The warmer months are all about grilling and outdoor dining, a specialty of chef Mark Conway whose cooking is a wildly delicious hybrid of Mexican and global street food. Mark will sharpen his knives and flex his culinary muscle on Saturday, Sept. 12, at The Lowell Food & Wine Festival where he’ll pair some of his mad creations with Navigation Brewery’s made-in-Lowell beers, and also host Chopped, a fun food competition pitting three local chefs in a race to select items from the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and then come up with the best dish. New to Lowell, Conway grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. and Virginia Beach, where he most recently shared his cooking skills with viewers on the local lifestyle cable show, Montage. HOWL caught up with Conway, 40, (his mug also Graces our August cover), to get the 411 on his food addictions.
Who or what got you interested in cooking?
I was always artistic as a kid and found food later in life to be the canvas I’d always searched for. Several years ago it was made clear when a visit to a doctor informed me that my health was failing due to poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle. That wake-up call really opened my eyes to all the ways food impacts our lives.
Did you go to school for cooking?
I did attend a culinary school, but found my greatest acquisition of knowledge and skills in commercial and home kitchens. Experimentation is the greatest teacher when you have no fear and an insane imagination.
What inspires you about your work?
Food impacts so many facets of our lives. We tend to forget that every life event we experience has food at or near its center. People can be brought together through food. There is something beautiful and impactful about a family and friends cooking and eating together. It is something I am very proud to be a part of.
Can you tell us a little bit about the TV show you were involved in?
Montage is a lifestyle show covering a great deal of amazing people doing incredible things in business to improve viewers’ lives. I provided all of the cooking segments. It was an opportunity to share my passion for food and people, and cook all kinds of dishes using awesome ingredients. I love to take a traditional dish, especially diner and street food, and turn it on its head with wild combinations you’d never expect. It’s rewarding to share my experiences with food and open minds, and pallets, to the vast array of possibilities in cooking.
Tell us a little bit about the demonstrations you’ll be giving at the Food & Wine Festival?
As far as what culinary insanity I’ll cook up, well, that is a surprise. So you will just have to come and see what Kitchen Ink (Conway’s brand) has in store. I promise you this — it will blow your mind! I am definitely looking forward to cooking with some of the great local produce from area farmers, especially Mill City Grows.
What’s the Chopped contest all about?
I am very excited to be presenting my Lowell Chopped Competition featuring three local chefs duking it out with only food that a family would receive as patrons of the food bank. I think it is so important that we shed light on the plight of families in need and how hard it is to feed a family during hard times. The food bank has so many needs and doesn’t always get the most useable combination of ingredients. These chefs will compete to win top honors, but more importantly, help bring attention to a worthy cause and hopefully show some families how they can use the food available to them.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Fruits and peppers, definitely!
Which chef’s style of cooking is your favorite and why?
I thoroughly enjoy Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay. They both feature Mexican and southwestern flavors and ingredients that I am seriously partial to. Rick has such a vast knowledge of the culture and foods of Mexico, while Bobby has an incredible grasp of flavors blending sweet and spicy elements. They are both masters and students of the culinary world. So inspiring!
Favorite midnight snack?
Hummus and apples, or pita chips. I am a serious hummus junkie. I may have a problem.
Vodka or gin?
Vodka. Always vodka. It takes infusions of wonderful flavors so well and can be mixed with almost anything to perfection. And who doesn’t love a martini, topped with a splash of champagne?
What international influences have inspired your cooking?
Absolutely Mexican. The fresh and vibrant colors and flavors are beyond compare. The styles and methods can be adapted to almost any flavor profile from around the world.
What would your death-row meal be?
Tacos and polenta!
Famous person you would love to cook dinner for?
Gordon Ramsey. I just want to hear him verbally dismantle me and love every second of it. Yes, I know I am sick. LOL!
What would you make him?
I would go on a journey through the Boston Farmers Market and grab the freshest ingredients I could find and make a total Mexican street food feast with my own Kitchen Ink flair.
Worst thing about being a chef is…?
Modifications. Yup, definitely the worst. That and missing out on family events.
Best thing about being a chef is…?
The joy in seeing people happy and loving the food. Seeing families and friends embrace time and great food together.
Best advice you can offer home cooks?
Make it a total friends and family affair. Get everyone involved. Start with a trip to a local farm or market, grab great fresh ingredients, then come home and cook together! That is some special time to be enjoyed, just as much as the eating! Most of all, there are no rules in cooking with one exception — do it together.