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No Promises, No Demands

13:46

The owner of beloved PVD eatery north and big king pens a love letter to the ocean state and tells of the self he found through cooking. 

Transcript

North guest:

Is that a carrot?

This is what I wish KFC was like every time…

Driving down Fountain street on any given day in Providence, your eye will probably

miss it. It’s not KFC, no bright colored sign, no logo. Sandwiched between the Dean

hotel and probably some new construction project is the eccentric restaurant North,

owned by James Mark. Introducing north, or James proves to be quite the challenge.

His dishes aren’t complex but almost everything else about the restaurant and by

extension James, is.

It’s Tiara’s first time at north, and she ordered the Dan-Dan noodles, a Sichuan dish

usually made up of thin long noodles and minced pork. This dish at north, however, had

mutton, squid, and the noodles were cubed.

-commentary from Tiara-

At North, it’s always somewhere between knowing the exact taste but and having no

idea what you’re eating. This isn’t unintentional nor is it an inconsistency, it’s the total

opposite. Having properly indulged in all of north’s extensions: the restaurant, the old

north bakery, and now Bigking, James’ new set-menu restaurant, I would always

recognize flavors from Chinese cooking I knew: peppercorn, chives maybe, cilantro

always but could never put my finger on it. I felt that I knew what I was eating on a

minute level but when I looked down, it’d be small ham biscuits with mustard sauce or

artichokes diced with fresh mussels. Speaking over the phone last month, James talked

about the failure to pinpoint what his food was as maybe as not an option but almost a

necessity. This cross-cultural ambiguity in the food and in James is closely tied with his

rather unique upbringing, split between rural New Jersey and glimmering dim sum halls

of Manhattan’s Chinatown.

-archival sound bite from dim sum restaurants-

JM: I grew up in a mixed-race household. My mother was polish and Irish, my father is

Chinese. I grew up in New Jersey but the family had a bunch of businesses in

Chinatown and New York City. Although by the time I was around, only one was left.

The last was Silver Palace which was this big 1000 tier dim sum hall. So that’s kind of

the family I grew up in, which like random smatterings of Chinese culture slipped in.

Being raised on large-scale restaurants and Chinese cooking didn’t make things totally

easy for James. Deciding to pursue a career in the food industry meant dealing with

intergenerational pressure. Though James has embraced his culture in the food he

makes, this decision initially felt like a rejection of what his father wanted, an embrace of

his Chinese-American culture meant James would never be fully just American.

JM: My dad is first-generation American born. I think a lot of guys like him tend to reject

their own ethnicity in some ways. He had a deep desire to be American, which I totally

understand and respect. He grew up in the family restaurants not getting paid; working

10, 12 hour days on top of going to school. This business was the last thing he wanted

me to get into. He viewed—I don’t want to put words in his mouth—I come from a

Chinese family where you don’t talk to each other; I’d talk to you about it because I don’t

really care but you know I can’t talk to you about a lot it because I frankly don’t know. I

can inference that he viewed it as a step back. He was in a white-collar job, where he’s

an office professional making a decent salary and his son was working on the line in a

medium to good restaurant depending on the time of year, or the point in my

relationship rather. I grew up in a middle class, homestyle lifestyle kind of thing. And I’m

just not there anymore.

WZ: Sometimes it’s just so bittersweet to have these weird connections with your

parents. You have these weird, intimate connections but like you said, it doesn’t get

talked about. And immigrant children, like myself, it’s hard to come to terms with these

things. Sometimes I feel like I had the privilege to see the same things in different

contexts.

JM: Yeah, I mean there’s also a difference between forced to do something and having

the choice. My dad was forced to work in restaurants, be a bus boys. He didn’t want to

do them; it was part of his family obligation. I made the choice to do what I do. There’s

no pressure there with my dad per say. I’ve also come to terms with who I am versus

who my father is. I see beauty in the work I do.

And that beauty is evident, drawing eaters from everywhere, north has been described

as delirious, wild, complex among other things. Although James is still searching for a

culture that is both familiar and foreign, his no-reservations north is the perfect example

of the home it’s picked. Providence wasn’t always the place—James’ has worked for

David Chang and Christina Tosi, both somewhat of celebrities in the food industry. But

north could not be what it is anywhere else. It both feeds and necessitates his unique

palette. The seasonal produce of Providence and the authentic flavors of Hong Kong

are always considered together. At the end of the day, north is James’ love letter to

providence, and to odd sense of belonging people may find here. A sense of belonging

he found here.

JM: When I took the lease on the original bakery space, I had no idea what to do with

the space. Just happened to see it on craigslist, knew I couldn’t pass it up. North as a

restaurant couldn’t move to New York City and still be what it is now. Both the city itself

and the diversity of the city; the farmland and the coast. They have farmer’s markets in

New York, beautiful farmer’s markets. I grew up in the deep suburbs in New J. By the

time I left, they were all gone. But I still had intimate memories of picking corn and

having space for a vegetable garden. At North, 80% of our produce is grown in Rhode

Island; all our fish lands in Point Judith. The idea of moving and making that

accessibility harder, I would never do it.

Though the restaurant has delivered on its rather ambitious goal on staying true to the

produce of the Ocean State offers a fundamental challenge for James and the food he

wants to make—one that’s more personal than anything.

JM: 90% of people are never going to see or understand. Or maybe they don’t even

care about. But these are the things that lead up to the style of food that we do. It’s all

particular dishes that make sense in the framework of what Chinese food can be, if you

removed all the location specific ingredients from Chinese food. Which is crazy, you

know? I understand. On the other hand, the idea of authenticity, name-your-ethnicity

food, is bullshit you know. There are authentic experiences you can have but there is

not authentic Chinese cuisine in America. There’s authentic Chinese-American cuisine

and that’s OK. That’s a good thing, something to be celebrated. Instead we get caught

up in this idea of authenticity. One it’s a bullshit argument, two it’s something hoisted on

us by white people, in some exoticization of what we do. Or who we are. This restaurant

is a reflection of that, in a lot of ways.

After north’s expansion last year, James has left it mostly to chef Andrew McQuesten,

initially an intern at the restaurant. James has look more inward, opening Bigking last

June in North’s old stomping grounds, named after his grandma. In typical James

fashion, he owes the debut of Bigking to a fate of circumstance—he’d renewed the

lease for another 5 years before he knew the status of norths’ expansion, so what else

was there to do right? But of course, the bones of the restaurant is made up of the same

love James gives to everything he makes. A love that is reservation-only but no less

welcoming. Because of its small size, James has been able to take great liberty with

how he runs his business, but still as he likes to say: no demands, no promises. I sat in

for a meal—it happened to be the one night of the week where James did have a strict

requirement: Hawaiian shirts on all staff.

JM: I opened Bigking, one for me. For a place for me to cook all the time, again. I work

every service there; I don’t plan on changing that anytime soon. It was a restaurant

where I was able to experiment with pay structures, trying to address class divides in

the restaurant industry. Everyone there is a cook; even if they’re working front of the

house, they’re a cook. That leads to, I probably have the best paid cooks in the country

that work at an independent restaurant. And I’m really proud of that.

Narration: I sat in for dinner this past February and it happened to be the one night

James did have a strict requirement: Hawaiian shirts on all staff.

Cook: I would rather work nowhere else than for him. I’m extremely grateful to him too,

cause before I started, north was actually my first kitchen job. And I didn’t go to culinary

school or anything and he really had no business hiring me. But he gave me a chance

and it changed my life.

James looks at home behind the counter, describing the difference between the various

sake’s they serve. However, he always knows that his journey with food, with himself,

doesn’t have a distinct end.

JM: You’ve got this constant ghost image in your brain of something. You can’t put your

finger on it, it’s even harder to explain what it is. You’re just searching for something that

clicks or makes sense to you. I didn’t grow up learning how to cook Chinese food from

my grandmother or my dad at all. I remember cooking from Chinese, Chinese-American

cookbooks and being surprised like oh I know how to cook this. It was never overt but it

was settled deep inside me. Settled deep inside of me, in the back of my lizard brain,

was ginger-scallion sauce. I just knew the flavors, if that makes sense.

I probably still won’t know what it is I’m eating the next time I’m at north and there’s no

saying what James will surprise us with next. But for now, as is printed at the bottom of

every menu at north…”livin’ and loving as long as we can.”