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How Chef Mario Carbone Found His Passion And Achieved Success

Local Profile interviews the famed chef and restaurant owner

You know you've made it when your namesake restaurant gets mentioned in a Drake song — or heck, when it's a hangout for the Kardashians, Jennifer Lopez or Justin Bieber. Mario Carbone has more than made it, he's one of the most famous chefs and restaurateurs of his generation. 

But even by his own account, he didn't exactly seem destined for success. On a bright, sunny day at Sadelle's in Highland Park, Local Profile talked to Carbone about his journey. He was personable, open and wearing a fabulous vintage Cartier. 

Local Profile: As somebody who was born in Dallas and went to school in New York—

Mario Carbone: Where'd you go to school?

LP: I went to Cornell. 

MC: My business partner Jeff [Zalaznick] went to Cornell. 

LP: Did he study at the hospitality school?

MC: He did not. He studied business. You know, he always tells this story. I didn't know him at this age, but the way he tells me the story is that he was always super passionate about food. Very curious about it. But, he decided out of high school to follow more of a traditional business and finance path, and he got into Cornell for it. He always stayed active in the food sort of world and created his own website for restaurant recommendations. But he stuck with the plan of going through business school. He graduated and got a job at JPMorgan. Wow. And absolutely hate — as suspected, right? And then one day, he just sort of walked out of JPMorgan and walked into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He was like, ‘I need a job. Hire me for something. I want to start working in this industry. And I can't and don't want to waste another day.’ 

LP: And here we are.

MC: Here we are. 

LP: But what about you? You went to CIA (The Culinary Institute of America)?

MC: I did. 

LP: Was this something you knew you wanted to do?

MC: I've always had a fascination with food. I usually say that it was first through my grandparents, who were born in Italy. As a baby, they were my babysitters. So my mom would drop me off with my grandparents, and they were always in the kitchen. I don't really have a memory of my grandfather where he doesn't have an apron. I believe he got dressed in one in the morning. And like not even hyperbole. Part of him getting dressed was putting on an apron. Everything that I remember him doing, from watching TV to working on his car and taking care of the plants, he had an apron on. He even has an apron on in every photo. I mean, pictures of just me and him on the couch  watching a VHS tape of Pavarotti singing. He's got his apron on. At all times, he was ready to cook. 

So I would be in the kitchen with them, and they would give me little odd jobs, like picking the peas. So cooking was always sort of part of me. And I always loved eating. I love food. And then as I got older, I found this fascination with restaurants. It was almost like a magic trick. We go to these local restaurants with my family for like a night out. And I'd be mesmerized by the idea that this waiter is going to hand me a menu. He will take my order. And behind those doors right in only a few minutes, they will cook. And then they will bring out food for us to eat. I thought how were they ready for that? How could they do that? What was going on behind those doors? It was magical. 

LP: It still is. 

MC: Yes. So when . So when I got old enough to start working after school and on weekends, just trying to make some cash to put gas in the car, my first inclination was to work in one of these local restaurants, doing whatever. So I just started. I just started working in anything close to the house in Queens that would give me a couple of bucks. I guess, inside, I wanted to know if this was something that was legitimately an option for professional work. I wasn't the best student. In high school, scholastics never really caught my attention. I did not apply myself at all. I had just no real sense of passion towards any particular topic until I realized that I Oh, actually, I do — It's this, this food world.

LP: What age were you then?

MC: I've got to say it was probably 15-16 years old. When I started working in busy professional kitchens, even if they weren't — and they weren't — great restaurants by any means, they were busy. And there was this energy of a kitchen. 

Anthony Bourdain does an amazing job of sort of explaining the energy in the kitchen. This group of misfits, coming together in this sort of a caffeine and alcohol-fueled, emotional thing, right? And you're like, 'Whoa, what is this?' Because there has to be both the love of food and the love of the business to make this a lasting relationship, right? Or one or the other is going to burn you at the end. So that's when I was like, 'Oh, actually, this business is really cool.' That, coupled with the fact that as I was graduating from high school, my mediocre-at-best grades were really only going to lead to some sort of mediocre college-type experience. And I think I had the foresight at that point to see it play out and take a chance on what was still really a budding industry. This was right before pop culture had caught on in this industry. 

So the people that chose this industry were still somewhat misfits, right. I was heading towards an unknown future in the food world. But I was starting to see and I understand what this is what this other choice is gonna lead to — And I didn't like that. I think I was headed towards some sort of life of mediocrity, right. Because I didn't have anything that was giving me any sort of passion, right? I don't know where I'm going to go. Yes, I could get into a local college but I didn't even know what I would study. Like, I don't have anything here. So I really saw this industry as a vocation. I said, 'I'm gonna learn this trade.' And at least, I'd always have a set of skills that would provide me with a livelihood. 

I was not looking at this as I'm going to be an entrepreneur that's going to have all of this success. It's like that great Steve Jobs commencement address from Stanford where he talks about connecting the dots backward: You don't know what the next step is going to be. No one does, right? All you can do is step forward with passion. It'll make sense later. So, I was choosing something that I had a real passion towards, and I had no idea where it was going to lead. And then this miracle happened — finding partners and making this business. 

LP: If you could now talk to the 18-year-old version of yourself, what would you say?

MC: Nothing that I had done at that point in my life could have possibly dedicated what I was saying was true. I mean, if I am talking to an 18-year-old me, I'm a C student. I'm at an all-boys Catholic High School in Queens. And I smell fryer grease from working in the local restaurant right after school. That's the kid I'm talking to, right? Becoming a major entrepreneur? 

LP: What about now? Can you still believe all of your success has happened? Or has it been gradual where you feel like, yes, of course this is happening?

MC: It's both all the time. There is projecting the competence of who we are as a company — all the amazing people that I get to work with every day to create the sort of sum of the parts that is this incredible company that we are right now. So I get to project that confidence — that we can do anything, because they give me so much of it. And then there's taking a step back, taking a deep breath and really appreciating the moment — like, wow, we're here. We did this, and that is crazy. 

LP: What's it like opening restaurants here in North Texas? What's it been like for Major Food Group in Dallas?

MC: I think that as we grow, and I get to go to different markets, you want to do what you do and you don't want to come in with any sort of preconceived notions that you have to you have to curate for XYZ market. I don't think that's ever what the market wants. If they're excited about your brand coming into town, they're not looking for you to Dallas-ify it or Hong Kong-ify it. You're coming to town, and give them what you got. 

Something I learned early on in expansion is to step forward with the confidence in the brand but also work congruently. Also, you need to spend real time in that market to pick up on the little idiosyncratic things. Sadelle's has never once served a breakfast taco. We came to this market, and we talked to everybody. We have local investors. We have lots of friends here. And it's like 'Oh, great, Sadelle's is coming. What kind of breakfast tacos do you make?' And we're like, 'Oh we actually make bagels.' 

'That's great. So what kind of breakfast tacos are you going to make?'

Oh right, right. We're making breakfast tacos. There are things like that right that you want to make sure you're doing because it's part of the DNA here. So if you are a brand like Sadelle's and you want to be part of the community, you need to be part of the community. Now, I get it. I've spent enough time talking to people. Here's our breakfast taco. 

For more, check out Sadelle's official site (including its breakfast taco menu) as well as the official sites for Carbone and Vino

Hungry for more? Check out our dining guide.

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