In February, Mark Mulitsch will celebrate seven years working with chef Anthony Devoti – but that’s not the only anniversary Mulitsch will be marking.
Although he is now executive sous chef at J. Devoti Trattoria – which chef-owner Anthony Devoti debuted in his former Five Bistro space last year – Mulitsch had little kitchen experience back in 2012. He had just graduated from culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in St. Charles the year before and wrapped up a three-month internship in South Dakota – his first real kitchen gig. At the time, Devoti was running Five Bistro and looking for a garde manger cook.
“I sat down for maybe three minutes with him and he asked me to come in the next day and stage, and I was hired on a Saturday,” Mulitsch remembers. “The first couple of months were really hard; it was definitely a very intense environment, not having a lot of staff and having the food that he does, starting everything from scratch and local. Dealing with that was a big change for me, but it was something I really wanted – it was one of the reasons I took the job. I didn’t want to go to the pantry and just grab a tin can.”
Under Devoti’s tutelage and working with a small kitchen crew, Mulitsch quickly progressed as a chef. He recalls early lessons like improving his knife skills – which he thought were already pretty good – and learning how to work faster. He specifically remembers having to pick up the pace with salad dressings and aïoli.
“I’d made [aïoli] in culinary school, and thought I could do it, and then it was 30 minutes for me to make it,” he laughs. “And you start to realize that you have to work a lot faster and a lot smarter, because everybody else in the kitchen makes it in 5 to 10 minutes, max.”
For Mulitsch, those days now seem lightyears away. In the past seven years, he’s worked every station in the kitchen, working his way up to executive sous chef. Now, if young cooks aren’t cutting potatoes uniformly or preparing aïoli quickly, he’s there’s to help. He helps Devoti write menus for the restaurant, runs the hot line and assists with some of the butchering (although Devoti still manages most of it himself). Looking back on the past seven years, Mulitsch is proud of how he’s grown as a chef and manager.
“It’s crazy how ridiculously inexperienced and just so out of my league [I was], but it’s been a very natural progression for me,” he reflects. “It’s been very natural and slow, which I think is a really positive thing; I wasn’t just thrown into it, I was never discouraged. I was always supported, between [Devoti] and his family, other cooks, front of the house.”
Since the restaurant transitioned from Five Bistro to J. Devoti Trattoria last year, Mulitsch says it has been reinvigorated. He says that the menu switch was something Devoti had been kicking around for a couple of years, so when he decided to finally pull the trigger, they already had a rough plan in place. Now offering a regular menu of family-friendly pizzas and pastas in addition to the same style of entrées that loyal guests love, the restaurant’s new approach is a hit with diners.
“We really just informally talked about it for a couple years, and then [Devoti] came in one day and had a sample menu that was pretty close to what we’d been talking about,” Mulitsch says. “And then it was a quick switch; I think we were only closed for maybe a week and in that time we just figured out what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. I think with us working together for so long, it was a very easy transition. It’s been a lot busier; the reception with everybody has been really great. It just keeps picking up steam.”
We recently caught up with Mulitsch to learn more about the new menu at J. Devoti Trattoria, why he considers himself “pro vegetable” and the beauty of simplicity in the kitchen.
What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? I guess I’m going to say vegetables, because it’s one of the things we work with every day. You get such a variety, but it’s all seasonal, and you can do anything you want with them. I also think the vegetable plates that we do on the menu just keep getting better and better, and people have this great reception to them. So I’m just pro vegetables in general – vegetables are fun to cut and fun to cook. And I love eating them.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? Mine would be a Sunday, starting with Sunday brunch; I’d definitely sleep in after working Saturday [night]. I’d get up, and me and my wife and there’s two of our friends – one of them I work with, Jacob – we always go to [Union] Loafers. We’ll get bottles of bubbles and eat. And then for dinner, we’re usually pretty open, but I would say if I could go anywhere right now for dinner, I’d either go to Annie [Gunn’s] or Olive + Oak; I always have a great time at both of those. And then for the nightcap, we would all go to The Famous Bar. We have a friend who bartends there, and he’s pretty funny.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? It’s obvious that St. Louis is a really good food city; there’s a lot of talent. My biggest thing is what everybody is doing – I think everybody is keeping everything really simple now. Everybody is going back to the classics. There’s not a lot of people doing a plate with 10 different components on it anymore; people don’t want to eat that or spend [money on] it. It’s more a dish that’s maybe three components, but doing those three really well. Before, I think people were putting too much on the plate and a couple of wrong things on that plate could totally ruin it. And I think a lot of people are trying to get back to a more rustic way of cooking: live fires, using the grill a lot more. We have one out back behind the restaurant that we use quite a bit; it takes so much more time and work, but it’s such a better product.
Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? Obviously chef Anthony Devoti; I think he really took me under his wing and showed me everything he possibly could. Other chefs… It sounds so standard, but really, everybody doing it. I guess Lou [Rook III] would be one of the senior guys who has been doing it for a long time and definitely someone I admire. Jesse [Mendica] at Olive + Oak, and [co-owner] Mark Hinkle, are expanding and really doing fun stuff. Gerard [Craft] and his teams are all doing good stuff. I definitely respect them all and get inspiration from them. I was just at Olive + Oak and the menu was great. I had a wonderful black sea bass; it was delicious.
What concepts or styles in food or drink do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I’d like to see some more late-night places; I’m sure a lot of people in the industry say that. You know, late-night places that are doing some really fun food – not necessarily going out at 10 or 11pm on a Sunday or Monday and getting a burger, but going for maybe more tapas-style food. Just go out and get a huge spread of food with some friends and a bottle of wine. Eventually somebody will do it and get it right, and it will hit. And maybe a few more cocktail places; I think we’ll see more of those open in the next year or so.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Right now I’m making chili; I really like making chili. And me and my wife make tacos like all the time. Other than that, I don’t really cook as much at home; nothing crazy. Once in a while I’ll make chicken paillards, and that’s probably one of [my wife’s] favorites. My go-to at home would be roasted chicken and greens all tossed with some vegetables as a salad; that’s probably my favorite simple meal to come home and make.
What’s your favorite comfort food? My favorite comfort food is either tacos or… My wife started making this green curry soup, and I’ve been eating that like crazy lately. It’s super simple, but it’s just so good. But yeah, probably tacos – we eat a lot of tacos. We usually do heavily seasoned ground turkey, keep it really simple, with corn tortillas, cheese, sour cream, lettuce and olives.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Have fun with it. Don’t take it too seriously – it’s just food. If something goes wrong, you can always redo it. That’s one of the great things about cooking at home: There’s no pressure like at a restaurant. You can do whatever you want. You can use a recipe, but you don’t have to follow it to the T; if you don’t like something in it, don’t use it. Cooking should be enjoyable.
What’s your first food memory? I would say the first time I had foie [gras] just kind of blew my mind. It was really early on at Five [Bistro], and I’m sure it was with brioche French toast, house jam, microgreens and seared foie. I remember [Anthony] gave me a piece [of foie] to eat, and I said, “This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever had.” And from there, it just kind of grew – being exposed to all of this seafood I’d never had before, because I never did growing up. But foie [gras] was the one that really blew me away when I first had it. I won’t forget that one.
What inspires your work? How do you approach dish R&D, and what inspires that process? It all really starts with going into work on a Wednesday, our first day open of the week. We get in there, see what we have, talk to Chef and see what we’re going to get, and then just going through the menu – what sounds good together? We don’t like to double up on the same item in one dish, so moving things around, and then just sitting down to talk and hearing what sounds really good this week. Maybe confited chicken leg with braised cabbage, liver mousse and some braised apples – that’s actually a dish we did recently – and it just sounded really good. That’s how we come up with pretty much all of the dishes we do – what sounds good and how do we do it, and then making it work.
What are your future plans? I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to maybe move and travel a little bit, but my wife just opened her own business, so we’re definitely going to be staying in St. Louis. I’m really enjoying my time at J. Devoti [Trattoria]. Maybe running my own kitchen one day would probably be the next step. I don’t know if I’d want to own my own, but definitely running my own. I’m pretty open; I’m just enjoying the moment right now.
J. Devoti Trattoria, 5100 Daggett Ave., The Hill, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.773.5553, jdevoti.com