Chef & Restaurant Consultant
Valley foodies may remember Mark Caraluzzi as chef-owner of Ciro Restaurant and Wine Bar, a Ketchum favorite from 2003 to 2012. Now head chef for Sun Valley Community School's Cutthroat Café, Caraluzzi is catering to a younger client base and still earning plenty of fans. While students and staff love the taste of his school lunches, we love his deep commitment to sourcing ingredients from local and regional farmers. As Mark knows, taste and quality go hand and hand.
We caught up with Mark to learn more about his new gig and what inspires him:
What do you love about preparing meals for local students?
The best part of serving meals to the students is the thank yous that I have received from them after dining. This also is true for every teacher as they all dine on our lunches. You can see from my resume I have been working with and providing food to countless diners over the years, but at the Community School lunch room, the thank yous are overwhelming.
What inspired you to take it on?
I constantly read about the goings on in the world of food service from supermarkets to casual restaurants to catering to more formal dining. I also read a variety of dedicated people practicing functional medicine which looks toward nutrition and clean healthy food as medicine. It is so sad for me to see such a large majority of Americans being fed by corporations that are driven solely by profit with little concern for health. One of my favorite Michael Pollan Food Rules quotes is, “Avoid foods you see advertised on TV.” Having a large family, I also have followed the studies and articles that relate to school learning and children’s diet - essentially, they all show that kids that eat a healthy balanced diet have fewer sick days, improved concentration in class, and better educational outcomes. I have defined a healthy diet to be one that features fresh, organic, seasonal, sustainable, non-GMO ingredients and is free of preservatives, artificial flavors, sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, palm oil and high fructose corn syrup.
You’re committed to purchasing from local farmers. Why?
Buying from local farmers is a goal of the whole Sun Valley Community School lunch program and is taught and discussed at the school in Scott Runkel’s classes. The main reasons we strive to buy from local farmers are that their food is minimally processed, minimizes waste, requires less transportation, lowers our carbon footprint, benefits our local economy and the land, and, most importantly, tastes great.
What are your most popular school lunch offerings?
Our school menu is not what I would call a kids’ menu and I believe this is a key to making it fun and exciting. At the end of the last school year, we had rotated through 16 soups, more than 50 entrées and dozens of side dishes. In a restaurant where there is more-or-less a fixed menu, it is very easy to determine the best-selling items, which can be easily identified as the favorites. Since we work on a rotating daily menu of two to three choices each day, plus rotating soups and a seasonal salad bar, favorites can only be determined by feedback and requests. That said, some of our most requested menu items are soups including tomato basil, vegetarian minestrone, chicken posole, and cream of chicken; our salad bar, which includes unique items such as roasted beets, asparagus and Kalamata olives; and entrees such as grilled vegetable and traditional lasagna, grilled cheese served three ways; pizza (margherita, grilled vegetable, asparagus, etc.); chicken cutlets; and pad Thai. We accommodate any dietary restriction, including vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free. Coming from a restaurant background, that is now more so than ever a part of the business.
What’s your secret to teaching kids to love good healthy food?
I don’t really believe in culinary secrets but the basics of fresh products, great recipes (which is very subjective), variety, listening to feedback and making recipe or technique course corrections constantly. I also taste every dish. The logistics and details of purchasing ingredients, prep and cooking at the residence hall, transportation to the school and holding hot to be served makes for a very complex procedure that makes you really have to think about what the possibilities are that will work. I am committed to working out new recipes to keep the meals always interesting. Variety is a key component. I don’t sense that the kids are so focused on the healthy aspect of the food, but their parents and teachers are.
What’s your favorite locally inspired meal to cook at home?
Other than holiday meals (which are very traditional), our meals at home are focused on fish, vegetables and pasta. Growing up, we always had pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs and sausages (from the local Italian butcher). Now when I make the dish, I make less than half of the pasta I would normally cook and serve on the side a variety of vegetables to fill the plate such as roasted cauliflower, broccoli rabe, sautéed red and yellow peppers, and eggplant all of which are locally raised wherever possible.
What local fruit or veggie do you most look forward to each season?
Romano beans, which some local vendors at the farmers market have toward the end of the summer. I look forward to them every year.
What’s your most memorable food story from your childhood?
We always had family Sunday dinners and alternated between my mother’s and father’s family. My father’s mother came from Italy as a child, lived in an apartment in the Bronx (New York), and shopped every day with one of those lightweight aluminum carts you pull. She died at 86 and never spoke English or drove a car, but she cooked every day. When we went to have Sunday dinner with her, I always remember walking down the apartment hallway and smelling all these incredible food scents coming from under the doorways of all the apartments (no venting back then). My father’s favorite dish she made for him were large hand-rolled ravioli, which she made by hand for the 10 to 15 of us. She made them in a kitchen no bigger than 10 feet by 6 feet – basically a short hallway. She had no place to put the first batch of ravioli to make space for the next batch so she spread a sheet on her bed and put the ravioli on the sheet to hold them until everyone arrived and she was ready to cook them. I was under 10 and had many cousins, and we were loud and restless confined in an apartment waiting for dinner. I always remember my Aunt Matilda showing us the ravioli on the bed and shushing all the kids with her finger over her mouth telling us we had to be quiet because the ravioli were sleeping. It always seemed to work.
Who are your food heroes?
I have many food heroes …
• My parents and family for showing, through example, so much of their love through meals and cooking … every one of them had special recipes.
• James Beard was probably my greatest food hero. He essentially put American cooking on the agenda and his books, which began to be published in the late 1940s, are some of the most fun, exciting and educational cookbooks that still exist and are national treasures. I was very lucky to be friends with him and went to his cooking school at his house and had very memorable lunches with him.
• Joe Baum, who was the greatest American restaurateur in America. In New York, he conceived and started the Four Seasons restaurant and Windows of the World Restaurants at the World Trade Center. He was generously a mentor to me and opened up my mind to running restaurants. His style and talent was unequaled
• Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan, who both totally enlarged my knowledge of Italian cooking from a limited New York family experience to the amazing diversity in Italy, which we are still discovering new ingredients and recipes today. I attended Guiliano’s cooking classes in Washington, D.C., went to his cooking school in Florence, Italy, and spent time traveling with him in Tuscany.
• Currently, my biggest hero is Jose Andres. No one walking the planet today has done more to use food to benefit humanity by his food disaster assistance accomplishments. His new book “Vegetables Unleashed,” which just got released, is my favorite cookbook this year. His dialogue through the book is reason enough to buy it, but it is also beautifully photographed and so full of great recipes and techniques and his commentary is priceless.
• Michael Pollan, who has written food-related books that have enlightened and educated so many people about food- and health-related issues in America.
• My wife, Tracey, who provides healthy food with overwhelming care and love to all the kids and students that are fortunate enough to be fed by her at the Sun Valley Community School Residence Hall. Nobody does it better than she does.
• Honorable Mention – Yotam Ottolenghi for enlightening me by way of his cookbooks and newspaper columns to his style of Middle Eastern cooking where my roots were in American, Italian and French Cooking. His books in the last few years are not to be missed
What change(s) would you like to see in the Wood River Valley in terms of food?
I would like to see more people get on the healthy eating bus in the Wood River Valley. The local grassroots blossoming of the Local Food Alliance and Sun Valley Institute to help promote local farms, food and sustainability are so important to healthy eating education and product procurement. The education they provide and the forums they organize are the first steps to accomplish this very difficult goal. Lastly, schools need to have an educational healthy food/lifestyle course ultimately with a cooking/recipe component that teaches how to quickly shop and cook four to six basic recipes with variations that can be easily added on to to allow a simple way to achieve a great variety of options. Michael Pollan boiled down all his health/diet/eating research into seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He also will also say that the most important thing to do is cook. Don’t let corporate America feed you.