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Mark Stark is executive chef, and co-owner with his wife Terri, of the Stark Reality Restaurant group: Willi’s Wine Bar, Monti’s Rotisserie, and Stark’s Steak & Seafood in Santa Rosa; and Willi’s Seafood, and Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg. Mark and Terri were semifinalists for the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2013.
Mark’s passion for cooking began in college, when he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Knowing he enjoyed people and parties, he decided to find a job in the front of the house of a restaurant. A famous Washington, D.C. restaurateur advised him, however, to learn about the back of the house first. “So I took a job in the back of the house and I never left,” says Stark.
Mark graduated as co-valedictorian from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. His culinary career began in the nation’s capitol, working as a pastry cook at the Four Seasons Hotel. He apprenticed at the acclaimed Maison Blanche restaurant under Chef Pierre Chambrin, who later went on to be White House Chef during the Reagan administration. He also worked in D.C. at the esteemed City Club of Washington. Moving cross-country to Seattle, he become executive chef at the Bellevue Club, where he oversaw two restaurants and five private dining rooms from 1989 to 1995. He then spent several years as a regional chef for the California Café Restaurant Group and as a corporate chef for Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants.
Deciding to move to Sonoma County, Stark and Terri opened Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa in 2002. “We have always loved Sonoma County,” he says. “It is as close to living in Europe as a chef can get living in the United States.” Stark says his culinary style has been influenced by mastery of the basics and an immense appreciation and respect for classic cuisine and techniques coupled with the ethnic flavors that he finds ever-exciting. He believes that great food, great fun and a great location are the perfect recipe for a successful restaurant. The menu at Willi’s Wine Bar aptly reflects his philosophy, with a global melding of inventive Asian, Mediterranean, French and Californian small plates.
Rave reviews have followed. Josh Sens wrote in Bon Appétit magazine: “Mark Stark keeps things fresh by dressing up his food with international flair…using ingredients from his wine-country surrounds.” San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer Michael Bauer chose Willi’s Wine Bar as one of the top 100 Bay Area restaurants for four consecutive years. Said Bauer, “Willi’s is unique and you’ll want to return to try everything on the menu.”
A year later, the couple opened Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg in 2003, followed by Monti’s Rotisserie in Santa Rosa in 2004. Stark Reality Restaurants was launched in January 2006, with 150 employees — 17 are managers who have been promoted from within. In January 2008, Stark’s Steakhouse (now Stark’s Steak & Seafood) opened — a classic American steakhouse in historic Old Railroad Square in Santa Rosa that features Certified Angus Beef® brand Prime and Natural, in-house dry-aged beef in addition to sustainable seafood. Said the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer of Stark’s Steakhouse, “The worth of any steakhouse is determined by the product: Show me the beef. That’s where Stark’s shines. These are among the best steaks I’ve had in the Bay Area.”