When hired in 1998 Massachusetts native Mark Sapienza was the first American that The Langham entrusted with its culinary endeavours. He had previously worked in prestigious establishments mostly in the Boston area, but also spent time in New York and London, where he worked at the renowned Claridge’s hotel.
He has received praise from his peers and food critics, and has presented a dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York. The James Beard Organisation invites culinary artists from around the world to showcase their talents by presenting a dinner.
He has a passion for using, fresh, seasonal and organic produce, if possible, supplied by local purveyors, which while increasingly common in restaurants in the US is not the case for hotels. I sat down for a chat to learn more about New England cuisine and sustainable menus.
Have you always wanted to be a chef?
I have always had an interest in food and as a kid I would watch Julia Childs and from that be inspired to cook at home, especially during holidays. Also I am from an Italian family so food has always been important. My father also inspired me as he is a great and passionate cook.
I had originally intended to study business management but this didn’t pan out and my aunt suggested that I pursue cooking. I checked my options and in a matter of a week I was studying to become a chef.
Which chef that you have worked with has influenced you the most and why?
I worked with Jasper White when I was only about 19 and consider him to be my biggest inspiration in my formative years. He opened the first fine-dining, regional cuisine restaurant in Boston.
Today, I am lucky enough to call him a friend and am still inspired by him. For example the success he has had with the Summer Shack restaurants, the food is very simple and clean, but it is well prepared and tastes great. He has taken traditional heavy New England recipes and has made them modern and light. I am a fan of clean food and he does it well. Great food doesn’t need to be complicated, it is about bringing out the natural flavours of the food.
Which chefs do you consider the world’s best?
As I said, I am a fan of simple, clean food – dishes that only use 4-5 ingredients that are put together well. Therefore I feel that the best chefs are the ones that do simple but excellent food. For example, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter.
Do you cook at home?
Yes. I have a working wife and children so I do put something together during the week. On the weekends when I have more time I am able to plan meals. I appreciate seasonal food so I would normally be making something using seasonal ingredients or sometimes on a Sunday we might do the typical Italian-style pasta dinner.
What is your favourite comfort food?
Ice cream in any flavor, although I do consider myself a purist when it comes to ice cream. One of my favourites is the homemade Blackberry ice cream from Browns in Maine. In Boston, we love ice cream so there are lots of good choices.
Eating ice cream with my five-year-old son is one of his favourite things for us to do together.
In what ways has it been rewarding to be at The Langham?
When I first came onboard 10 years ago I was the first US chef to take on this role and I bought a new perspective to food. For example it was not common practice to make things such as pasta inhouse, but now everything we offer is done inhouse, including smoking our own salmon, making our own pasta and mayonnaise. It has been very rewarding bringing this to the hotel.
It has also been rewarding to work with the hotel’s GM Serge Denis, he has an F&B background and I have learnt a lot from him. He also gives me complete freedom with the menu.
How much of your time is spent in the kitchen?
Admittedly there is a lot of paperwork but I am always in the kitchen, because my office is in the kitchen. It changes during the year but on average 75 per cent of my time is spent being creative, while 25 per cent is spent doing paperwork. I am also actively involved in the purchasing, and cooking for the hotel’s VIP guests and special events.
What is New England cuisine?
For me it is a melting pot cuisine that has evolved over time. It began with the hearty, yet bland cuisine of the English and then in the early 20th century became influenced by immigrants from Italy, France, Ireland and Portugal.
Why is there a focus on European food and not New England cuisine at the Langham?
While the food at the hotel is definitely influenced by Europe there are certain products that both New England cuisine shares with Europe, such as mussels, monkfish and skate.
The defining feature of the food at The Langham is the use of local, seasonal produce. I have relationships established with some excellent local suppliers and am very intent on supporting them as much as possible.
The hotel’s revamped Sunday brunch has a New England focus and all the produce used is from local suppliers.
Tell me more about the hotel’s Green Certificate and your commitment to the environment?
The green movement is part of the slow food movement and has been going for a few years. Its aim is to support sustainability.
The Green Restaurant Association has helped a lot and they are the certifying body. It requires that a restaurant take certain green steps over time. For example no longer using styrofoam, recycling of cardboard, glass and plastic, and using organic shade-grown coffee. We are the first hotel to have been awarded a green certificate and are currently exploring food composting, using unbleached products and more efficient energy control systems. It is a big investment and priority.
As mentioned we are also working with sustainable food suppliers (for example Dole & Bailey, Northeast Family Farms) to support local farms and the industry as well as to reduce our carbon footprint.
I am also trying to utilise less popular cuts so that there is no waste. One success example is our very popular burger, which uses a less popular cut and is completely made from locally sourced produce.
I am lucky because we have some truly unique products in New England and I work with big and small suppliers and purveyors to support the regional cuisine evolution. We are also lucky because we have access to produce that is a result of our micro seasons, although only available for a few weeks, for example chanterelle mushrooms and Nantucket Bay scallops.
I also have a wild mushroom purveyor who finds me the most delicious mushrooms and a small produce supplier doing fantastic foods, such as spring dug parsnips. The parsnips are planted late and left in the ground all winter, covered with hay so they don’t freeze. When they are dug up in the spring the result is a parsnip with an intense, spicy flavor with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon.
I am a New Englander and I am passionate about supporting regional produce and cuisine. Regional cuisine is coming back, it has to if we are going to support sustainability and a low carbon footprint. Eating seasonally and regionally is not new, they have been doing this in Europe for a very long time.
You are obviously very passionate about this, yet only the Sunday brunch has 100 per cent locally sourced ingredients, why?
There are a number of reasons, but mostly they are economical. The Sunday brunch menu changes every week to reflect the seasonality of the produce, you can’t do that and maintain consistency with a restaurant’s main menu. Also the produce costs are higher and budgets need to be considered.
In addition, it is not possible to get large quantities of some ingredients, which would be necessary if we were only using seasonal local produce.
It is a dilemma trying to balance costs and philosophy. It is easy for me to do a weekly brunch at this stage but currently it is not logical nor profitable to do it throughout the hotel’s F&B outlets.
Which dish on the menu do you consider a signature dish?
I am fond of our New England style calamari, which uses a coating of evaporated milk and seasoned cornflour, resulting in a light and crisp batter.
A signature dish is my Poached Maine Lobster in Vino Verde with Woodbury Clams, Native Corn Flan and Chorizo.
The café’s signature dishes include the classic Croque-Monsieur sandwich, Caesar salad and the burger I mentioned previously.
Fricassee of Lobster and Chanterelles, Macomber Turnip, Hard Cider and Thyme
4 1 ½pound Lobster
½pound Chanterelle Mushrooms
2 Shallots, minced
½ cup Hard Cider
1 Tbsp Thyme
2 Granny Smith Apples
2 Macomber Turnip (or other turnip)
½ cup Cream
2 Tbsp Butter
Salt and Pepper to taste
Cook lobsters for 8 minutes in boiling water, remove and cool in ice water to stop cooking. Lobster should only be 80% cooked at this point. Remove tail, claws and knuckle meat and reserve.
Peel and cut turnip into 2-inch pieces. Cook starting in cold water until tender. Drain and puree in food processor. Heat cream and butter, add to puree and adjust seasoning. Reserve warm.
Heat 2Tbsp of butter in large sauté pan, add chanterelle mushrooms and sauté until tender, reserve. In same pan add 2 more Tbsp of butter, lobster and shallots and sauté, turning to coat meat with butter and juices. Deglaze pan with hard cider. Put pan in oven to heat through, about 5 minutes.
Shape each apple into 6 small oval shape pieces by cutting into 6 wedges then shaping each wedge, removing skin as you are shaping. Sauté these 12 pieces over high heat in butter until golden brown. Reserve
Remove lobster from pan. Add thyme to pan and swirl in remaining butter.
Divide turnip puree among plates. Arrange lobster over puree. Spoon sauce over lobster and garnish with apples and chanterelles.