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Meet Mark McDonald of Old Vine Cafe

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mark McDonald.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Ever since the 2nd grade, I knew I would someday own my own restaurant. My father was in and out of the business throughout my childhood, and as a family, we spent many of our nights out to eat where my brothers and I were taught how to behave while dining. I was 13 years old when I landed my first restaurant job as a dishwasher/prep cook. I loved the hustle and everything about being in the kitchen.

Over the next couple of years, I spent my summers as a short order cook at local beach snack bars where I worked the flat top and fryer. Just after graduating high school, I took my first front of the house job as a host at a local steakhouse where I quickly worked my way up to a busboy. I was the youngest employees on the floor and hustled my way up to a server position. Over the next several years I served and bartended while having second jobs in the kitchen. I worked crazy hours, saved my money and traveled whenever I could. Europe, Mexico, Central America, South America, and a little bit in Asia. Traveling became almost as much of a passion for me as the restaurant industry.

In my mid-twenties, I ended up as the executive chef for a boutique hotel in Laguna Beach and had been there for going on 3 years. While I had the desire to make the move and start my own restaurant, I knew that I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to succeed. I felt stagnant where I was, and after some research, I was accepted into a Masters Program at the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) in Calabria, Italy. I left my job and moved to Italy for a full immersion culinary and cultural experience that changed my life forever. I studied under Master Italian Chef John Nocita and his team.

My outlook on food, raw ingredients and cooking had been forever altered, and I knew then that there is a lifetime of traveling and learning to do, and I have barely scratched the surface. I returned to the States in late Spring 2006, put my head down, and with a small chunk of family money, Old Vine Cafe opened its doors on a shoestring on July 2nd, 2007. We are now celebrating over 11 years in business.

For the past 9 years, in partnership with chef John Nocita of ICI, I have been taking groups of my clients back to southern Italy for all-inclusive cultural, historical and gastronomic tours. We spend time in the ICI kitchens for demonstrations and hands-on cooking lessons, and we travel and dine like locals. We now do two tours per year, one in October, and one in March. https://www.oldvinecafe.com/splendors-of-italy/.

I also teach food and wine pairing coursed at ICI in addition to helping the institute team with corporate retreats, and international consulting.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
There is no school that can prepare you for what it takes to open a restaurant from the ground up. While I had worked in every position in many restaurants for years, it has and remains the most challenging accomplishment of my life. We opened in 2007 and the economy tanked in 2008-2009. It was a scary and uncertain time. I remember trying to figure out how to cut our costs without compromising the quality of the food only to learn that we just needed to stick it out and work harder to survive. I knew then that I would rather fail than sacrifice the quality of the product, and I still feel this way today.

Some things get easier as time passes, while others become more challenging. I am hands on with my business, employees, and customers. I still average seven day work weeks at 11 years in, but I love what I do. I love the relationships that I have built with my longtime customers and staffers alike. It is a family dynamic, and that is how I always wanted it.

The reality is that this business offers never-ending challenges, but as time goes on, I learn how to handle the stress and manage whatever comes my way. I am fortunate to also have an amazingly supportive partner, Nina Flores who is a professor at Cal State Long Beach. I am not sure how I would be where I am now without that unconditional support. Also, my mother, Susan McDonald and my brother, Jimmy McDonald have always been there for me.

Jimmy would help wait tables up until he was hired on with LA County Fire Department, and my mom still insists on washing my chef coats to this day.

Old Vine Cafe – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Now celebrating its 11th year, Old Vine Café continues to redefine dining in Orange County offering top quality food and wine in a non-pretentious, casual atmosphere. The award-winning restaurant, run by chef-owner Mark McDonald, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with menu items that reflect a focus on regionalism and the use of seasonal ingredients — a hallmark of Chef Mark’s culinary training in southern Italy. Daytime customers choose from a wide variety of panini, omelets, specialty breakfast items, and small plates, while evening diners can be found leisurely enjoying four-course tasting menus, complete with expertly selected wine pairings.

Chef Mark continues pursuing new ways to introduce unique food and wine to customers by collaborating with winemakers from around the world. His search for fresh interpretations of traditional food and wine pairings drives the creativity behind the often-changing seasonal tasting menu. Chef Mark is often found in deep conversation with winemakers and distributors, analyzing potential wine pairings and bringing on up-and-coming selections for their popular “Six for Sixty” wine program. Additionally, these discussions spark theme ideas for Community Wine Dinner, educational events in which diners explore a specific region or winery through a seven-course food and wine pairing dinner.

Mark McDonald, Chef, Proprietor. Mark McDonald is an internationally recognized chef, restaurant owner, and restaurant consultant.

Chef Mark’s passion for introducing unique foods and wines to customers and clients is built on collaborations with winemakers, sommeliers, and culinary professionals from around the world. He is a chef instructor at the Italian Culinary Institute, Italy, and is frequently invited to international culinary competitions as both a judge and a participant. In recent years he has taught master courses and given presentations at gastronomy events and festivals throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America.

In 2007 Chef Mark opened his award-winning restaurant, Old Vine Cafe, in Costa Mesa, CA. His menu offerings reflect a commitment to regionalism and the use of local seasonal ingredients, a hallmark of Chef Mark’s culinary training under Master Chef John Nocita at the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy (ICI). Chef Mark now partners with the Italian Culinary Institute to lead the annual Splendors of South Italy tour, a culinary-driven trip through Calabria and Sicily that treats travelers to hands-on cooking lessons from master chefs, winery and agriturismo visits, and multi-course meals of regional cuisine.

Engagement with customers and the community remains a priority for Chef Mark — he is proud to partner with Melissa’s Produce and local farmers, and can often be found participating in local festivals and events. Chef Mark is currently booking spaces for the 7th annual Splendors of South & North Italy tours, culinary-driven vacations through southern and northern featuring hands-on cooking lessons from master chefs; winery, historical site, and agriturismo visits; and multi-course meals featuring regional cuisine. Additionally, Chef Mark teaches at the Italian Culinary Institute in Italy and is an international culinary consultant under Master Italian Chef John Nocita.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
In a business with the highest failure rate, honestly, so long as I can make a simple living, take care of my employees and serve a product that I am proud of, I believe that is the secret to success.

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