by Claire Cella • Photography by Kate LeSueur
This story isn’t really about a chef at home. Granted, the article’s title might suggest otherwise. And granted, Mark Paul’s status as chef and owner of Wink—arguably one of Austin’s most illustrious restaurants—is well established. But this story isn’t about a chef, because when Mark Paul is with his family, he prefers to be known as a dad, son, husband and brother—roles that he thoroughly relishes; so much so that he gladly lets his father Don take the lead tonight as risotto maestro and splash the bottom of the saucepot with enough wine to educe a W.C. Fields impersonation. “I cook with wine,” Don says with a hearty chuckle. “Sometimes I even add it to the food.” Mark also lets his teenage daughter Amelia undertake the important duty of flipping delicate bay scallops around in a pan. Yes, at these weekly dinners in Don’s home overlooking Austin’s hilly western terrain, Wink and chefdom are no more important to Mark than helping Amelia finish her homework, hearing about wife Amy’s day or deciding which wine to pair with dinner. And that’s the way he likes it.
Almost every Sunday night when Wink is closed, this family gathers to cook—and to cook Italian, religiously. This is because Don typically makes the menu decisions and he’s unabashedly in love with Italy—he even jokes about having an Italian social security number. Tonight, they’re making seafood risotto inspired by one of Don’s yearly visits to his beloved Italy, and he’s quick to point out that the dish is even themed by the colors of the Italian flag—white rice, red tomatoes, green spinach. Don is doing most of the cooking, whether by choice or because he has to—risotto, after all, requires constant attention. But the role reversal is natural and unchallenged. After his mother passed in 1995, Mark moved in with Don. “We were like roommates,” Mark says. “And this is what we did—we cooked together.” Their amicability, despite ceaseless jesting, is evidence of the hours these two have logged sharing burners and foot-space on the tile floor. “He’s become more of a primary on Sunday nights, now,” says Mark. “Whereas, ten years ago, I was. Because…you know…kids and sisters and wives.” “I concentrate better than he does!” Don says, interrupting.
“Yeah, well, at this point, that’s right,” Mark admits with a grin. “It’s nice. I like cooking but—and people find this very funny—there was a point in my life where I was on the line a lot, and I would come home and we would just order out. But I’m not on the line nearly as much as I was. I run a business; I do a lot more writing checks than writing recipes at this point, and so with that in mind, when I come home, I actually like to cook. I do it just to keep a practice up now.” And not much has changed this symbiotic kitchen relationship over the years—not when Mark married Amy and had Amelia, not when Don married Barbara and not when Mark’s sister and brother-in-law began joining the dinners. The weekly events have simply been made more rich and flavorful through these extra “ingredients.”
Once the burners are lit, the oil starts to crackle and the water rolls, Mark steps aside, offering only the occasional stirring hand or light guidance here and there. Of course, his guidance is expertly honed and of extreme value—he’s worked for a host of distinguished restaurants, the James Beard Foundation and Le Cirque in New York, among them—and was trained as a pastry chef and baker on a scholarship to Peter Kump’s Institute of Culinary Education in New York. He knows what he’s doing in a kitchen. But his role tonight is relaxed and reposed.
Now, Don and Mark stand side by side, whispering and conferring about the status of the risotto. Like best friends, they dip spoons into the pot, heads bowed close, and slurp synchronously. Mark says no more acid; Don says more salt. They both nod, then Don heartily flicks more salt into the pot. The only part of the meal that Mark seems insistent upon handling is the final plate presentation—a way to assert an artistic aesthetic that, according to both Amy and Barbara, has always been a part of him.
Soon, lovely floral-printed plates make their way out to the dining table on the deck. The delicate mounds of ivory risotto are flecked with the plump tomato chunks and wilted stripes of spinach, and cradle tender chunks of scallops, crab, shrimp and twirls of lemon zest. As the day fades into night, carried by lilting piano notes and subtle slants of light, the family unites to say grace. Then, the breadbasket is passed and the risotto is consumed, slowly, amid a conversation in which fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons all contribute their part. It’s a scene that beautifully illustrates a point Don had made earlier in the evening. “You see,” he said, “French cooking is all about technique. But Italian! Italian cooking is all about the ingredients.”