By James Maher
Name: Mark Mace
Occupation: Retired, Chef, former Director of Operations for Natural Gourmet Institute
Location: East 3rd Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue
Time: 4 pm on Friday, April 24
I’m originally from Flatbush, Brooklyn. All my family are Brooklynites. My parents moved out to Long Island during the early 1960s when everybody moved out to the suburbs. I lived by the water.
So by the time I was 18, I was a real beach kid. The people I hung out with were all artists and musicians. We were all sort of an artsy crowd as teenagers, but I got bored with that, so we started hanging out here in the 1970s, around 1974. It was dangerous; it was wild. The city was a shithole, plain and simple — an absolute shithole. It was everything that you wanted as a teenager. There was graffiti everywhere; there was filth everywhere. The buildings were dirty; the air was dirty.
There were a lot of things happening in the city. For young people, it was interesting and exciting. There was a lot of good music, a lot of good blues, a lot of good rock, and lot of good performance art. There was a lot of interesting graffiti. The city was a big crucible of art — in all forms.
I had friends who were artists here. They went to Cooper Union. We used to have scotch parties and clam bakes in the school. I remember going to loft parties on the Bowery, and we sat on the ledge of the window and smoked joints and just watched the city. There was almost nobody on the streets. Where the Bowery Hotel is, I remember that was a gas station and there were two junkyard dogs that used to sleep on the pavement ... you could walk right by them and they wouldn’t bother you.
I remember on Second Avenue seeing the junkies hanging out by Gem Spa and we used to call them weebles because they would be standing there with the phone in their hand at the public telephone and they would be leaning over so far that it would be impossible for any human to do that without falling over. That’s why we called them weebles because they would never fall over. Second Avenue was bad and then it pushed back to First and then to Alphabet City.
I’ve had so many careers. I started out in music, as a soundman for a 10-piece bar band with horns and everything. They broke up and then I went to cooking school in Philadelphia. I moved there in 1985 and Philly food-wise was the place to be for some strange reason. I don’t know why and I just happened to be there. I had a great time there and the people were great, but I was a New Yorker. I came back in 1988 and I moved into my apartment on 6th Street.
New York in the 1980s was a great place to be a cook. Food started taking off like crazy. If you were a good cook, and I was a good cook, you could get a job anywhere. I spent 12 years cooking and I moved up the ranks. I must have worked at maybe 15 restaurants, anything from neighborhood places to two- and three-star places.
I then took a job and opened a restaurant in Warsaw, Poland, for a couple in LA, in 1995. My friend called me from LA and said, ‘Hey I got some friends who want to open a restaurant in Poland, do you want to do it?’ My interview was at the Delta Air Lines lounge at JFK and then like six months later I was in Poland opening a California-style cuisine restaurant. It was tough because they didn’t have a restaurant industry.
Then I came back to New York. I worked in a couple of restaurants and then I got a job at a cooking school on 21st Street as the steward. I worked my way into director of operations and I just retired from it. After 25 years of cooking, I hate cooking now. I’ll make a big batch of something and I’ll put it in the freezer.
I appreciate the fact that the city has come up in that it’s renovated and clean, safe and the subways are efficient. You can ride the subways at 3 in the morning and be relatively safe. Now it’s very expensive. A drink will cost you $20. That was a joke when Studio 54 opened up in the heyday of the disco days. Now that’s the normal price. And everything’s a little too precious. I appreciate artisan this and artisan that but it’s gotten to the point where everything is so precious.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.