Food Wizard Aims to Enchant Oakland Diners
Chef Mark Liberman conjures up a new bistro-style eatery
By Alix Wall | Illustration by Margo Rivera-Weiss
Count Mark Liberman as the next high-profile San Francisco chef to trade the city where he built his reputation for Oakland.
Having left a six-year gig running the kitchen at San Francisco’s AQ in January 2017, Liberman expects to open his new restaurant this spring.
“I still want to do fine-dining food, but to offer it in a relaxed, energetic setting that’s warm and hospitable,” the chef explains. “I’m modeling the restaurant on the bistro movement that happened in Paris in the late ’90s, when a lot of chefs left their Michelin-starred restaurants and opened small bistros doing really interesting food.”
The name Liberman chose for this new Oakland eatery, Mago, is a Spanish word for magician or wizard, and he didn’t conjure it out of thin air: “It was my nickname at AQ—the sous chefs gave it to me and it just stuck.” And one has to imagine it takes a magician to make something delicious out of mackerel, squid ink, candied orange peel, and eggplant, which he did as part of a challenge on the Food Network’s popular show Chopped.
Also, Liberman’s mother is Colombian, so the language is in his heritage. (He says he speaks “broken Spanish with a terrible accent.”)
Growing Up on Jacques Pépin
A Bay Area boy raised in Petaluma, Novato, and Sebastopol, Liberman was brought up Jewish (his father is Jewish of Polish descent). Both Colombian and Ashkenazi Jewish flavors are part of his palette, and he might use a variation of a mojo sauce (a spicy marinade that has become popular throughout Central and Latin America) on smoked whitefish as a nod to his mixed roots. Just don’t expect plantains or gefilte fish on
As a child, Liberman first displayed his interest in food by cooking breakfast for his parents on birthdays or anniversaries, and he remembers that he made his first crêpes at age 11. His parents stoked his interest by buying him cookbooks, and they made no effort to discourage his PBS habit. Jacques Pépin and the Great Chefs series were his favorites. This was before the Food Network, he notes.
Wanting to explore the world beyond California, Liberman attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He was glad for the experience, but the East Coast didn’t really suit his California nature. “I didn’t realize I was such a California kid until I lived in New York.”
What Liberman did realize as he launched his career was that he was drawn to fine dining. He helped such high-profile chefs as Joël
Robuchon and Daniel Boulud open restaurants in Las Vegas. “I like [fine dining] for its creativity and the attention to detail,” he says. “I like taking ingredients like really beautiful carrots and transforming them. It’s about how they’re cooked and cared for.”
Respect for the Common Produce
Luxury ingredients like caviar and foie gras are of scant interest to this chef, who reveres common produce items like pumpkin and cauliflower. He cooked up both in interesting ways at a recent pop-up.
For a dish called “the whole pumpkin,” he served chanterelle mushrooms with two pumpkin-based sauces, one bright orange and another brown. The orange was made from the “guts” of the pumpkin, which had been lacto-fermented and then puréed with butter. The brown sauce came from both roasted pumpkin and roasted pumpkin seeds. He used ash from the roasted skin as a garnish. And to emphasize the role of this venerable vegetable, Liberman carried the squash to each table, cutting hunks off the pumpkin to serve each guest.
Another dish that night was a pot-roasted cauliflower, sautéed whole and then steamed with thyme and Douglas fir. He served it in a green pool of sauce made mostly from melted leeks and buttermilk. The flavors were clean and subtle.
Speaking of both dishes, Liberman says, “It looks very simple, but there are a lot of steps involved.”
Liberman has cultivated relationships with two local farms—Blue Egg Farm in Orinda and Feral Heart Farm in Sunol. He features the farms’ cycle of harvests at the pop-ups (and will at the restaurant as well) in subtle weekly menu changes inspired by Japan’s 72 agricultural micro-seasons. The December pop-up I attended was dubbed for the micro-season “Earth Begins to Freeze.”
Liberman’s cocktail program will be in close collaboration with the kitchen, he says, and he plans to make the desserts himself as well; again, nothing too fussy.
A chef’s counter is in the plan, so Liberman’s guests will have front-row options on viewing the action in the kitchen. And sharing plates, smaller and larger, will be encouraged. “Obviously, the days of being abusive and aggressive in the kitchen are gone, and I’m happy they’re gone,” Liberman says. “Especially with such a transparent kitchen, you can’t do that anymore.”
And while he didn’t say it specifically, perhaps there’s another reason Liberman likes to have his chefs interface with guests: His wife, who works for Google, was a diner at AQ when they met. They now have a daughter. ♦
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and personal chef. She is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called The Lonely Child (lonelychildmovie.com). Find her at theorganicepicure.com or on twitter @WallAlix.