BY SARAH BROWN
Meet Mark Steele, the Marriott Ottawa’s former executive chef makes a big career change, launching a catering biz (and creating deluxe comfort food to go) at OCCO Kitchen in Orleans (OCCO stands for Orleans Catering Co.).
On March 4, chef Mark Steele launched his own takeout and catering company on busy St. Joseph Boulevard in Orleans. After close to a decade in executive chef roles with the Hilton hotel chain and, most recently, at the Ottawa Marriott, Steele says he was itching to get back into the kitchen. “I love food and I love cooking,” he explains. “I was spending all my time on administrative stuff and I wasn’t happy.”
OCCO Kitchen sees Steele preparing deluxe comfort food for the takeout crowd and putting his hotel smarts to work running a catering operation for clients hosting large events and meetings. The former Newfoundlander has also quickly amassed a devoted following for his Beau’s beer-battered fish and chips and crispy fish tacos.
How did this career change come about?
Once you get to the executive chef level at a big hotel you don’t get to cook a lot. There are always meetings and administration and budgets to go over. I love food and I love cooking — that’s why I got into this business. When you’re driving into work and you’re not happy, it’s time for a change.
I was driving all over the city looking for a place. I needed a commercial kitchen because I knew I wanted to do catering. This place and location spoke to me, though it was in rough shape. A contractor-friend basically came in and gutted it and then we put it back together.
Your takeout menu is comfort food. Tell me about it.
It’s so cool to do really, really good takeout. If you break down my L’OCCO burger, it’s a homemade bun, fresh-made patty, and ketchup and pickles made from scratch… It’s a premium burger for $9. I’m from Newfoundland originally, so I understand fresh fish. Right now, there’s a Beau’s beer-battered fish and chips on the menu, as well as a crispy fish burger and crispy fish tacos. My food philosophy is that whatever you’re cooking, you make it the best it can be.
Can people eat in?
It’s a tiny spot so we’ve got just eight bar stools and counters. But they’re often full. People sit down all the time to eat their burger or taco right away.
You also do Lunch Boxes. What are they?
This is a menu that’s geared towards businesses and people holding meetings. We have a pretty long menu and can put together different platters and these great homemade sandwiches that come with our house-made sea salt potato chips and salads. But for bigger receptions and outdoor buffets, we’ll sit down with you and do a 100 percent customized menu. The thing about being in the business for so long is that I have a whole list of really great people to call when I need extra help.
How are things going so far?
It has been phenomenal. We opened on March 4 and new people are coming by all the time. Traffic has been 90 percent word of mouth, which makes me feel really good.
So you’re feeling positive?
Yes! When you work in a really big kitchen, you work with a lot of people who are passionate about food, but also people who think of cooking as just a job. That can be hard. Now I’m back in a small kitchen and I can see every single thing being made with care and love.
Any big plans for summer?
I don’t have my menus set yet, but I’m experimenting with a liquid nitrogen milkshake!