THE PICONE FAMILY ARE NO STRANGERS TO THE WORLD OF FOOD.
The family business has been a landmark of Dundas, Ontario for over a century. Established by Mark’s grandparents, when Mark began considering his career path, pursuing a degree in business was more in line than running the family business, let alone becoming a chef.
Ultimately, the ambitious and entrepreneurial- spirited son established his reputation as a world-renowned chef, teacher and champion of the art and business of food in the heart of Niagara. Mark credits his disciplined upbringing and roots in the family business for his success today as chef owner and operator of the Mark Picone Culinary Studio in Vineland.
“I come from a large family with a strong Italian background, where food was very much the instigator of discussion – it brought family and friends to the table,” he explains. “There was always a sense of sharing, respect and generosity. Buying and trading food with locals and knowing who your guests and customers are – in reality, a sense of hospitality was extended.”
A love of learning and sharing his knowledge are a major part of Mark’s world. “My undergraduate degree from the University of Guelph and recently completing my MBA, I stand behind the principles of lifelong learning. Even chefs need to know and understand a high level of math and science. And as a Chef Professor at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute, Niagara College, I’m definitely inspiring a sense of professionalism and problem-solving skills I’ve learned in business, not just cooking, to young adults who have chosen the culinary world as a pathway to a career.”
Mark’s own career trajectory has been impressive and has established him as one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs. His years spent training in restaurants across Ontario before working abroad in France and Italy led the way for his return to Canada in the mid ‘90s where he was executive chef at Vineland Estates. Recruited by John Howard, owner of Megalomaniac Wines, Mark and his brigade brought an unparalleled level of culinary excellence to Vineland for a generation; he was instrumental in placing Vineland, indeed the Niagara region, on the world map as a premium food and wine destination.
Awards, designations and accolades for Mark have been abundant. He secured his Certified Chef de Cuisine designation in 1999, has multiple AAA/CAA four-diamond awards, and holds a Fellowship from the Ontario Hostelry Institute and DiRoNA recognition. In 2001, he was appointed to the Order of Professional Italian Restaurateurs (ORPI) – a rare distinction outside of Europe, for bringing Italian culinary standards to a new level and in 2003, Mark was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York, USA.
Mark’s sense of community and, by extension, the role a business should fulfill, established the Elsie Picone Community Service Award in 2012. This award is presented to a graduating high school student in good standing who has demonstrated, through voluntary contributions, particularly in a leadership capacity, a commitment to making Dundas and surrounding area a better place to live. The Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario recognized Mark with its Business Excellence Award for Arts, Culture and Science in 2013.
While Mark loves Canada, he admits there’s one place that still has a hold on him. “I often say if I wasn’t in Niagara, I would be back in Italy. I always say what a privilege it is to be a Canadian and in Canada, specifically Niagara. We’re very lucky. Niagara has copious amounts of green space, culture, ‘wow’ sites, walking and biking paths, and that’s powerful. And today, people from around the world come to Niagara to experience what is now synonymous with being a world-class destination for wine and food.”
Mark’s dedication to ongoing training and hands-on experience keeps him motivated to stay in the game. “I was very lucky to work abroad, where
I had some incredible life- changing experiences. The attention to detail I learned at Arnolfo in Colle val d’Elsa, discerning beef quality in Charolais cattle in Vitteaux, or artisan cheese making
in Corpoyer al Chapelle, Burgundy – these experiences, along with the many credible team members I’ve worked with, have shaped the way I cook and run my businesses today.”
Surprisingly, for a chef of Mark’s calibre, he did not attend culinary school. His years of training, experiences and learned business acumen combined have given him what he calls an aptitude for problem solving and skills needed to create the level of dining experience he offers at the studio, not to mention what led to the success at Vineland. “My initial career path wasn’t to be a chef and when I returned from Italy, I was invited to Vineland. I was up for the challenge. I love building, I love creating and I think creatively. I like to be innovative in terms of problem solving and I believe that’s what business school teaches you. What we collectively achieved both front and back of the house at Vineland was providing a quintessential Niagara hospitality experience around food and wine that was beyond outstanding.”
One area Mark considers being a great teachable moment (beyond working in a clean environment!) for his apprentices is an understanding of seasoning. “The importance of seasoning and why dishes need to be seasoned in a particular manner is to be enlightened about the taste of food and the synergy of wine, to see what works for the guest. Season lightly and taste boldly!”
And that involves practice…lots of it. “Cooking is a fulfillment, one that requires putting your heart into it. It is a craft that develops because of practice. When you come to the studio, I trust that all points of interest really make this a memorable, brand worthy experience that leaves guests inspired but also invigorated. And I wouldn’t be able to provide that experience unless I con- tinuously honed my skills. Although a bit cliché, my goal is to take my guests, through food and wine, to places they never thought they could go. In addition to Jennifer and Britnie, my sommelier associates, by living our craft, we always have something new and exciting to share with them.”
Mark’s private culinary studio sits on his 10-acre farm nestled into the Niagara escarpment. Guests enjoy a private dining experience in an intimate studio featuring a state-of-the-art kitchen and a dining room with breathtaking views of Niagara’s countryside. Just outside, a walkout patio overlooks the chef’s vineyards: three blocks of Riesling and one block of Cabernet Franc.
Whether it’s creating a custom dining experience for his guests, (his five-course menus are generally tailored for 6 to 12 guests) or imparting the knowledge he’s gained about food and wine to his apprentices, Mark lives by the mantra ‘constancy to purpose.’ “It’s important to me because of my natural environment, my training, my acute discipline and commitment to not only move my own career forward but also those that I teach. I am fiercely proud of my successful apprentices – Jannine, Liesl Ann, Tiffany, Sharon, Brad, Anthony, Frank, John, Raj, Glen and so many more! My focus is on the craft and the skill required to perform.”
Terroir, that sense of place, is something Mark stands behind, as well. “In Niagara, enjoying hospitality at its best, be it food, wine and service, I think that’s quintessential. If you were in Italy, France or California, you would expect no different.”
Establishing real connections with local food suppliers has also been instrumental in helping Mark create a real sense of Canadian terroir. “I’ve forged wonderful working relationships with a number of farmers in the area,” says Mark. “That’s allowed me to say, ‘Wow—you’ve got something that’s really unique here. How do we get this to the table?’ Part of the fun of being a chef is sourcing ingredients that very few chefs know about, let alone where to find them and then how to use them.”
Mark goes on to say, “to be making pasta with duck eggs, using locally grown chestnuts from Niagara-on-the-Lake, to source local pawpaw fruit – it’s transformational.”
Farmers are the backbone of our food culture and Mark talks with utter respect for farmers like Elaine, Linda, Ruth, Jen, Tom, Dan and Jack. “Get to know farmers and make sure you visit seasonal markets. Ask to taste or sample and always pay a fair price. Repeat and ensure that youth are part of this process. It is imperative that we know where our food comes from and what better way than visiting a market – talking to the farmer who grew these delicacies and what you plan on creating with whatever you purchased” says Mark. “And all of this outside your backdoor is a blessing.”
“To be able to walk 200 meters down the road for heirloom tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, zucchini and some really rare, exotic lettuces—these were things I was getting in Italy,” the chef adds, crediting local farms for being his biggest inspiration. “My whole creative process just morphed into something that said we have the opportunity to do really well here in Niagara, let’s start chasing with reckless abandon, these growers who are doing something really amazing and rather unique that can translate into a menu. That’s pretty special and adds to that sense of place, terroir.”
If there’s one thing Mark wants people to know, it’s this: “I can’t begin to overemphasize the thrill I get from being a chef. It’s very much that love of challenges, a love of building a brand and what I’m creating at my studio. From working at Niagara College, I’ve mentored the next generation and that, for me, has been the most fulfilling aspect of what I would consider being a local chef.”
As for the guests at his studio? “When you come to the studio, I’m cooking for you – you dine at my table. Our guests have international profiles who consistently comment about feeling like they are in Tuscany, Italy or Bordeaux, France.”
And with that Picone smile, it is an experience that is both memorable and inspiring.