Five Questions with Chef Mark McDonald
Mark McDonald is a familiar face in Orange County, California. The chef and owner at the helm of the award-winning Old Vine Café in Costa Mesa, has expanded and renamed the business after 11 years to open Old Vine Kitchen & Bar. The new space, located next door to the former, incorporates a larger patio, full bar, and a lounge area. What hasn’t changed is McDonald’s commitment to building a loyal community around food, wine and travel, which is accomplished through guest chef events, wine dinners, and biannual culinary tours through Italy that McDonald leads.
After 11 years, why did you decide to change locations? How is the new location different from the former?
As much as our original Old Vine space will always hold a special place and be the foundation of what we do, the new space was an excellent opportunity to expand our operations. Going on 12 years in business in the previous location we had reached a ceiling for growth potential. When our neighboring space became available, it was a perfect chance to build on what our loyal clientele have grown to love for so many years.
For instance, our new location still features the warm and welcoming vibe that our customers expect but now offers a full bar along with a large enclosed patio. It gives us flexibility with seating during busy brunches and endless possibilities for private parties, events, and the ongoing community wine dinners that we are known for. None of this would be possible without my new partnership with sommelier Kate Perry, who shares the same vision for Old Vine Kitchen & Bar and who uses her vast experience in this business to elevate both our level of hospitality and our wine program.
You have quite an eclectic menu for an Italian restaurant, including international flavors and tasting menus for vegetarians and vegans. How do you describe your menu to those who have never visited?
Due to the education I received while studying abroad at the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI) in Calabria, Italy, under chef John Nocita, many of the fundamentals of our concept are backed by regional Italian tradition and technique. Although we are not strictly a regional Italian restaurant, it is this strong background in Italian technique and cuisine that we then complement with the fusion of international flavors. For those who have not yet experienced what we do, I would say that we specialize in a gastronomic experience that is regionally driven and motivated by regional Italian cuisine with an international flair.
You connect with your customers in some unique ways, including traveling with them. Tell us more about those guided trips overseas?
I’m actually responding to these questions while leading the ninth annual Splendors of South Italy tour through Calabria and Sicily. On these trips I’m able to build unique relationships with my clientele as I guide them through the regions of Italy where I lived, studied, and gained so many of the fundamentals that I continue to draw on today. After almost a decade leading two tours a year—one in the spring and one in the fall—what stands out to me most is how our travel groups become like family, to the point that many people choose to travel with us more than once. In fact, we have had numerous people who have come with us on each different itinerary that we offer.
In what other ways do you stay connected to Italy, and why is that connection important to you?
Aside from leading the tours, I teach a food and wine pairing course at ICI where I instruct master’s classes for an international group of aspiring chefs. This type of engagement pushes me to continue to learn and grow at a higher level.
One of the most exciting ways I stay connected is through frequent guest chef visits by chef John Nocita of ICI, where we bring a piece of what we do in Italy to Southern California. During his visits over the years, we have hosted educationally driven food and wine events that spark the interest of those who have not yet traveled with us, as well as those who are veterans of our tours. This upcoming July, not only will chef Nocita be traveling once again to Old Vine Kitchen & Bar, but he will also be joined by internationally renowned barman Aggelos Triantafyllopoulos from Athens, Greece. Together we are planning an epic food-, wine-, and cocktail-driven event.
What inspires you in your life and your business?
If you're not finding inspiration everywhere, then you'll never last in this business. I draw inspiration from travel, teaching, and continuing to learn from some of the best chefs in the world, whether they are longtime mentors, emerging hospitality professionals, or locals with a genuine love for all things gastronomy. The combination of all of these things contributes to an infinite well of inspiration, education, and continued growth.