Chef Spotlight: Mark Smith of The Tortilla Press

Cooking Class, Chef Mark Smith of the Tortilla Press
Photo by Joseph Routon

By now, most Jersey food enthusiasts are familiar with the dining scene in Collingswood. It has become a model by which other towns in South Jersey are hoping to follow to help in their revivals. While newer places, such as  Zeppoli, grab the attention as The Next New Shiny Thing, there were anchor restaurants that set the pace in Collingswood for others to follow. Chef Mark Smith opened The Tortilla Press in 2002, and his Mexican-inspired eatery continues to deliver the culinary goods. His second location, Tortilla Press Cantina in Merchantville, combines his cuisine with drinks that compliment the dishes tastefully.

In addition, Chef Mark has been heavily involved in farm-to-fork initiatives in his restaurant as well as at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market.

JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CHEF MARK: My mom’s perch – which was awesome when you’re growing up in Ohio and get it fresh from Lake Erie. And her strawberry shortcake – we used to have dinners of fresh Ohio corn and my mom’s shortcake – I’ve never tasted anything like it. And her cakes in general – she’s a consummate baker and made the wedding and baptismal cakes for everyone in our family – and we’re a family of six with plenty to celebrate, so just do the math!

When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “Aha!” moment?
My moment came in college when I discovered that one of the joys of living in a fraternity was cooking for my frat brothers. Separated from the constraints of the cafeteria I let my imagination rip and had a lot of fun with it (plus attracted a great group of fans). I’m not sure what I originally thought of when I went to college – some sort of business degree, probably – but it soon became clear that cooking was what I really wanted to do.

Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
I realized pretty quickly that cooking could take me anywhere and went from hotels in Wisconsin to resorts in Florida. The world opened up to me.

Chef Mark Smith
Chef Mark’s Fire and Ice Salad

What is your cooking style?
I try to keep it simple and flavorful. I like spice and a little heat. And I never hesitate to take what I learn from my travels and apply it in my own kitchen.

What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
The chance to move around, to see different parts of the country, to learn when I travel and know that I can take what I’ve learned and apply it to my everyday practices in my own kitchen. A few years ago I was privileged to go with Chef Rick Bayliss to Mexico – I think I absorbed so many culinary details from that trip and came back with the desire to make our own tortillas from scratch which we now do.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had, what did you eat and where was it?
Hands down the escargots at Le Bec Fin. I must have had them 15 years ago and you know what? I can still taste the butter.

What is the best advice you have to share with young folks interested in becoming chefs?
Hmmm… don’t do it! No, just kidding. I would caution them to remember that the market for great food is capricious and that you have to be a gambler to stay in the field. It’s not the kind of stable job that puts you behind a desk and the atmosphere is usually pretty chaotic. If you like chaos, you’ll enjoy being a chef.

What “staple” foods you always have in your cupboard at home?
Herbs and spices mostly; salt, pepper – my all time basic – cumin, coriander, cilantro – and of course I always have hot peppers, like jalapeños, somewhere in my refrigerator. And the fruit bowl on my kitchen counter always, always has fresh lemons and limes.

Chef Mark Smith
Photo by Joseph Routon

What is your beverage of choice?
I love everything, but I think tequila is my favorite. Lucky for me, too, since I own two mexican restaurants. And I really enjoy some of our local beers. Lately, though I’ve been relishing the variety of sangria flavors from Sharrott Winery – the peach is incredible.

What is your favorite comfort food?
Burgers, hands down. I love them and usually test out which local restaurants have the best ones.

What New Jersey restaurants do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
Sagami, in Collingswood, is my all-time favorite and when the craving for sushi hits me there’s just no where else to go. BluePlate, in Mullica Hill, satisfies my urge for American food – Chef Jim Malaby is a master at the delicate touch. And if I want to enjoy food that’s as sensitive to locally grown produce as my own, I visit Chef Franco over at Sapori’s in Collingswood.

Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning about?
About a million! Now that BYOs in Collingswood have been licensed to carry wine, I’m working closely with my winery of choice – Sharrott – to create special pairings and special dinners. It’s enormous fun – opens up a whole new side to our restaurant. Since the Collingswood Farmers Market opened on May 3, we can now start planning our cooking tours of the market – my favorite way to introduce people to the farms who visit us each and every week. And of course, cooking classes – especially themed ones (like my vegetarian cooking class).

How do you see the Collingswood dining scene now?
If there’s a more vibrant one in the area, I sure don’t know what it is. Each new restaurant brings a new edge to the town. And we work together to bring great culinary events to the public, like our Farm Fresh Collingswood Restaurant Week and special promos to highlight produce. It’s the perfect place to run a restaurant.

Is it important for chefs and restaurants to be active in their community? Why?
We are the ‘go-to’ people in town; highly visible, very popular, very busy. I feel that gives us a responsibility to educate the public about the things that make New Jersey special – like our farmers. And when we support charitable events with our cooking, it helps attract the public and support the charity.

Are you still serving that Five Pound Burrito?
You bet! Want to come in and try to finish it?

On May 28, Tortilla Press Cantina will hold a Patron Tequila Dinner from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The cost for dinner is $50 per person.

The Tortilla Press
703 Haddon Avenue

Tortilla Press Cantina
7716 Maple Avenue

John and Lisa Howard-Fusco Regional Editors, Ocean County.  Although they and their two kids call Ocean County home, their John and Lisa Are Eating in South Jersey food blog has them traveling all over the southern region of New Jersey. They and their blog have been mentioned in articles by the New York TimesCourier-Post, and Lisa has written articles and reviews for South Jersey magazine as well as for Ed Hitzel’s Restaurant Newsletter and Hitzel’s Restaurant Magazine. And John could use a Gaetano’s cheesesteak right about now.