Fine-Dining Pioneer Mark Peel Is Cooking High-End Seafood for the Masses

Food & Wine Magazine - May 9, 2017

By Andy Wang

Peel, whose fast-casual operation Prawn will open later this month, is serious about offering seafood at an accessible price.

Later this month, legendary L.A. chef Mark Peel will transform his Bombo seafood stand at Grand Central Market into Prawn. Prawn will be a fast-casual operation that, as you might have guessed from the name, will be even more seafood-focused than Bombo.

Bombo’s steam kettles will remain and be used to finish stews, including one with lobster-tomato broth, fresh fish, shrimp, squid, clams and mussels served over rice. Peel is also planning to serve dishes like warm albacore salad and fish and chips, along with grain bowls.

“I like to make a joke,” Peel says. “Our most expensive item right now is what we used to charge for a green salad at Campanile.”

But Peel, the California-cuisine pioneer who opened Campanile in 1989 after cooking at Ma Maison, Michael’s, Chez Panisse, Spago and Chinois, is completely serious about offering seafood at an accessible price. Many items at Prawn will be around $10, and he’s trying to make a lobster roll he can sell for $14 or $15, which is less than what some L.A. food trucks charge.

Peel starts by cooking lobster meat in lobster broth with saffron, then adds some other global flavors.

Food & Wine: Prawn Restaurant

“We make a shrimp curry cream with a little bit of coconut milk and flavor it with a little bit of kaffir lime,” says Peel, who is getting his curry from the India Sweets & Spices shop in Culver City. “And kaffir lime is really expensive, but it also has a big pungency, so you don’t need a lot. We use real Spanish saffron in our lobster broth. It adds an element of complexity that’s important. Saffron is extremely expensive, but you don’t need a lot. To build out the lobster roll, we use a little bit of diced potato, a little bit of roasted onion. There’s some toothiness, some textural differences, and that way we don’t need to have so much lobster that we need to charge $20.”

Peel knows he can’t charge that much at a fast-casual place, so he’s doing some things he wouldn’t do at a fine-dining restaurant.

Food & Wine: Fish Stew from Prawn

“In a perfect world, we would be buying live lobsters and poaching them and cracking the shells and digging the meat out ourselves,” he says. “But in a situation like we have—yes, straight up, we’re going to buy frozen lobster meat. At Campanile or Spago or The French Laundry, if they did a lobster roll for lunch, it would be $28. It would have to be. But we’ve tested it. We didn’t pull it out of our ass. We’ve tested it, and it comes out delicious.”

That’s where Peel’s skill, which he’s spent more than four decades cultivating, comes in handy. When I visit him at Grand Central Market, Peel is behind the counter showing an employee how to debone a salmon, remove the skin and extract as much meat as possible.

“I think it’s important that those who are working on the line know how to do it, even if they don’t normally have to do it,” Peel says. “It’s the path forward.”

The path forward for Prawn, meanwhile, is opening multiple restaurants. Peel plans to debut a Pasadena outpost in the summer and is looking to take this concept to other L.A. areas with high foot traffic. He has a commissary kitchen where broths and syrups are pressure-cooked, potatoes are baked and radishes, onions, garlic and carrots are pickled. Peel, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, calls the commissary “the hub” of Prawn, and he wants at least five “spokes” in L.A. He’s considering locations like Century City, Highland Park, Santa Monica and Venice, maybe even deep in the San Gabriel Valley.

“This goes back to something that’s a little more philosophical,” Peel says. “The restaurant business is probably the most archaic business in the world. It’s a service industry, and it’s where the jobs are because manufacturing is gone. And because of its archaic nature, productivity has not risen in forever. The only way you’re eventually going to be able to pay a decent living wage is to have an increase in productivity.”

The fast-casual model makes Peel think about the economics of scale in a way he didn’t when he ran fine-dining restaurants.

“There’s always going to be a market for the high-end white-tablecloth restaurant, but it’s almost like an artist-workshop model rather than a business model,” Peel says. “I just know from living it that it’s very difficult to make money even when the average check is $100.”

But Peel doesn’t regret that he devoted most of his career to fine dining, and he doesn’t regret working 12-hour days five or six times a week, which resulted in the thoracic outlet syndrome that makes his shoulders hurt. He could do without the carpal tunnel and the back pain and the mornings when he wonders how important it is to put his socks on, but he’s adamant when I ask if he regrets what he’s done to his body.

“No, not at all,” he says. “Ibuprofen is my friend.”

Peel says he loves the “athleticism” of being a chef in a fine-dining restaurant, and he knows he could still run the line at one if he had to.

“When it’s working right, I love the way it’s all choreographed,” he says. “If you look at a really crowded kitchen of people working hard, how is it they aren’t punching each other and stabbing each other by accident? I’ve been clocked pretty hard by accident, but it doesn’t happen all the time because you’ve got the choreography down. You know exactly what the other person is doing at any moment.”

Food & Wine: Shrimp Salad from Prawn

Peel’s got a different challenge now: building a restaurant concept that he knows needs to scale for it to become successful. But he also gets to spend more time with his family because his workdays aren’t as long.

Peel knows he can’t hire kitchen staff as ambitious as he once did, so he might have to spend more time training less-experienced employees. Things have changed since Peel and then-wife Nancy Silverton started La Brea Bakery and Campanile (the latter closed in 2012). But at least now there are fewer egos to deal with at work.

“At Prawn, I can’t surround myself with hot young chefs who have Food Network aspirations,” he says. “In fancy restaurants, you’re kind of feeding on that, even though the likelihood of that ever happening is pretty thin. It’s like actors. If they get a job at Spago or Campanile or something like that, in their minds, they’re auditioning to be on TV.”

When Peel did fine dining, there was a lot of “machismo” in the kitchen. It was about being the best, about toughness and endurance. It was about winning.

But now that Peel is looking to serve a much larger population, he knows that he doesn’t have to crush other people to succeed.

“We’re not running for election; we don’t need 50 percent plus 1,” Peel says. “Well, in the case of Donald Trump, he didn’t even need that. If we get 10 percent of the market, my god, I’ll be retiring on my golden yacht.”

Trying to make seafood budget-friendly isn’t easy, but Peel sees a big opportunity.

“There isn’t a lot of choice out there for really good seafood,” he says. “And I love seafood because it also works well for fast-casual. Seafood cooks very quickly.”

Peel starts talking about how fish, as opposed to land animals, “essentially live in a gravity-free environment.” This is the type of thing, both practical and philosophical, he’s been thinking about for decades. Before Wolfgang Puck lured him to Spago, Peel had gone back to college in his mid-20s because he wanted to understand how the world’s food supply worked. And Peel is looking at the past as he creates a restaurant group for the future.

“One thing I’ve always loved to do is take real classic dishes that have been abused over the years,” Peel says. “There’s good lobster rolls and not-so-good lobster rolls.”

The “fricking expensive” steam kettles, which cost about $50,000 for the six he has at Grand Central Market, are something Peel remembers seeing at New York’s old-school Grand Central Oyster Bar. He likes that they’re fast and easy to clean.

“I love the immediacy of the steam kettles,” Peel says. “We’re putting together old technology and old business models in a different way.”