Yesterday, we chatted with Mark Simmons about Kiwiana, the restaurant he opened in Park Slope earlier this week. As Kiwiana’s name suggests, Simmons’s stated mission is to introduce New York to the ingredients of New Zealand, his homeland. Today, in the second half of our interview, Simmons discusses his first job in a slaughterhouse, the Top Chef effect, and showing up in New York with no job, no friends, and next to no money.
Your first job was in a slaughterhouse. How did that come about, and how did it lead you to restaurant work?
I grew up on a sheep farm. When I got to 16 years of age, my dad looked at my report card and said, “Look, Mark, you’re not going to be a rocket scientist. Let’s not kid ourselves. So why not come and see how [the slaughterhouse] works?” That’s when I fell into the work of butchery. What I pride myself in is deep knowledge of sheep and lamb — I learned to take their clothes off and deconstruct them. I left when I was 16 and started as a butcher. I cut my fingers many times and learned how to break lamb down really quick.
From there I took an off season and found myself washing dishes in a restaurant in Australia. That’s when I got the travel bug and got fascinated in smells and flavors and spices. I was bugging the chef at the time with stuff like, “Can you give me a recommendation for a basil pesto recipe?” And he finally said, “Look, you’re pissing me off right now. Why don’t you stop washing dishes and start cooking?”
And later you cooked in Japan.
Japan was such an amazing experience on all different levels. The purity of dishes — I have such a respect for how they treat food and the way they cook. I learned a lot about food and work ethic there. Those guys work till they fall over. It’s admirable.
Some of the dishes on your menu use ingredients that reflect New Zealand’s proximity to Asia.
It’s true. A lot of influences in New Zealand come from neighboring countries. It’s not that much different than America with Mexican influences.
How did you get started in New York?
I came to the States, and I’m proud of saying this, on September 1, seven years ago to the day. I turned up in New York with $200 in my backpack, with no real job and knowing no one. I faked it till I made it. I was working for free at Public at the beginning. I’d go in for family meal. I did that for a couple of weeks and I think they decided to sponsor a visa for me. I worked with Public for a few years. It was an amazing experience.
What about New York made you want to come here?
I lived in Tokyo and was like, “I’m going to go check out America.” I lived in California and it wasn’t my cup of tea. But I thought, Before I write America off, I’m going to check out New York. I wanted to see if I could make it. Six months later I met a girl, and a few months after that I married her.
And then you ended up on Top Chef Season 4. How did that affect your career?
I think it made me realize I did want to own my own place that I could call my own, and put my name above the door and be accountable for everything. It cemented my belief in myself and my will to own a restaurant someday. To me, cooking for people and turning people on to new food and new styles of cuisine is so fulfilling and gratifying.