Chef Files: Mark Shafer, Sandbars Raw Bar & Grill

By on April 2, 2019

Mark Shafer

Present Gig: Chef/Owner, Sandbars Raw Bar & Grill
Age: 45
Hometown: Knoxville, TN
Years in OBX: 8
Training: Studied to be a teacher, ended up in a restaurant
Style or Specialty: Seafood

What was your path like becoming a chef?
I started washing dishes at 15 just to make some money to get a car and take out girls. Then I was working at Chili’s while going to school to be a teacher. That really taught me the back end of the restaurant business: the paperwork, food costs, labor cost, all the numbers. I was good at it.

Any defining moments?
Chili’s offered me a kitchen manager job, but I told them I wanted an honorable job as a teacher. But the salary was much higher than I would make as a teacher. And I liked the kitchen.

Why OBX?
My grandfather started coming here in the ’40s, my Dad in the 50’s-60’s, and me since the ’70s. So I’ve been vacationing here all my life — down in Hatteras. In Knoxville at a street party I was throwing, I told the girl I was seeing about the place I vacationed as a kid.

We came down for a week, and she fell in love with it. A couple of weeks later, she said let’s move there. We moved here the week of Hurricane Irene. On the drive here, I was thinking I made a huge mistake — looked like a bomb hit the place. But we rented a place sight unseen on the Beach Road, she got a job teaching, and I started working at The Dunes in Nags Head.

Where after Then Dunes?
Hurricanes Mo’s, Awful Arthur’s, then Roosters. Also subbed teaching in the offseasons.

And the girl?
Michelle and I married three years later.

And how did Sandbars come about?
The opportunity came along, and it was perfect. I mean, I managed 200-seat restaurants, but for my own first place, this was a good size and didn’t need a lot a capital to make it happen.

Bought it in May 2017. Wasn’t planning on expanding, but I wanted a liquor license, so we expand next door in October of the same year to get the minimum 36 seats and the second bathroom (per ABC requirements for liquor).

As much as I love cooking and being in the kitchen, liquor helps pay the bills.

Why a raw bar?
When I was a sous chef in Knoxville, we had a raw bar. Knoxville has thousands of restaurants — a real good food town. And I’ve always loved seafood.

When you go out to eat, where can we likely find you?
I don’t go out to eat much, but I do like to go to raw bars. I often just have a dozen oysters here when I get off. I love oysters.

Topping?
Nope, just raw, no sauce, no crackers. Just oysters.

Favorite drink to go with it?
Martini.

What seasoning/spice/technique is top in your culinary arsenal?
I love saute. I worked in lots of Italian and Greek places, and always loved the saute station, love pasta, piccata. If I was on death row, last meal would be veal piccata — either that or Triscuits and Jalapeno Jack cheese.

I worked for a Greek chef years ago who would be drinking red wine at the expo station. I would have 12 burners going with five more things to put on right away. There would be times I would just want to cry and say enough, especially when he would throw something back at me and say it’s not good enough, make it again. Decades later, it still stays with me, that everything has to be as it should be — perfect.

On the rare occasion you’re not working, where can we find you?
I love to fish.

Sound, ocean, it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t even matter if I catch anything You know, when we work so much, especially the chasm between owning a restaurant, and just working in one, sometimes you just need some time away.

Two hours fishing, or just catching up on reading Bon Appetit on the porch, we need that time to rejuvenate. If you work too much, you can lose that creativity. It shouldn’t be a grind. So I need to step away, my wife notices when I need to also, just step away so I can recharge and continue to be able to create the great specials that people come in for.

What’s something about you that would surprise people?
People might be surprised that I’m an accomplished photographer and writer. I’ve written a novel and a screenplay — still waiting to submit. But I’ve won some writing and photo awards.

Done a lot of weddings here. All the prints in the restaurant are mine. In my younger days I was a voracious reader — I read everything — went through my Russian author phase, South American phase, and of course, I love Hemingway — For Whom The Bell Tolls, the best book I’ve ever read. I love the picture he paints on the page.

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