Low-key Chef Mark Caron has been at the Outlet Restaurant for more than a decade and has brought the breakfast-and-lunch eatery into a favored spotlight among islanders, which is always a good sign in the food business.
This week he gives us his recipe for success and contentment while working hard on Boca Grande.
QUESTION: How did you land your job as chef at the Outlet Restaurant?
Chef Mark Caron
ANSWER: When I graduated high school in 1991, I wasn't sure of what I wanted to do. I kind of wanted to be a cop. So I job-shadowed with the state police in Maine. They told me I'd never get into the police academy without college or military experience. I wasn't ready for college so I joined the regular U.S. Army. I went in as a cook and I really liked it. But even though it was the military, I saw all the paperwork the police had to do. I just couldn't imagine doing all that paperwork so I thought, "Maybe I'll stay with this cooking thing."
Q: Where does the connection to the Gasparilla Inn & Club come in?
A: I got out of the Army in May 1994 and was thinking of going to Culinary School. At the time, Chef Alphonse, who was at the Gasparilla Inn & Club for 40 years, was building a house in northern Maine. My dad worked as a salesman for a lumber company and had sold Alphonse all the lumber to build his place in Maine. When my dad said he had a son thinking of going to chef school, Alphonse said to tell me about an apprenticeship in a little island in Florida. He said, instead of spending all that money on school, I could learn the same stuff and get paid.
Mark Caron at a glance
Birthdate: March 4, 1973
Occupation: 19th season with Gasparilla Inn & Club, 13th season as chef at the Outlet Restaurant supervising 12 employees
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily with breakfast any time
Hometown: Augusta, Maine
Residence: Boca Grande
Family: married 15 years with two boys
Education: Gasparilla Inn & Club Chef Apprenticeship Program
Discovered Boca Grande: Gasparilla Inn & Club chef apprenticeship
Q: How did the training go?
A: in November 1994 I came down here for the apprenticeship program under Chef Alphonse and I graduated in 1998 the same year as (Gasparilla Inn & Club Executive Sous Chef Wendell) Kono. I went seasonally back and forth between between Maine in the summer and here in the winter. Form there I went two more seasons in Maine before I came back here as the lead cook in the main kitchen at the Inn. In 2000, Chef Alphonse and the manager of the Inn at the time asked me if I'd come down to the Outlet.
Q: Was that a disappointment to go from the Inn to the Outlet?
A: We thought we try it for a summer and we stayed (laughs).
Q: What is the hot dish these days on the Outlet menu?
A: The things people like here is regular great food. It doesn't have to be extremely fancy but it's really good, homestyle cooking. People appreciate that on the island. Everything doesn't have to be . My cooking style is simple good food.
Q: What is your favorite birthday meal?
A: Anywhere? I'm a pretty easy man to please. I guess I would have filet mignon. The most memorable - I didn't say the best - would have to be on a cruise I was on with my wife and kids, mom and dad, sister, a family cruise. We go on at least a couple cruises a year. You can't beat being with family like that. I really enjoy my family even though most of them live in Maine. It was more the company than the food, I think.
Q: What's kept you here? I'm sure you could have gone either places.
A: Yes. The beauty of the island is the No. 1 think that's kept us here. It's been an opportunity to raise my family here on Boca Grande. It's been incredible. My kids take the golf cart to the bus stop. I mean, how many people can say that. We enjoy the serenity out here.
Q: What do you do in your off hours?
A: We love the beach. My kids love skim boarding.
Q: Do you work crazy-long chef hours?
A: We've been through it all but now that we've established ourselves and found our way here it's still a good amount of work hours but not 100 (per week). I come in around 4:30 a.m. to 5 o'clock in the morning and usually I'm done around 3 p.m. In the summer, of course, it cuts back a little bit. We do stay open year-round here.
Q: How would you describe the dining experience at the Outlet?
A: The motto I try to instill in my employees is great food, fast and friendly. That's what we're trying to do here. When people come for breakfast and lunch here they are generally not looking for a two-hour experience. They want to come here to eat, enjoy and carry on.
Q: Why does the Outlet never compete in the Taste of Boca Grande?
A: Because we're already represented (by Chef Peter Timmins and the Outlet's sister Gasparilla Inn & Club.)
Q: Do you ever want to take part? The Taste is kind of a culinary competition.
A: Right. We all have our niche, I think, and it's kind of been to our benefit as an organization that we have the Inn, the Pink, the bakery and we do what we do. We're surrounding everything. We cherish all of those different styles. Maybe what we do isn't something for the Taste. It's still good. This is where they're going to come the next morning for breakfast.
Q: The Outlet is the most low-key place to eat on the island. You don't here a lot about the Outlet. Is that intentional?
A: I don't think we're intentionally trying to hide from people. But we don't advertise a lot. A lot of it is word-of-mouth. We'll have somebody come this year, who's been coming to the island for 20 years, say they didn't know we were here. That will happen. But every year it's less and less as we get better known.
Q: Why are breakfast lovers never disappointed here?
A: Our thing here is we serve breakfast the whole time we're open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. I don't think you can get breakfast anywhere else on the island during lunch hours. That's something we do is sell a lot of breakfast. People appreciate they can get that.
Q: What are you long-range goals?
A: Honestly, I'm very happy here. Sure there have been many chances for change but my heart tells me stay here. Everybody loves it, everybody's happy with us, what we're doing here. I just want to keep making the Outlet better.