Changing the world of food: Marcus Townsend brings unique concepts to Evanston

Elizabeth Johnson, Reporter

“Pop-up” meets prix fixe at Under The Table, one of the latest concepts in the Evanston restaurant lineup. Offering just two meals on weekends exclusively, the restaurant provides “food in its purest form: great ingredients, new friends, and open minds,” according to its website. At $35 per ticket, brunch lines up at least five courses of sophisticated takes on classic favorites; dinner, priced at $60 for at least seven courses, guarantees an indulgence worth the investment. The menu changes monthly according to the time of year and tastes of the chef, yet it offers no more description than a list of ingredients. A starting course on the dinner menu, for example, states: “scallop / turnip / grape / orange / bonito / caviar.” Chef Marcus Townsend may only have 22 years of life experience to his name, but he already holds a resume worth high praise. Still, he humbly requests to “just be a cook.”

The Current sinks its teeth into the tastes and testimony of the man behind the madness.

The Current: Tell us a little about the concept of Under The Table.

Marcus Townsend: It’s three guys — me, Max Mora and Chikoo Patel. We are all 22 years old, and we are attempting to open a restaurant in under a year at this point. We do new American food — I guess you could term it that — but really what we’re doing is a big experiment.

The Current: According to an article written about you in Eater, your tagline promises “experimental food for the everyman.” Your menu certainly looks pretty eclectic. How do you market it to Northwestern students, for example?

MT: It’s all about price. … We keep our prices reasonable; we’re not trying to price it to high, but we also don’t want to price it too low. We want to keep it affordable for everyone while giving you nine courses of food that is different, that is interesting, that is, as people would say, “upscale.” I want to give you nine courses of the best food you can get at a reasonable price, so that if you tell five of your friends, they tell five of their friends, all because you enjoyed it so much.

The Current: Your Twitter bio says, “I’m a COOK not a chef.” What’s the distinction?

MT: I don’t ever want to get wrapped up in titles. I am first and foremost “just Marcus.” I’m not “Chef.” While I do create the meaning by cooking the food, I’m just Marcus at the end of the day. I don’t want to lose sight of my goals … wherever this goes — good or bad — I don’t want to lose myself in the title. … People are going to write what they want to write, but at the end of the day, when you come and eat, I’ll probably tell you, “It’s Marcus.”

The Current: When did you decide you wanted to be a cook?

MT: I graduated high school in 2009, and right after, I came here so that I could go to school and train. Back in ’07, I used to watch “Iron Chef America,” and I was really interested in what people were able to do in such a short period of time. I basically knew what I was going to do before most people in my class had an idea on what was going to happen in their futures.

The Current: What’s the method to the madness of creating a new restaurant concept?

MT: It’s a lot of hard work. We all work seven days a week essentially. There may be one day where we don’t come to work, but it’s pretty constant: emails, texts, calls, always touching base, always bouncing ideas off of each other for whatever it may be, whether it’s the tables and chairs or the glass. It’s constant work, which isn’t a bad thing; we all know what we signed up for.  … We’re working so hard and achieving our goals.

The Current: How have customers reacted to Under the Table thus far?

MT: Just like with anything else, everyone is not going to like you. If I’m … giving them everything I have, I’d say a fair estimate is that (in a room of 20) three of those 20 are going to hate it, but the other people are having a great time and they’re enjoying everything we’re doing. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a place where everyone loves us; that could be because of our ages or because they just don’t like what we’re doing … not everyone’s going to love three 22-year-olds attempting to change the world of food.

The Current: But I feel like everyone has to respect you for your efforts?

MT: I had a lady at the last dinner who just felt like I was too young to be doing this. I stepped out front and was shaking everyone’s hands … and she said, “How old are you?” And I said, “22 years old.” …  And her tone was that she didn’t like what we did because we were so young.

The Current: You have to eat one entree from your menu for the rest of your life. Which is it?

MT: None of it. I like cooking this kind of food, but I don’t eat this kind of food. If I had to, it would be a lamb dish we just had, but we change our menu every month, so every four weeks it’s something completely different. But I’m a burger-and-fry kind of guy.

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