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Pressure Cooker 

Self-taught chef learned his trade under fire

Since the day Cosmos Café first opened its doors seven years ago, Executive Chef Mark Hibbs has been creating memorable, eclectic dishes. Raised on a small farm outside Pittsburgh, Hibbs knew he wanted to be a chef when he was just nine years old. Drawing from the influences of his mother and his grandmother's cookbook, Hibbs got his start standing on a chair at the stove.

"Growing up on a farm, I had access to so much," he explains. "I always went rabbit hunting and deer hunting so we always had wild game. I would also go fishing, and we had cattle, sheep and pigs on the farm and a garden with fresh vegetables."

At the age of 14, Mark was hired at an "Eat-n-Park" as a dishwasher, though he spent more time looking over the shoulders of the cooks. His time in the dish room paid off and when a chef didn't show up for work one day, Mark got his shot.

"The manager called me after I had just gotten done working two shifts and said, 'I need you to cook.' I told her I didn't know how to cook, and she said, 'Well, if you ever want your shot, you will cook.'

"We were busy and she said she didn't have time to help, but have at it. Things were burning everywhere. I had tickets everywhere and it was overwhelming. I said to myself, 'This day has got to end.' I stuck it out and I went back the next day and stuck it out again."

It was his determination and belief in himself that led him to become a self-taught chef. Without recipes or cookbooks, many times Hibbs will prepare a meal at home that will turn into the next featured dish at Cosmos.

"Anytime I ever follow a recipe, it has never worked out," he admits. "If you have a basic understanding of the ingredients and you have a basic understanding of yourself, you can break it all down into simple terms and you can do anything you want."

In the past three years, Hibbs has begun to use his culinary skills to give back to the community and share his love of food.

"Instead of spending a whole lot of money on advertising, we put that money into doing charity work. It's good to give back to the community. It's one thing that we really think is important here."

Through charities such as Second Harvest Food Bank, Hibbs has started teaching underprivileged children the art of cooking. With two teams of four children at Cosmos and The Marriott, each team will compete in a cook-off at Johnson and Wales on May 23.

"We're teaching them how to prepare a four-course dinner, and they're really into it. I was shocked to see how much they were into truffles."

Hibbs also teaches a "Tricks of the Trade" course for those hoping to put that natural chef's touch into everyday meals. Proceeds from the class go to the Second Harvest Food Bank as well.

One of Hibbs' greatest memories in the business was the Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner held last September at Cosmos for the kick-off of Charlotte Shout. Hibbs will also be involved with this year's dinner, to be held on September 19. "Last year's dinner was a highlight in my career and I am so excited about the next dinner."

Over the years, Hibbs has grown from his experiences as a chef. "I've learned that there are always bumps in the road and there are mistakes you're going to make, but just do it anyway. If it's not good, if it doesn't happen, throw it in the trash can and start over again. At that point, you know you won't make that mistake again. You use different ingredients and start over again. And that is how you cook."

Cosmos Café is located at 300 N. College Street. It's open 11am-2am weekdays and 5pm-2am Saturdays. 704-372-3553.

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