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Mark Swinton. Photo: Nick Hagen
Mark Swinton. Photo: Nick Hagen

If you love food, it’s a great time to be in the Metro Detroit area. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of new eateries, from high-end restaurants to food trucks, offering any kind of fare you can imagine. This is fertile ground for the culinary crowd, and many are jumping in to stake their claim in the growing food culture of the area.  Over the coming months, Daily Detroit with help from Public Radio’s Quinn Klinefelter, will take a closer look at the talented people behind the food: The chefs and owners. They’re Detroit’s culinary muscle men and women who deliver epic creations to diners.

Very few people get into this industry to get rich.  The profit margins for restaurants are notoriously narrow and the failure rate is high. And while being a chef is considered a “sexy” career, in reality the pay is often modest, the hours are long, and it is a very physical and exhausting line of work.

So why do they do it? More times than not, the answer is passion.  A love of food, the need to be creative, the quest for perfection, and being an adrenaline junkie are all part of what makes up chefs and restaurateurs.  The stories of how they arrived at this profession and what drives them are always interesting and as unique as the individuals themselves.

Mark Swinton talks to Quinn Klinefelter

Chef Mark Swinton talks to Quinn Klinefelter (Photo: Nick Hagen)

Take Chef Mark Swinton. When you first meet him, Swinton is a study in quiet confidence. It’s obvious he has proven his skills to others and, most importantly, to himself.  He is defined by the constant pursuit of mastering not only his chosen profession, but whatever he has set his mind to.  Once you start to talk to him, you find a gracious, funny and family-oriented gentleman who is an avid cyclist (he’s a Slow Roller who has no problem biking 30 miles in a day) and an experienced photographer (he’s been shooting pictures since he was in grade school and was studying photography in college before he discovered food).

That passion and focus comes in handy for Chef Mark. He’s been running the kitchen at Palette restaurant in the MGM Grand Detroit Casino for almost five years. A buffet-style restaurant, Palette produces a staggering amount of food on a daily basis. From the 3,000 pounds of crab legs served every Wednesday, to the smoked ribs that take days to prepare and cook, nothing here is done on a small scale. And that seems to suit Chef Mark just fine.

Dessert by Mark Swinton. MGM Grand. Photo Nick Hagen

 Dessert plate. (Photo: Nick Hagen)

DD: How did you get into this profession?
Chef Mark: I started off in a little restaurant, washing dishes trying to pay for some college classes, which turned into, “OK, I can do that,” you know. And the chef says, “Well you ever cook before?” I had never cooked before in my life except for some pre-made stuff at home, and he said “Well, let’s get you over here and start training you.” He started training me and then I was off and running, working form one restaurant to another, moving from one position to a higher position, until I reached where I’m at now

DD: What is a challenge/pet peeve for you in this business?
Chef Mark: Consistency. The food’s got to be the same [quality] every day, every single time. Because consistency is what gets people to come back.

DD: Is that hard to maintain?
Chef Mark: Some days it is. When you have a staff of roughly about 30 to 40 people, making sure all of those 30 to 40 people [working] different shifts, different times of the day are doing exactly the same thing, can be a little challenging. The more I’m consistent, the more my supervisors can be consistent and it’ll trickle down to our line-level employees.

Mark Swinton photo by Nick Hagen

Mark Swinton (Photo: Nick Hagen)

DD: What is the biggest compliment you can get?
Chef Mark: I appreciate you. I appreciate what you’re doing. Every time I notice my staff either with them coming on to the shift or exiting the shift I try to always tell them I appreciate you, because without them I wouldn’t be successful. I think at the end of the day we all want to feel like we are appreciated and throughout my walks of life, dealing with some of the chefs I have had to deal with, I [had] a lot of things that were done to me that I said that if I ever made it to a position of management I would never do it to my employees.

DD: Like what?
Chef Mark: (laughs) Like taking your food, throwing it in the garbage, humiliating you in public, things like that … kind of like you see on TV. That’s real … that happens and it’s not fun to be humiliated like that in front of your peers.

DD: How do you develop your menus?
Chef Mark: Usually I initiate it. We do menu changes quarterly so I’ll get my staff involved all the way down to my regular line employees, at our pre-meal meeting before shift I’ll ask them for suggestions and ideas, I’ll send an email out to all the chefs in the building telling them hey, we are getting ready to do menu change do you have any ideas?  And we’ll set up a day when we do what we call a food tasting. So you can come to me and say, “Chef I got about four ideas” and I’ll say, OK on Thursday we’re having the tasting so have your items ready at 4:00. We have had as many as 20 items and as few as five items. Everybody brings their dish to the table and all the chefs in the building that day will sit down and taste them and critique the items. We try to keep it together as a group and we critique each other and we are pretty brutal with each other about our food but if you can’t take constructive criticism in this business, it’s not for you.

Creme Brulee. Photo, Nick Hagen

 Crème brûlée. (Photo: Nick Hagen)

DD: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be? What would you make?
Chef Mark: I would have to say probably the President, Mr. Obama.  I would probably make some sort of salmon dish because that’s what I love to eat, so, yeah. I think I make a couple of pretty good salmon dishes and that I could probably put together a dish that I think the President would like.

DD: You are at a level in your career now where you probably could go anywhere, so why have you chosen to remain in Detroit?
Chef Mark: Detroit is home for me. I like MGM. At one point I lived only 5 minutes from here, now I live about 40 minutes away – it’s worth the drive. I guess I like it because it’s different, [I] never know what to expect, each day is different so that makes it interesting; you don’t have the same monotonous routine – there’s going to be something exciting happening every day.

Below you’ll find audio from WDET and Quinn Klinefelter who is a part of this collaboration focusing on Detroit’s restaurant scene.

Stay tuned for further profiles in collaboration with WDET/Public Radio. Have an idea on who we should talk to? Hit up our submit form.