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Talking With Top Chef Masters Contestants Mark and Clark

[Photos: Ted Axelrod]

Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier have worked and lived side-by-side for more than 25 years. The James Beard Award-winning pair opened their groundbreaking Ogunquit restaurant, Arrows, in 1988, followed by MC Perkins Cove - also in Oqunquit - and Summer Winter in the Burlington, Mass. Marriott. Tall, fit, handsome and now both blonde (Clark has long been tow-headed and Mark recently dyed his hair a matching shade), they are an impressive couple whose close professional and personal partnership has clearly been a success. Beginning Wednesday, July 25, however, fans will see Mark and Clark in an unfamiliar situation - pitted against each other in Season 4 of Top Chef Masters on Bravo. Extensive advance coverage includes Meredith Goad's in-depth piece in The Portland Press Herald on the chefs' experience doing the show and the charities that will be the beneficiaries of the $100,000 prize if one of them wins. In the dining room at Arrows and walking through the garden, Eater Maine talked with Mark and Clark about the show, their gardens and Arrows' new - and very different - menu.

EM: You guys have been on TV regularly, but this is the first time you've done a competition cooking show. Why Top Chef Masters?
Mark: They approached us - they liked the idea of a couple that had been working together. Clark was all for it, but I wasn't. Everyone was like; "you have to do it;" and I was like: I'm a big boy now; I don't have to do it - I have issues with reality TV and competition. So I took my merry old time and I thought: What's the worst thing that could happen, I'll be embarrassed? ... and I had a great time. The crew at Bravo took great care of us and it was surprisingly fun. We made friends with the other chefs, like Sue Torres (Suenos, NYC) and Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi and Slurping Turtle, Chicago) - and we've stayed in touch with everyone. For me, one of the best parts of doing the show was meeting all these people.

You could fill a small library with everything that's been written about the fact that when you first introduced a vegetable garden at Arrows - in 1992 - the phrase "farm-to-table" was unknown. How has the garden evolved in 20 years?
Mark: Well, it's larger! When we first planted it, it was to supplement the produce we were getting from our suppliers. Now we're not buying any produce. We write the menu by what's coming out of the garden through the season. As chefs, we've changed a lot over the years because we used to go to the market, now we just go outside. We have a full-time, year-round gardener and two helpers during the growing and harvesting season. It's gotten to be a monster, but a good monster.

What are some of the biggest surprises from the garden?
Mark: When the tomato crop is in, it's amazing - the green zebra tomatoes are one of my favorites. We had a great strawberry crop this year ... and dinosaur kale ... and the radicchio we're using a lot right now.

Let's talk about your new menu, which doesn't resemble either traditional menus or tasting menus. How did it come about?
Mark: For 20-plus years, we did an ala carte menu - appetizers, soups, salads, main dishes and desserts. About 10 years ago, we decided to add a tasting menu, which was defined by the regular menu. And then we added a luxury menu, with caviar and other high-end items. Last year, we decided, "let's get brave," to go with all tasting menus. We had mixed reactions. A lot of our clientele were asking for more choice.

(This year,) we wanted to do "write your own menu" - that sort of led to what we're doing now. It's collections ... a lot of little dishes. Some of them are old classics we've done before and love, some highlight things that are seasonal. We have a bumper crop of radicchio right now, so we're using it in a trio (in the Garden Collection): a gratin; a chiffonade with goat cheese - a little salad; a tartelette with smoked tomato sauce. The reason we did little trios is because we thought that would be fun - to show different preparations with the same ingredients.

When did you introduce it and what has the reaction been?
Mark: In April, when we opened for the season. Most people have embraced it; some are confused by it, so we had to work with our servers to help make it clear that you can actually do whatever you want. You can choose the Chefs Collection, Garden Collection, Farm and Sea Collection, or you can put together your own collection. But if someone really wants a steak, we have a 24-ounce New York steak - or Dover sole - we can say: "If you want this, it's big, it's expensive and there it is."

So that was kind of our wacky idea ... when Clark first started talking about it, I thought he had lost his mind.

Clark: It seemed like you're always forced into one box or the other: either ultra-casual, rock and roll where they throw the food at you; or a formal experience in this temple of gastronomy. We got tired of the traditional tasting menu format and wanted to move towards a tasting menu without that structure. So you can have a casual experience or a more formal experience. We find young people - in their 20s and 30s - are the ones looking for that "experience" dining now.

Mark and Clark will be going back to Las Vegas - where the show was shot over Labor Day weekend last year - to watch the Season 4 premiere with their fellow competitors. But celebrations will be going on in Ogunquit, too. At Arrows, those dining at 6:30 or 7 p.m. get a complimentary Vespa cocktail (the competitors' choice) and hors d'oeuvre; at MC Perkins Cove, Top Chef Masters will be shown on a big screen TV with free snacks at 10:00 p.m.

· Taking Each Other On During On-Air 'Boot Camp' [PPH]
· The Gay Couple That Might Just Win Top Chef Masters [Advocate.com]
· Arrows [Official Site]