This piece on Mark “Shades” Hartstein was written for a literary journalism class I took in 2016, one of three drafts that I wrote about this individual. Though there isn’t enough on-the-spot action readers typically see in a creative nonfiction piece, I think it’s still a solid look at where Shades was during this period of his life.
Mark “Shades” Hartstein, a well-known chef in Champaign-Urbana, has a smooth-sounding voice, a youngish curl to his tone that gives him a with-it vibe for his 48 years. He could cut it as an FM radio disc jockey if he so desired. When Shades works in the cooking line of his open kitchen at Watson’s Shack & Rail as the expeditor – the person responsible for the output of food from the kitchen to a patron’s table – he calls out orders melodiously: “Order in! Half-bird mix, potato wedges, biscuit and soooup!”
And this already buoyant voice, even when saddled with a cough and a cold during winter’s interminable span, kicks up a notch in excitement when expanding on the preparation of chicken. He talks about breaking the bird down, taking off the wing tip and removing the fat out of the carcass. Then he goes on:
“I take the two thighs off, the drumstick and the thigh, split that down and set that aside. And then I take the two breasts off with the wing parts on it. And I take the tender off. The tender is just below the breast meat. That’s pure profit.”
And profit is what Shades – a minority owner of and executive lead chef at Watson’s in downtown Champaign – wants to see.
Resembling a lumberjack seasoned by life, Shades looks the part of a cook in a southern-themed eatery. His tufts of long curly hair jut outward like wings from the sides of an oft-worn baseball cap, which covers a balding head. The thick, salt-and-pepper beard he sports suits him like the pickle brine he so lovingly soaks his fried chicken in. Typical attire is a plaid shirt over an ample belly with lived-in jeans and scuffed brown shoes.
As Watson’s inched toward its grand opening after several soft opening events last winter, Shades worried about the restaurant’s new equipment and if his employees were suitably trained. He also worried about the food. Would the tomato pudding – a bread pudding-like dish and a recipe in his wife’s family – go over well? Would customers think the country ham – a simple medley of ham, bread and made-in-house cultured butter – was too pricey and overly finessed in its presentation? Would the tofu sandwich and kale, chicory, red onion, and other earthy ingredients in the dark bounty salad – created with vegans in mind – sell at all? Heck, would vegans – a faction Shades cares deeply about – even enter the joint?
“Relaxation isn’t your thing,” a coworker told him three days before the big day, as if he didn’t know.
“No,” Shades admitted. “No, it’s not.”
Shades is glad he chose a culinary career, but the lean years have been many. He has worked his tail off to get where he is at Watson’s.
“This is my retirement,” Shades says of his stint as executive lead chef at the chicken shack. “This is the last kind of role of the dice.”
A self-described “dark and brooding” introvert who comes off as an easygoing gentleman while conversing, Shades estimated a few years back that he’s worked in 27 kitchens in 27 years. Fifty- and 60-hour weeks have always been the norm, and working for more than one kitchen at a time wasn’t unheard of. He lists some of the local restaurants he’s cooked at – A.J. Wingers, Galileo’s, Top of the Inn, Radio Maria and Black Dog – as easily as he describes the process of preparing moist fried chicken at Watson’s.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shades’ journey in the food field began at a McDonald’s in Glenview, a Chicago suburb. Though the bookish and quiet teenager’s passion for good grub wasn’t sparked under golden arches in the 1980s, Shades learned many facets of the business, duties such as handling the register, working in the kitchen, and doing occasional custodial work. He admits he liked the food, too: “McDonald’s was 20 times better then than it is now.”
The teenager’s interest in cooking picked up during the summer after high school while working at Fortunato’s, an old-fashioned Italian pizzeria in Las Vegas, where his family moved when he was 17. The gig marked Shades’ first apprenticeship under a “barking-order, mad-guy, jerk-face chef,” and he had fun with the crew and gained invaluable kitchen experience. The chef asked Shades to join the team as a cook, but the Midwestern transplant had other plans. Restless and hungry for change, he was eager to leave Vegas and his family behind and head East – Boston University awaited.
“I’m a young Jewish boy from Chicago, and this is what Jewish boys do,” he says. “They go to college and they get a profession, right?”
Shades earned his English degree and then attempted a graduate degree in the same field at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with aspirations to teach and write. The graduate degree never happened. In the past, Shades has blamed this failed portion of his life on the era’s “culture of academics,” his perceived view that a tough job market and tight budgets made a master’s degree unfeasible. Now, he sees things with a fairer lens.
“I was a terrible student. I was unprepared and unmotivated.”
Such adjectives didn’t apply to Shades’ skills in the kitchen, however. He considered himself a good line cook who was fast, attentive, eager to work, and willing to clean and put in long hours. Food preparation was also mixed into his being after years of watching his mom and both sets of grandparents whip up wonderful grilled Jewish meals.
A.J. Wingers gave Shades his first spot in a C-U kitchen. From there, the bouncing around from restaurant to restaurant began. Part of Shades’ transitory ways stemmed from the fact that, in his view, the 1990s were a less interesting time within C-U’s culinary community. Bored with the scene, he observed a cluster of large-scale chain restaurants that ruled the day, food that wasn’t as captivatingly crafted as it is these days and fewer multiethnic cuisines that are now so prominent. Radio Maria offered a different vibe with stimulating food presentations and palate structures, and he was happy to join its kitchen after years of trying.
Shades and his wife, Leslie, whom Shades calls an “’80s ex-hippie,” once considered purchasing Sage City Café in Monticello, but he says the weak economy and the café’s slow business deterred them. Other ownership considerations fell by the wayside because of the couple’s limited income.
Shades didn’t save his money as a teenager at Mickey D’s, and he didn’t save it for the next 30 years of his life. Neither did Leslie, who also works in the food industry. Shades understands his financial predicament: “Leslie and I are not prepared for retirement.”
There was no epiphany-type meal he concocted that steered Shades toward becoming a cook. His love of the craft has been more like the slow, methodical roasting of rotisserie chicken. As a partial owner who can now put his stamp on things, he is devoted to his daily pickle sampler on the Watson’s menu. It may not sound as savory as fried chicken and crab hushpuppies, but Shades has a thing for pickles and the long-term preserving and nourishment associated with them: “The pickle part of the whole restaurant is kind of like me and what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years.”
The carrots in the pickle sampler come from Blue Moon Farms and contain an orange glow that resembles sweet potatoes. They smell woodsy, earthy and sweet. On a typical “day off” at Watson’s, Shades gets great pleasure out of trimming the knobby carrots neatly and soaking them in a vinegar broth made of fresh ginger and mustard seed. The ingredients bring forth “earth and floral and spice and sharpness,” a “spiky heat” that has kick but is nowhere near the sphere of chili-pepper hot.
Calculating things commercially, the hope is that the salty pickle sampler urges customers to gulp down more drinks. From a more soulful standpoint, Shades wants patrons to experience the flavorful attention that goes into his signature dish, on his day off no less.
Shades may someday leverage any success he has at Watson’s to pursue other opportunities. One aspiration is to set up a Jewish deli in town that makes meals from scratch. For now, though, he appreciates Watson’s early success like patrons savor the restaurant’s juicy fried chicken, grainy hush puppies with crab, thick potato wedges and coleslaw with a kick.
He has experienced many lean years financially, but currently Shades is earning his highest-ever salary while working 82 hours a week. The equation means he is making less than his employees, but this time he’s invested in the joint.
To be sure, Income was never Shades’ driving focus anyway. He has left good-paying gigs to work in more creative kitchens. What’s mattered more is the artistry, imagination, tradition and ideas he’s put toward culinary creations, enterprises that have come to life for an array of individuals: “I get to nourish people physically and maybe spiritually, provide a space of respite and enjoyment, and hang out with some pretty great folks.”
Shades describes his stake in Watson’s as a “last role of the dice,” and undoubtedly the pressure is on to succeed. But making connections through cooking, bringing people together across the community, and reflecting on and honoring the timeworn traditions of food are elements that mean more to Shades than a paycheck. That won’t change now, even with more on the line.
Photo by Sal Nudo