake a cake—but couldn’t really taste anything. I was drawn to food through perceptual skills. I never wanted to be in the restaurant biz.
SV: How did Berkeley shape your culinary career?
MM: I thought I was going to be there for college for four years and I ended up staying for 18 years. When I arrived in 1967, things were really happening in Berkeley. Peet’s Coffee opened up—they were the first coffee shop in the United States. Chez Panisse opened up across the street from the co-op in 1972. Everyone and everything was about revolution. Alice Waters was a friend of mine; she used to come over to eat my ethnic cooking. In 1977, I was preparing to head off to Columbia for grad school and she needed someone to fill in for a few weeks in the kitchen. I said, ‘Well, but I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen!’ but she didn’t care. It was simple in those days, three of us in the kitchen. Everyone was served the same thing, no variations. Dinner was $9.95! Two weeks turned into two months, which turned into two years.
SV: Tell us about The Market Basket.
MM: The Market Basket was an independent newsletter I published in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s that explored the emerging food culture and consciousness—very much rooted in the Berkeley mindset. It was all about the universe of food ingredients—especially European and Asian—and wine and cookbooks. It was available by subscription to the foodies of the day. I wrote it with three other friends. Joel Peterson wrote about wine, and he went on to create Ravenswood Winery, and totally revolutionized Zinfandel. Bill Wallace had the best cheese company on the West Coast. One class at his store, which lasted for six weeks, was on 150 French cheeses. And Jack Lirio, who was a classically trained French culinary teacher.
SV: You’re often called “the founder of modern Southwestern cuisine.” How did that cuisine become your focus, and why?
MM: I fondly remember eating with family friends in New York at La Fonda Del Sol. Everything was more colorful, more playful, more spicy, more emotional! I have always had a soft spot for Latin and Mexican dishes. When I started to cook professionally at Chez Panisse, I would take charge of the more flavorful recipes. I opened my first restaurant, Fourth Street Grill, when I was 29. I was nervous at first about committing to these bold flavors. But four months in, my menu was only ethnic food. And it was off to the races. We had lines out the door. Then I opened Santa Fe Bar & Grill. By then I was committed—no European food. When I left in 1985 I decided that I would truly focus on Southwest cuisine in my cooking. When I started Coyote Cafe, I created dishes that were built on Native American and Mexican-European Cowboy traditional cuisines of the Southwest, but the forms were completely modern. I call it creating from within tradition, not trying to copy tradition. Like many great art forms, it is a fusion of ideas and ingredients informed by history and a sense of place.
SV: What other food-science advances excite you?
MM: I’m very interested in all the new work on perception and taste, especially the interaction between neuroscience and culture. That’s my anthropological bent! I’m an admirer of Ole Mouritsen and his new book Mouthfeel, which talks about texture as a part of flavor and how memory is involved in taste and smell. I wish I could go back to college and take classes on perfume. It would have helped me understand taste better and how to create even more expressive dishes.
SV: How do you use sous vide?
MM: I really use it in three ways. One is in industry applications. My first experience with sous vide was in working with American Airlines. It’s an incredible way to capture the essence of the food for large amounts of people. Brands have a great amount of data about what people like in terms of flavor or texture, and we can really lean into that using sous vide. Second, to create complexities that I can’t achieve through normal cooking. For example, I make a cumin-scented squab with 15 different herbs and spices. Normally, I have to brine for 48 hours, then roast, and then fry. With sous vide, I can marinate in 24 hours, and the flavors are so much better. And third, I use it as an interruptive technology, when I want to dial up something in the flavor profile. Say, a floral note, like chamomile. The world of aromatic profiles you can do with sous vide is 10 times better what you can do in a normal kitchen.
“THE WORLD OF AROMATIC PROFILES YOU CAN DO WITH SOUS VIDE IS 10 TIMES BETTER THAN WHAT YOU CAN DO IN A NORMAL KITCHEN.”
SV: What do you wish existed in the kitchen?
MM: I’m interested in better tools to understand the complexity behind certain tastes—especially how they’re created. In making a tortilla, for example, what is the reaction between a clay comal and the masa? I’d be interested in a tool that helps to build more complex flavonoids. There’s a chef in Spain who studies how the different charcoals he creates affect the final cooking of his dishes, so each food is cooked with its own unique charcoal. I’m interested in techniques to create flavor, not just ingredients, which I think are overemphasized as the sole basis of good cooking in today’s kitchens.
SV: What’s the next frontier in cuisine for you?
MM: I was thinking of taking a year to study tea seriously. I think it would help me understand some of the more subtle parts of aroma and taste. I’m also interested in producing wines that “mirror” the palate of a culture. For example, Japanese cuisine has very little fat, dairy, or oil, so they don’t need the high acids of European wine. I am traveling to some far-out places this year, including Madagascar, Ethiopia, Namibia, Iceland, and Georgia. And hopefully to Yuan, China, for the wild-mushroom harvest.
SV: What do you wish more people thought about when it comes to food?
MM: It just takes consciousness. To bring someone to consciousness is to get them out of their comfort zone. Otherwise the brain will just replicate what’s easiest and fastest and what it knows. Food is a big reset. It’s so important to consider how perception plays a role in preference. You asked about advances in technology, but the brain is perhaps the most fascinating scientific instrument to be explored. We all have them, and we don’t use them enough. People are always looking to external things. I encourage people to use their senses as they are.