Lake Norman & Mooresville

Guest chef’s meal at Davidson College spiced with perseverence

Randall Mardus has excelled as a cook at several prominent New York City restaurants. He worked under perhaps the most decorated Italian chef in the United States, a dramatic success story in the face of a severe recession.

But when the 1999 Davidson alumnus prepares Italian dishes and speaks to diners as the college’s first guest chef of the school year, he might also serve some humble pie.

“I’m probably the seventh-best cook in my extended family,” says Mardus, who’s been cooking since age 7. “They kid me about my highfalutin’ education and restaurant experience, and make me wash dishes. In return, I slip a little red wine-braised octopus into their marinara.”

Mardus will prepare his meal Sept. 10 at the college’s Vail Commons Dining Hall. He says it will represent his time working for chef Michael White, a four-time nominee for the James Beard Award as the best chef in New York City.

“It will reflect chef White’s focus on fresh pasta,” said the 37-year-old Davidson resident. “It will be Italian fare with a hand from the farm at Davidson.”

Davidson Executive Chef Craig Mombert said Mardus will be the first Davidson alumnus to return as guest chef. Past celebrity guests have included Joanne Weir, who has a cooking show on PBS; Indian cooking expert Neela Paniz; and Davidson staff such as Dr. Ernest Jeffries and Brenda Flanagan.

The program “was inspired by my visit as a guest chef at University of Massachusetts at Amherst,” Mombert said. “I wanted to do something similar here and have others experience what I experienced.”

Mardus said his time at Davidson “played a pivotal role in my career arc and personal growth.

“Initially rejected from Davidson, I learned quickly that if I wanted to be among the best that I had to rebound from failure, show some grit, be persistent, and up my game. I transferred to Davidson sophomore year and have employed the lessons of that failure ever since.”

Starting in 2007, the White Plains, N.Y., native cooked in Manhattan for chef Terrance Brennan at Picholine, winner of three stars from the New York Times and two Michelin stars. Mardus also cooked for Amy Scherber at Amy’s Bread in Hell’s Kitchen in 2008 before joining White in 2009.

That year, White defied long odds by opening Marea, now one of New York’s highest-rated restaurants. “Aside from my time at Davidson, opening Marea was the closest I’ve ever felt to playing on a championship team,” Mardus said. “From our prep cooks to our executive chef, never mind the old hands in the front of the house, that first team at Marea was chock full of all-stars.

“We opened in the depths of the financial crisis. Many expected us to fall on our faces. Our predecessor at 240 Central Park South, longtime standard San Domenico, could no longer afford the rent. We took the doubters’ bets, doubled down by fully renovating” – and within a year Marea was named the Best New Restaurant in the U.S. by the James Beard Foundation, got three stars from the New York Times, and two Michelin stars while serving packed houses.

Mardus said that experience taught him “the importance of preparation and execution, the tantamount need of knowing one’s customer and market, and that I was capable of performing at a high level.”

Now he is taking that confidence into a new, food-related business. He recently developed a food-tech software called Giusto, a full-time endeavor.

“In an age of digital precision, there remains a lot of guesswork about food,” Mardus said. “Hosts guess that guests will clean their plates. Restaurants guess that patrons will like their menu. Let’s stop guessing. Let’s get it right. Let’s get it just right. In Italian, that’s what ‘giusto’ means – ‘just right.’

“Giusto is a mobile application that allows users to create, save and share their food profiles. This means people with dietary restrictions – be they because of food allergies, pregnancy, a prescription or a diet, for example – can alert those preparing the food to avoid certain items in advance and to have a more personal experience. It will also hopefully reduce food waste and overall food costs.”

He said an iOS beta version will be ready this fall (to sign up, go to www.appgiusto.com). “I hope this dinner and the work I’m doing with Giusto can show the current student body that there are opportunities for leadership and service in the food world as well,” Mardus said.

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