A year ago, we learned of the surprising death of celebrated Chef Mark Peel, beloved father of five and husband of Daphne Brogdon. The anniversary seemed an opportunity to run again the following story on Mark, a former neighbor in Hancock Park
Mark was born in 1954 and was a fifth-generation Angeleno. He left college and apprenticed in France before taking his place in some of California’s most legendary kitchens — Michael’s in Santa Monica, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Spago on Sunset Strip.
In 1989, Mark co-founded (along with his then wife, Nancy Silverton), La Brea Bakery and the iconic Campanile, both set in the charming, Andalusian-style building on La Brea Boulevard, built by Charlie Chaplin.
For almost 25 years, from 1989 to 2012, weekend mornings in Los Angeles meant joining the line at La Brea Bakery for pastries and just-baked bread. A reservation at Campanile was destination dining at the very vanguard of the new, California cuisine.
As fellow parents at Larchmont Charter School, I would see Mark and Daphne every week at Friday Morning Sing, wrangling young Vivien and Rex. They were engaged and beloved members of the school community. The most coveted fundraiser of the year was a dinner cooked by Mark. One year, the hallowed event happened to fall on my birthday…and I remember Mark, in the kitchen, leaning over to study the height of the flame under the sautéing scallops. I remember Mark delivering my birthday cake aglow with candles.
The following story was originally published in the Buzz on March 23, 2013, a year after the sudden closing of Campanile.
Chef Mark Peel Back on La Brea for Limited Run
On a recent Thursday afternoon I trundled along bumpy Wilshire Boulevard and, as I turned onto La Brea Avenue, I told myself that I would not look. Only I did. I sought out the star and the anomaly of the campanile. Through the broad windows of 624 South La Brea I saw Campanile Restaurant — home of executive chef and owner Mark Peel for 23 years — now shuttered and in shambles.
But let’s not think about that. This is a happy story.
I drove a few blocks further and was cheered by the site of the La Brea Bakery sign and thought of its new airy, spacious home. It was easy to park. Then, I remembered why. Locals know that to park on La Brea close to 4 pm means either to a) come out and find your car on a hook being lifted onto a flatbed truck, or b) come out and confront the bewildering vacancy of where your car was and then cry in the cab all the way to the impounded car lot.
But never mind. This is a happy story.
I pulled open the door and entered 3Twenty Wine Lounge. It was nearly abandoned. I was an actress for years; arriving at a restaurant early felt almost exactly like arriving at a theater early on a show night. The space is quiet but expectant. It seems to anticipate the arrival of the players. The only difference was that at the 3Twenty Wine Lounge no one was rolling around on the floor practicing their vowels and fricatives.
On the long table in the small, square space were La Brea Bakery shopping bags. I peeked in at the loaves of sliced bread as soft as pillows, their plastic bags held trapped steam. There were sacks of baby wild arugula lying about, and bricks of butter, too. I sat down and opened my Air. There was only one person there. Edgar Poureshagh is kind, benign and mustached. If Mr. Poureshagh was perplexed by my presence, he did not say so. He probably supposed that when a star chef agrees to make your restaurant his home for a series of Thursday evenings, there may be a reporter.
“What would you like?” Edgar asked.
I looked around. Enomatic wine dispensers stood on either side of the front door. These state-of-the-art contraptions dispense 1.3 ounces per dose or taste of an array of selected fine wines. The machines are made of chrome, tubes and LEDs. They look alien. Like a relation of R2D2. I was on assignment; not a good time for wine.
“How about a latte?” I said.
Edgar nodded. It just so happened he was a master of the espresso machine, he said. Then, he proved it, and began to talk.
“3Twenty Wine Lounge is a family owned place but I am the one who is always here,” he began. “We are a wine bar but we have a full kitchen and a chef that makes small plates. Not tapas. In Spain, if you want something you get a racione. It means ration.”
His accent is fine. Is he himself from Spain?
“No,” he said and laughed. “I’m an Angeleno. Born in Downey. My parents though are from a weird, off-the-beaten track culture. Are you familiar with Assyrians? We are indigenous people from Mesopotamia — which is modern day Turkey, Iran, Iraq — only we are Christians.”
The latte was so pretty I took a picture of it. Not bad at all for a certified sommelier.
Outside, a generic white van pulled up — the sort that Carrie and Saul might sit in listening while parked outside Brody’s house in The Beltway. A man, stocky, fit — probably in his fifties yet decidedly boyish — wearing a gray T-shirt, jeans, work boots, and black framed glasses enters. He hauls a carton of frozen French fries on his shoulder and a couple of egg cartons under his arm. He looks from Edgar to me.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hello, Chef Peel,” Edgar says.
“Call me Mark,” he says and then looks at me quizzically. He knew I would be there. I’d arranged it with his wife, Daphne Brogdon.
“What can I do for you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I just want to document the return of Mark Peel to La Brea Avenue and the revival, for a month, of your famous Grilled Cheese Thursdays at 3Twenty Wine Lounge.”
“Okay. Sure,” he said. And the celebrated chef headed down the short corridor to the kitchen.
“One thing I have noticed about Chef Peel,” says Edgar, “He has this beautiful focus. Laser-like.”
There’s already activity in the kitchen. A sous chef expertly chops ordinary onions. Peel checks out the kitchen. Two tiny rooms. He opens a refrigerator. Also tiny.
“Holy cow,” he says.
Peel takes quick stock of the pots on the stove. Apples and onions simmer… The sous chef cannot open the lid of a jumbo jar of sauerkraut. Peel takes it and spends about five minutes trying to get the darn jar open. I get tense; his van is on La Brea and it’s almost 4:00. In LA, we share fear and loathing of parking enforcement. It opens at last. The chefs have a consult — about cumin, about chives.
“We need to set up the sandwich station,” Peel says, and then leaves to move his van.
When Peel returns, it is only an hour and a half till showtime. The doors open at 5:30. He pulls off his t-shirt and shoves his arms into a white chef’s jacket. It is double breasted, with long sleeves. His name is embroidered in green. He has six loaves of sliced La Brea Bakery Country White and two of Corn Rye. He sets up a few loaves in a large hotel pan.
“Now I am going to butter some bread,” he announces. “I have spent a lifetime working up to this.” The celebrity chef smiles; he has worked at Spago, Moulin de Mougins, and Chez Panisse, among others. “It’s good to be back on my street. This is going to be fun. La Brea is my street.”
He remembers the origins of Grilled Cheese night.
“We started this a long time ago — a dozen years or more, at Campanile. Nancy Silverton, my ex-wife, is a pastry chef. We had a grilled press at the bar. Nancy would go through the kitchen and see what was there. A grilled cheese is a platform for a lot of different things. Something open face, something closed face — something classic, something new age or new wave…”His voice trails off as he drags the buttered knife over the bread. Maybe he is thinking of the Buratta Open Face on the menu this evening. Chef Peel butters bread just like you or I, but there is nothing ordinary about how he handles brisket.
“One of my favorites is the Rueben. I make the pastrami myself.” Peel marinades it for days and then drains it and dries it, packs it with pepper to create a crust, then chills it, then smokes it with cedar planks in the Weber in his backyard. Then he braises it. Now it’s steaming on the stove.
“How’s that brisket coming?” He asks after it about as often as a new mother asks about the baby asleep in the crib. Peel lifts the lid and peeks in.
“Good. Going good.”
“How can I be of assistance?” Edgar asks. Peel cannot think of anything.
“Mind if I steal a slice?”
None of us can help ourselves. The fresh bread just makes your mouth water. Edgar grabs a wedge and so do I.
“How is Campanile @ LAX? coming along,” I ask, gnawing.
“Great. We just broke ground. Construction began last week. We are slated to open in early July. It will have a lot of the same finishings we had at Campanile. It makes me happy — and nostalgic. Campanile will live on at the airport.” The restaurant will be located inside the American Airlines terminal.
Chef Peel counts slices. He has buttered the outside of 130 pieces of Country White and 22 of Corn Rye.
“Okay, one hour from showtime!”
He flips on the two panini presses. One of them is unstable and tips. The other does not tip but will not make ridges.
“When you are working in a restaurant or kitchen you don’t know, you come across things you don’t expect.” To me, it still feels like show night without the benefit of rehearsal.
The phones are ringing.
“Philip and Marguerite are coming, Chef Peel.”
“Fantastic! They’ve been friends for years!”
“How did you this evening come about?” I ask.
“Daphne had the idea,” Peel says. “Daphne and Edgar. I love this place. It is such a boon to the neighborhood. A refuge.”
Now it’s time to ready the ham. Peel starts up the silver slicer. The rattle and whirl make it hard to hear him.
Peel opens a corrugated fiber glass case with aluminum edges: His traveling case of knives. He selects one, slits the plastic encasing the ham, easily cuts the ham in half, fits it into the slicer and begins.
“All right,” he says, when he gets the width of the ham just so. “That’ll do. That’ll definitely do.”
Peel gets into a rhythm of slicing, collecting the folds and placing these into a hotel dish. Other players have started to appear. Yet nothing disturbs the concentration of Chef Peel — not the hostess making calls to confirm reservations, nor the waiter setting up tables on the patio noisily shoving chairs.
At one point, Peel asks, “Did the lights just go down?”
“No,” says Edgar.
The sudden dimness in the room is not a variance in electrical power. It’s caused by the pausing or the passing of the big orange bus on La Brea. When it comes by, the place goes dark and Chef Peel cannot see.
“I can turn more lights on,” Edgar says.
Then, there’s the problem of the tipping panini press.
“Do you need anything, Chef Peel?” Edgar asks. “If you do, just bark it out.”
Only Mark Peel is not a barker. His exchanges with the sous chef are monosyllabic murmurs. A reporter is lucky to hear bits — white wine or Heinz? Nor is he a delegator. He executes even the most menial tasks. Finished with the ham, Peel carefully smothers it in cellophane and takes it into the kitchen. Then he rushes back to the dining area.
“Now, the cheese!”
The quarter-wheel of cave-aged Gruyere from Switzerland weighs 18.82 pounds. Peel goes back to the case, considers the knives and selects one.
The finished product. Peel is quoted as saying presentation should be slightly messy:
“I am using a boning knife or fish knife. It’s really sharp and thin and a little bit flexible.”
Wet towel over his shoulder, Peel attempts to cut the cheese in half. It is like a dense cake and resists the knife. Finally, Peel snaps it in two by hand. I am amazed at just how physically demanding it is to be a chef. Now he cuts more, trying to rid it of its rind. All around him there is a wordless bustle — the bartender polishes glasses, the busboy sets down candles, the hostess slips menus into frames, the waitress checks herself in the gigantic mirror hung at an angle — yet Peel never looks up from his work. I mean, it’s as serious as if it were surgery. He applies tremendous pressure and, inch by inch, shaves the skin.
At one point, a knife drops. Reflectively I jump to prevent it from falling, I feel the cut.
“Did you hurt yourself?” Peel asks. “Did you get cut?”
“No,” I said, lying. My finger barely braised it and there’s a smudge of blood. These are very sharp knives. Being a chef is dangerous.
“That’s enough, sir,” says Edgar. “We need to start up.”
“Showtime,” says Peel, wiping down the cutting board. Someone turns the music on loud….
Three hours later, every table is full. Chef Peel has crafted over 60 sandwiches, and the evening is hardly over. Philip Miller and Marguerite Rangel are just leaving. They rave about the burrata. They rave about the Reuben. Chef Peel stands by the tables in a tete a tete with a guest. Daphne Brogdon holds forth at the long table surrounded by friends. Edgar finishes explaining the machines to a guest, he smiles.
“Everyone is happy to see Mark back on the street,” says Edgar. “This has been perfect. It just sort of worked out.”
Mark’s death a year ago was a shock and the community still mourns a local hero.