Mark Miller

Food Arts Staff - April 1998

Food Arts presents the April 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Mark Miller, the inveterate investigator and excavator of culinary cultures and restaurateur/chef extraordinaire. Miller, an academic at heart and a spirited world traveler, has presented his discoveries of Southwestern, Latin/South American, and Asian foods through a string of successful, ethnically inspired restaurants. Each has opened American minds and mouths to the delicious permutations possible when humans group in search of a good meal.

For Miller, a Berkeley-educated anthropologist, food is an expression of cultural organization. The fact that there are so many cultures—and loads of foodstuffs and preparations peculiar to each—is a source of endless fascination to him. Even as he counted down the final hours to the debut of Loongbar (see Birth Announcements), his proclaimed “temple to Asian cuisines” that opened in San Francisco in February, Miller discoursed on how many forms of tofu, varieties of rice and sake, and kids of soy sauce have yet to be experienced and appreciated by Americans, and how he hoped to make his new restaurant their pathway to discovery.

“My career in academics and in restaurants is about educating people about non-European ideas and concepts,” Miller says. “It has been based on the exploration and understanding of flavor and pushing the palate to appreciate textural differences so we can value other cultures. When we incorporate other food into our repertoire, we accept these cultures as a part of ourselves.”

Miller has succeeded by getting in on the ground floor of a number of culinary tremors that metamorphosed into trends and then passed into general acceptance. Mesquite grilling: Miller was among the first to harness the wood smoke when he opened his first restaurant, Fourth Street Grill, in Berkeley in 1979. Third-world cuisine: the dishes at his 1981 Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley were “exclusively non-European,” venturing to Latin America and the Caribbean for inspiration. Southwestern: when he moved to Santa Fe and conceived Coyote Café in 1987, he joined chefs Stephan Pyles, John Sedlar, and Dean Fearing in defining an American regional cuisine. And don’t forget Western: Miller’s big-budget 1991 production, Red Sage, in Washington, D.C., pays homage to a region that embodies an American ideal that’s not “European, Asian, or Spanish.”

Lately, Miller, who has had his passport stamped in more than 100 countries, has been looking to the East and is turning his adventures into his own Asian miracle. First there was Raku in Washington, D.C. in 1995, and another in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, the following year; Raku features Asian street foods. And now he’s returned to the Bay Area with Loongbar. His interest in Asia is personal as well; he’s engaged to marry Yen Ngo, a Vietnamese woman, later this year.

Miller, 49, grew up in central Massachusetts but was formed by Berkeley’s combustible intellectual community of the 1960s. He went west to study anthropology, first at Stanford (where his mother was a psychiatric social worker) and then at Berkeley. Miller had a “side interest in food”—he was a customer at Chez Panisse a day after it opened 1971—and by the time he finished his studies in 1974, he was writing and publishing a food newsletter called The Market Basket. In 1976, he filled in at Chez Panisse for a vacationing cook and wound up working there for two and a half years. The “self-taught, good amateur cook” became a pro who eventually discovered that he was “very good at running restaurants, creating concepts, and offering new food.”

Somehow, Miller has found time to pen numerous cookbooks, notably Coyote Cafe (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 1989) and the current Tamales, co-authored with Pyles and Sedlar (Macmillan, NY, 1998). He markets a line of retail foods called Coyote Cocina, consults for several major food companies, lectures on food history, and teaches cooking around the globe.

Is Miller’s eclectic plate too full? “As a businessperson, I only want to explore interests of mine that have a chance of success,” he answers. “I don’t want to do restaurants that fail. What I do also gives me a chance to improve my knowledge, like making our own soba noodles at Loongbar. In the end, though, I’m doing it all because I’m having fun.”