John and Lisa are Interviewing…Chef Mark Smith of Tortilla Press

The restaurant scene in Collingswood has become arguably the best in South Jersey, and one of the real anchors here is The Tortilla Press. The man behind the continuing success of this restaurant is Chef Mark Smith. Friendly, unassuming, and committed to using Jersey Fresh ingredients, Chef Mark takes his passion for Mexican cuisine and creates dishes that are not only enjoyable to the palette but fun and stimulating to the eyes. In the first of a weekly series of interviews with local chefs and other people in the South Jersey food arena, Chef Mark took some time to answer our questions about his influences, loves and his life in the restaurant business.
J&L: How would you label the food served at your restaurant? What was your inspiration?

Chef Mark: I like to think of it as “Mexican influenced” – notice I don’t just say, “we serve Mexican food.” That’s because I’m intrigued by the many ways classic American entrees can be adapted to Mexican sauces and spices. So we’ll take a nice piece of steak and top it with a seasoned mixture of fresh poblano peppers; or a great, fresh piece of salmon and serve it with a mango jalapeno salsa.

J&L: When did you become inspired to use local ingredients, and why?

Chef Mark: Sometimes I feel this is a one of those “chicken and the egg” kind of questions. Because what chef doesn’t want to use local (and therefore extremely fresh) ingredients? I’ve developed wonderful friendships with many of our local farmers and over the years we get together and talk shop – business, that is. And out of those friendships, conversations would develop like, “I wish I could get fresh jalapenos in March…or cilantro” and then the farmers would say, “Hey, let me put a row or two aside for you. “ My favorite story involves Kevin Flaim of Flaim Farms. I took him a handful of epazote seeds (Epazote is found in Central America and is a leaf vegetable known for its pungent flavor) and asked if he could grow them. He never blinked –just said, “sure, hand ‘em over” and brought it to us when it was ready to be harvested.

But of course, there’s absolutely no substitute for our tomatoes or corn or a hundred other things that we grow right here in New Jersey. I absolutely depend on Springdale’s fresh tomatoes for my pico de gallo and my salsas. Their corn inspired me to create a new appetizer this year that sells like hotcakes. The strawberries from Vierneck Farms went into a new dessert that we rolled out in May. I love walking over to the farmer’s market every Saturday and picking all my produce for the week. This year I was introduced to the brothers who own Davidson’s Mushrooms and their mushrooms have gone right into our quesadillas.

My favorite part of using local ingredients is the diversity. This year many of us in the local, independent restaurant community are spotlighting New Jersey fruits – peaches, for instance (we’re the fourth largest producer of peaches in the United States) and apples. The group I’m part of – SJ Culinary Events – has created two events this year that spotlights both of these fruits. And goodness knows there’s so many more.

J&L: What do you like about Collingswood?

Chef Mark: Everything. I mean it. I love the diversity, the pedestrian traffic, the small town feel with all the advantages of a bigger urban center. I feel very much like the center of an important hub right here in town. Plus, from a business point of view, you could not find another town nearby that so aggressively markets and promotes itself and its businesses. We have this vibrant downtown, we have a great business community, the residents love us and we have the country’s best farmer’s market.

J&L: What do you see as advantages and disadvantages to being a chef in South Jersey versus a big city like Philadelphia or New York?

Chef Mark: Well, it’s like that old ad line, “We’re number two and we try harder.” I think Jersey had a reputation for diner type food and that’s it for a long while. The independent restaurant community changed all that. We worked hard to build our reputation and our menus and attracted quite a few of the city chefs to our area as a result. I think South Jersey chefs are definitely the reason many people don’t feel they have to jump on the bridge for a good meal these days. We’re a force to be reckoned with.

The only disadvantage I can think of is the population base. When you’re in a city with 4 million people you have access to a lot more customers!

J&L: During these tough economic times, what is the one thing you have focused on to keep your customers?

Quality and value! Once in a while people will celebrate a special occasion and spend a lot of money to do it. But that’s just an occasional foray. Most of the time people need to watch their wallets and make sure they’re getting the most for their dollar. We’ve had enormous success with our special nights for just this reason. For instance, on Tuesdays we offer a Date Night menu for couples – 3 courses for $38.00. Then on one of our rare nights off, my wife and I went out for a steak and spent an ungodly amount of money – on the way home my wife was so upset with the price tag of our meal that we decided to make Wednesdays our “Here’s the Beef” night – and offer our guests a filet mignon with sides and salad for $15.95. If you’re dedicated to good value and fresh food, you can always work your menu and your margins to give people this kind of value.

But besides value, I focus on relevance. There is a growing audience out there for vegetarian food, vegan foods, gluten free foods…and I strongly believe that any chef worth their salt can and should offer specialized menus on any given night to these guests. My eyes were opened this year by our first celebration of gluten free cooking. You can’t imagine how many guests stopped me in the restaurant to tell me how refreshing it was to look at a menu and know that every single item on it was okay for them to eat. There’s a wonderful freedom in that…so we took it one step further and made sure we had these specially adapted dishes ready every night of the week.

J&L: What do you love the most about the restaurant business?

Chef Mark: The excitement and that’s no joke! At The Tortilla Press we serve about 1300 – 1400 guests per week and if you don’t think that’s enough to keep you on your toes, guess again! But I also love meeting people who love food and who love talking about food – other chefs, my guests, my twitter mates – I think food is a great equalizer and one of those things we all have in common.

J&L: What chef do you admire the most?

Chef Mark: Chef Rick Bayless. I had the privilege of traveling with him to Mexico for a week long culinary class and his love of that country is so clear. He didn’t simply teach cooking, he taught Mexican cooking infused with local customs, culture, architecture. It was a mind expanding experience.

J&L: Other than your own place, what restaurant in town (or close by) do you really enjoy?

Chef Mark: I love Som Sak – it’s a little Thai restaurant in Voorhees and I’ve been going there for years. The chef – Pam – is superb and her quality never varies.

J&L: The Bourdain question: What would be your last meal?

Chef Mark: That’s easy – my mom’s fried chicken, her potato salad and fresh corn on the cob. I remember those remarkable picnic meals for their full bodied flavor and seasonings.
We thank Chef Mark for sharing his thoughts. Now we’d like to hear your thoughts. Have you dined at The Tortilla Press? How important is it to use local ingredients? Please feel free to comment on this interview.

6 thoughts on “John and Lisa are Interviewing…Chef Mark Smith of Tortilla Press

  1. Great interview! I love fresh NJ ingredients and oh Mexican inspired – even better.! I need to travel south more often! I don't really know the imaginary lines but I think that I am in central Jersey but I love the whole Garden State. Tortilla Press is worthy of a road trip!

  2. Tortilla Press is a great restaurant for 3 reasons; a dedicated and amazing chef, a focus on local ingredients, and a sense of place. "Mexican Inspired" means you get great tastes without seeing the same old stuff on the menu, and Chef Mark's love of Collingswood and South Jersey (evidenced by his use of local farmers products and the way he throws open the windows to the sidewalks!) make the restaurant feel like a "third place"… a place to enjoy friends, food and life.

  3. Well you know I have to chime in here. I'm a huge fan of Chef Mark's. The Tortilla Press is one of my favorite restaurants in the area and my absolute favorite in Collingswood where there are many great restaurants to chose from. I love the fact that Chef Mark sources locally so often and supports Collingswood's Farmers Market whenever he can. I also love that he has greened a lot of his restaurant operations – no styrofoam take out containers in site (there's a lot more to his greening that just that, though).I can't recommend The Tortilla Press and its chef enough. If you go, try the crab and avocado quesadilla.

  4. Mexican inspired food, fresh ingredients and South Jersey, you just can't go wrong.What a wonderful place to eat.Good interview. Oh and the fact that they 'go green' is commendable.

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