Q&A: A local chef who didn’t get ‘Chopped’

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Name: Mark Liberman
Age: 38
City: Oakland
Position: Owner-chef, AQ restaurant

J.: In addition to owning two San Francisco restaurants, AQ and Fenix, earlier this year you won an episode of “Chopped,” the Food Network show in which you open a basket of odd ingredients and have a short time to make three dishes. Yours included squid ink, molasses and sesame candy. What was that experience like?

Mark Liberman: Actually I liked my baskets. Squid ink is normal for me. The dish I liked most was the first course. It was baby leeks, sauerkraut, Mexican crema and scotch egg. I did a leek salad with a scotch egg crumble, then I did a warm sauce made from sauerkraut and deep-fried leek tops.

Do you really have only 20 or 30 minutes to create entire dishes you make up on the spot?

The actual cooking is pretty much real. I’m good at cooking off the cuff. In San Francisco I often cook dishes not on the menu. The biggest thing [on “Chopped”] is the time constraint and being in a different kitchen.

Mark Liberman

Did anything go wrong during the filming that did not make it on the air?

I told my wife the biggest thing I didn’t want was to cut myself. Actually I did cut myself making the dessert. I touched the blade on the food processor. But it all got edited out.

You’re a Bay Area native with an interesting background, ethnically and in terms of food.

My mom is Colombian and my dad is Polish. Being in Northern California  you get exposed to really good produce. There was always good fruit around. I grew up eating a variety of cuisines. As a kid it was super Colombian, a lot of rice, beans, plantains and a meat portion, or it would be classical Americana stuff. My dad’s parents are Ashkenazi, so it was very Eastern European.

I was 10 or 11 when I first started cooking at home, nothing super fancy, but I really enjoyed it. I would usually watch the great chef shows on at 6 a.m. before school. I started working at a local inn in Folsom, prepping and dishwashing, then I started as a breakfast cook. Later I decided to go to culinary school and moved to New York right after high school.

You were trained in the classical French style at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at La Folie before opening AQ in 2011. One of the interesting things about your restaurant is how you change with the seasons, not only the menu but also the décor.

It stems from my business partner [Matt Semmelhack], who complained there aren’t really four seasons in San Francisco. I shop locally, and have many conversations with farmers to see what’s available. For me it’s really important to buy sustainable. I’m not so big on being 100 percent organic, maybe because I deal with small farmers  who can’t afford the price tag. I’m more in support of local farmers, fisherman and ranchers who may not be organic by label but in the way they raise their animals or catch their fish.

Does your Jewish heritage impact your life today?

My parents started going to Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where I had my bar mitzvah. I went to Brandeis Hillel in Marin, then we moved to Sacramento and my parents joined Mosaic Law. I grew up surrounded by a lot of Jewish friends. I was never super religious but we did Shabbat and the holidays. It’s always been a challenge since I started cooking. Fridays and Saturdays are the [busy] nights at restaurants. As I get older I am more conscious of that. My wife and I joined Temple Sinai in Oakland. Having a family changes things. Now that we have a 7-month-old, work is not number one.

By the way, what did it feel like to win “Chopped”?

I was very excited. It was a bit surreal. I was jetlagged, having flown in the day before. They wanted me to be super excited [for the cameras], but I was really tired.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.