Mark Cooper started cooking by helping in the family business. He worked through high school and after college did a stint in the army. Cooper came back from the service and started taking culinary classes and began reading, reading and reading about food. He worked with a few fine chefs and became well versed in spirits and wines. The business was booming at Cooper’s Seafood House and they began sending their chefs to hands on seminars in Boston and other locations to develop their culinary technique. Mark Cooper has three great children and a bunch of wonderful grandchildren. He loves his job as an Executive Chef and would not trade it for anything. He started doing a regular cooking shift in 1962 and he is still enjoying it.
What was your earliest interest in cooking?
My earliest memory of interest in cooking was watching my mother make traditional dishes and also having grown up in the restaurant business
Who were some of your career mentors?
One of my mentors was Chef Vincent Tarrentino, who pulled a comic book from my hand and gave me the monstrous volume of Escoffier to read. Chef Vincent had classic training in Europe and worked in New York City and then worked in Scranton when it was the center of entertainment and a hub of industry and political power. I became so interested that I never stopped asking questions (this from a ten or twelve year old boy). Another was chef Louis Mackar, a hard taskmaster who was always ready to help further my inquisitive nature about recipes and cooking methods. And I cannot leave out chef Paul Prudhomme whom I conferred with on several occasions. His easygoing personality and unique style influenced me for the rest of my life .
What culinary styles have influenced your career?
I fell in love with New Orleans and Cajun cooking and still love that unique style. I also love the low country cooking of the South with its emphasis on pork fat, and vinegar based marinades rubs and slow cooking. As a kid I watched German chef Tell prepare sauerbraten, schnitzel and a host of other dishes. The first dish I ever made myself was sauerbraten and I was hooked from the start.
What do you consider the most distinguishing features of your work as a chef?
A distinguishing feature of my work as a chef is my total interest in elevating the profession to where it is now. At one time it was not a badge of honor to be a “chef” but over the past thirty or so years so much has changed. I tend to take each style of cooking and blend it into my own unique version of a dish. This may be cross-cultural cooking but I think it is just what we really all do. I love to work with heirloom beans, rice and grains and have incorporated them into dishes that will be marketable or at least a hit at a gourmet dinner. I got to cook a meal for President Clinton and family when they were in Scranton for family business. The card from the White House is one of my prize possessions.
What is your favorite meal?
Wow! This is a hard one. I absolutely love fresh soft-shell crabs, fried in peanut oil or sautéed and drizzled with brown butter. A plate of fresh raw oysters and maybe fresh walleye fillet pan seared in a cast iron skillet. Now I’m hungry!
Tell me a little bit about your restaurant for our readers.
Cooper’s Seafood started out as a restaurant in 1941 and it has always served seafood. My dad and his brothers bought the business in 1948 and my dad managed it. My brothers and I worked the kitchen as kids and swore never to work in the restaurant business. We all got our degrees and then wound up working together in the restaurant. We started in the early seventies by revamping menus and we got involved heavily in the imported beer lists and kept adding on and remodeling. We had so much memorabilia that had come from a local collector that we started to decorate with themes of Scranton, trains being one of the themes. Scranton has the original Erie Lackawanna passenger station built in 1886 or 1887. We also have collectable toys, cameras, milk bottle displays, a room with a model of a blue whale, a real divers suit from the London diving company and much more than I can list here. We then built an addition that was a sailing ship and then a lighthouse to match. Our restaurant has been listed for many years as a top 500 and a top 100 in Restaurant and Hospitality Magazine. We are a favorite locally and have had many dignitaries visit. The TV sitcom, The Office had us featured as one of the usual hangouts. We try to offer the best in seafood and we will actually visit the places we buy fresh from and have even checked out some of the boats and their operations. We are committed to environmental awareness and we recycle. I also do school tours to heighten awareness about how young people can help.
Broadwayworld.com interviewed Executive Chef Mark Cooper about his career and Cooper’s Seafood House in Scranton, Pennsylvania.