Mark Martin, chef-owner of Ethan's of Elizabeth, began cooking to earn some extra money in college. However, an attempt at some pocket change did more than (literally) keep food on the table: It would prove him to be a natural in the kitchen and set him down a culinary career path.
"We all try to find something that we're good at, and I found that quickly," states Martin. "So in a lot of ways, I'm lucky."
During his time in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, Martin cooked for small restaurants called the Looking Glass Cafe and Squids, which primarily served seafood. At school, he majored in anthropology and after graduating found himself wondering about the next step in his life. He traveled some and decided to move to Santa Fe, NM, and gain life experience away from the Carolinas.
"I traveled across the country just looking for somewhere to go," he explains. "After Chapel Hill, I wanted to just sort of let my wings out and fly. That was what it was all about. I went, not really knowing exactly what I was going to do, but knowing that I could probably find a job."
Martin was drawn to the thriving restaurant culture in Santa Fe and the fusion of Mexican and Californian cuisine he had not been exposed to growing up in North Carolina.
"I ended up walking into a restaurant in Santa Fe near the place where I lived, not knowing that it was this prestigious restaurant."
Martin had walked into Santa Cafe, a restaurant that had become well known and featured in magazines like Bon Appetit; he spent nearly two years working his way up the ladder. From preparing salad to eventually leading chefs who already had fine dining restaurant experience, "working there exposed me to a lot of different things, a lot of flavors, a lot of different chefs and ways of cooking. I was the only one who hadn't been a chef at another restaurant, and I had the great opportunity of leading people who knew way more than me about food and wine and service. That was what really reeled me in."
While in Santa Fe, Martin also worked at Coyote Cafe under the renowned Mark Miller and a little place called East Grill 315.
From his excessive time spent in various kitchens, he finally took the advice of the chefs he worked alongside, packed his things and headed off to New England Culinary Institute. He was able to abbreviate his schooling after performing well on placement tests, and in no time he was instructing.
"The school had fine dining set up so everything was done by the students. This is probably where I learned the most about food; it taught me the fundamentals of how to create something special."
Upon finishing culinary school, Mark returned to Charlotte and spent a short time at Cino Grill helping prepare a new menu, then at Pastis, where he was the Chef de Cuisine. After his time there, he had his own ideas about where the future would take him.
"I realized that if I was going to work 70 hours a week, I was going to do it for myself. I guess that was the thought process. I'm not quite sure I thought out everything that it would entail, but that led me to here."
It's been over five years since Martin opened Ethan's (named after his 6-year-old son), and he still lives by a certain motto. "Never let a customer leave unhappy. Anyone can make mistakes, but it's always how you deal with your mistakes. I've always said that I want to be able to go home and say I've done the best that I can do."
Ethan's of Elizabeth is located at 366 N. Caswell Rd. Hours are 11am until 2pm Monday through Friday for lunch, 5pm Monday through Friday for dinner and 10:30am until 2pm for Sunday brunch. 704-375-3007.