restaurant lay in the kitchen with the head man cooking the food.
This, of course, is the chef.
Mark Redding is a man who knows what he is about. He has run the food production at O’Leary’s Irish Pub in Brookline for four years and has not regretted a second of it. Years of cooking have taken him from California to Florida to Manhattan and Europe through vast corporate empires such as Hyatt Hotels and Whole Foods. After awhile though, it was just a little bit too much. The grind of the work, the constant travel and tedium of working under corporate taskmasters took its toll, and Redding decided it was time to settle down somewhere quiet where he could live a simpler existence.
O’Leary’s suits him well. A glance at his resume would lead some to wonder why he has embraced a position at a local watering hole when he could be an executive chef at a finer Boston establishment.
“I’ve gone through and got experience through transition through putting myself out there and taking risks,” Redding said. “This is kind of not below me but at the same time ‘why are you here’ with all this experience?” He looked around his tiny kitchen, a room more suited for burgers and onion rings than foie gras, and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Brookline kind
of settled me in. You couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be associated with.”
The people like him too.
It is a curious existence to be the chef at a favorite watering hole, a retreat for the working class where everyone knows your name. Redding knows all of his regulars by name and the peculiarities of their eating habits. He comes out of the kitchen on a regular basis to glad hand the old timers or to have a beer with the younger folk. They know he will always come out to check on their dining experience.
An older couple, seated at the end of the bar, knew it was coming as they finished up their meal and prepared to depart.
“We’ve got to tell Mark how good it was,” the lady said.
“You’ve got to do that with him,” Deidre, the bartender, answered.
“You know he’ll come out to ask anyway,” the lady said.
Like any artist (chef’s tend to think of themselves as purveyors of culinary art), Redding is a self-promoter. He promotes his food and he promotes the establishment. Chefs align themselves with their work and espouse the virtues of their restaurants. It is just something they do. It is a matter of pride in craft hinted with a touch of insecurity. Taste is, of course, subjective and with any subjective critique the creator of the art is bound to feel anxious with the public response. But confident chefs like Redding, do not worry as much because they know the food speaks for itself.
“I like to create and I have figured out a lot of formulas of cooking that have allowed me to make really incredible tastes or flavors and make people happy where they keep coming back,” Redding said.
The kitchen had a sweet smell. Something sugary was emanating from the oven. When asked what it was, Redding opened the door to check on his creation.
“Graham cracker crusted, mango-margarita key lime pie,” he said with a smile as he shook the dish. “Almost set up.”
Being a chef is not just about palling around with the clientele and having fun with food. It is intense labor, a 60-hour week of constant standing, sweating over a cutting board while trying to make sense of the fourteen different things that must be done and should have been done an hour ago. Redding has a small staff. That can create strain on prep-hours needed to keep the kitchen running and because of that his sous-chef, a skinny musician named Tommy, cannot always leave his boss as prepared as he needs to be to meet the demands of the dinner rush. It can be a drain on body and soul.
“This can kind of get a little overbearing, the french fries, the grease, the smell,” Redding said. “I never thought this job could ever burn me out, but you don’t hear me complain.”
One of the hardest things for a chef to do at the end of the night is just walk out of the restaurant. The bar and its devilish delights beckon. It is a matter of trying
to unscrew a mind that has been on a full tilt grind for hours. Cooking is a pressure-packed activity, one that has a twenty-minute deadline for every action. In order to unwind at the end of the day, cooks are known for their propensity to jump into a never-ending stream of beer once their shifts are done.
“It’s very dangerous,” Redding said. “I don’t overdo it. I just have a few beers. I try to unwind. I walk home. I do other aerobics to unwind. I might overdo it if I go out with the people who work here. After a while though, you know it is just too much, you just can’t.”
Through it all, Redding keeps a professional approach. His pet peeves are people who flake on the job and when situations remain stagnant. He is always driving forward, always trying to learn something and always looking forward.
“It is a commitment and staying committed,” Redding said. “I keep pushing and pushing to get better.”
As he gets better, he brings O’Leary’s along with him. He has re-created the menu and the culture of the restaurant, and has shaped its image from just another watering hole with pub-grub to a place that young, attractive men take their dates.
It was not an easy task, but with Redding’s passion, drive and talent he has persevered and finally come to a place he is comfortable to call home. A place where his heart is.
A place where everybody knows his name.