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Our Neighbors.... Mark Edwards

It's seldom a matter of "too many cooks in the kitchen" when chef Mark Edwards is around. That's because Edwards, a Scanlon native and owner of The Exchange Bakery and Deli in Duluth, can pretty much do it all himself....

It's seldom a matter of "too many cooks in the kitchen" when chef Mark Edwards is around. That's because Edwards, a Scanlon native and owner of The Exchange Bakery and Deli in Duluth, can pretty much do it all himself....

Edwards was born, raised and still lives in the family home his parents built in Scanlon. He attended elementary school nearby and went on to graduate from Cloquet High School in 1972.

Following high school, he took a year off to figure out what he wanted to do for a living.

"On one hand, it got to be kind of boring," he admitted, "but on the other hand, you hear about people who go off to college and then drop out or change their mind - and that's an expensive thing to do!"

Edwards said that year of inactivity also taught him what it was like to be unemployed. So by the time he applied to Duluth Vocational-Technical School (now Lake Superior College) in September 1973, he was more than ready to learn.

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"After that year off, I suddenly had all my gears going again," he said, "and I've been going full speed ahead ever since!"

Edwards decided to set his sites on becoming a chef.

"I did some cooking as I was growing up, but not a lot," he admitted. "You know how it goes - you ask your parents, 'What's for dinner?' and they might say something like 'Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.' I wasn't a big macaroni and cheese fan. So they'd tell me, 'If you want something else, then you'll have to make it yourself' - and so I did!

"It was kind of like survival of the fittest," he grinned. "That's kind of where it all got started, I guess - wanting something they didn't want to make."

He didn't do much baking, however.

"I tried making brownies once," he confessed, "but they all looked kind of like burnt toast!"

Edwards took the baking course the first year at Duluth Vo-Tech and then worked in a bakery for a time, returning to school in September 1974 to take the cooking course.

Not long afterward, he and his entire cooking class went to work to help start up the dining room at Spirit Mountain when it first opened later that year.

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"I was there right from the get-go, unpacking dishes!" he declared. "The grand opening was Dec.ember 21, 1974, and I started there the week prior to that."

He worked at Spirit Mountain for the first seven and a half years they were open, learning the tricks of the trade alongside the head chef.

"The original menu had steaks, kabobs, lobster, shrimp, frog legs - and all this fancy stuff," he explained. "I learned a lot."

After that, he worked at Grandma's Restaurant in Canal Park for a couple of years - the first year as kitchen supervisor and the second as chef. Then he transitioned to The Flame Restaurant on Duluth's waterfront, working as a prep cook up until the time it was closed.

After a brief stint at Stephanies, a little bistro in the Fitger Mall, Edwards became a chef at Quadna Resort in Hill City.

"It was really nice back then," he attested.

"Bud Grant [former Minnesota Vikings head coach] owned a really nice townhouse there at one time," he related, "and Paul Krause [former Minnesota Vikings all-star safety] was an owner as well. Krause and I kind of got to know each other a little, and one day I went out golfing all by myself. It was my first round of the year, and I was just going to kind of practice. I was about to drive off the opening tee when all of a sudden I heard, 'Mark! Mark!' - and I ended up playing a round of golf with Paul Krause!"

Following his time at Quadna, Edwards returned to Duluth to work at J Noreen's on London Road - until an opportunity came his way he couldn't pass up.

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"Jeno [Paulucci] was looking for a chef for a week at his cabin up in Canada," Edwards explained. "He has a nice fishing lodge, with a lot of log cabins spread out along the shoreline. I went up there, and the next thing he asked me was if I could stay another week."

Though Paulucci wanted him to stay on longer, Edwards had previously planned to go to Australia to visit his sister and was unable to postpone it any longer. The following summer, however, Paulucci hired Edwards to go back to the fishing lodge and work the entire summer there.

"Every Tuesday Jeno would fly in up to 10 guests, because he has something like three sea planes," related Edwards. They'd arrive in time for lunch, and usually I would have bread baking so when they came into camp it would smell wonderful. I also had to make breakfasts and dinners for them. On Saturday, they'd all get in the planes and fly back to Duluth, and I'd be up there for the weekend all on my own along with the caretakers. It was great!"

Edwards described Paulucci as "a real nice guy who knew what was going on all the time."

"He was a different guy when he was up there fishing and just wearing khaki slacks and a T-shirt," he said. "He and his wife, Lois, would walk around hand in hand and were a really loving couple and very friendly. But as soon as Jeno put the tie on, it was a whole different ball game. He was all business."

After the summer was over, Paulucci moved Edwards down to Florida to help open a restaurant there named Pasta Lovers.

Edwards stayed there working in various restaurants for three years, including a country western bar that had monthly concerts featuring well known artists such as Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black, Kitty Wells, Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette and George Jones and Garth Brooks.

"I'd meet a different person at every concert," he said. "Anthony Armstrong Jones once played two whole weeks there and used to come out in the kitchen to visit with me."

Edwards returned to Minnesota in October 1991 to take care of his parents, who were having some health problems. He paid a call on Flo Mattson, owner of The Exchange in Duluth, and told her, "If you need any help with Christmas parties or anything, I'm around...."

And so, he started working at The Exchange part time doing holiday parties, ended up staying on full time, and today he is not only head chef - but owner as well.

He gets up at 3 a.m. and arrives at work around 4 a.m., then does most of the baking for the day, producing croissants, muffins and other bakery goods. He also prepares the daily lunch special and soup while a couple of bakers get the cakes ready to go out for the day, and another couple of girls make the sandwiches and the salads. If there is any catering to be done that day, Edwards gets that ready to go as well, returns phone calls, does the office work and does most of the planning, ordering and catering himself.

Though Edwards mostly works around the Twin Ports area, he will be catering this weekend's Community Memorial Hospital Foundation Gala in Carlton County for the second year in a row.

With some 200 people expected to attend, Edwards said catering such an event involves a considerable amount careful planning.

He plans do most of the cooking ahead of time in Duluth and then bring it to the Lost Isle in Carlton, finish off a couple of items in the kitchen there and have the serving lines ready to go when he gets the official nod to start serving dinner.

"I like to have the last diner served before the first has finished eating," he said.

On the menu for this year's Gala will be two of Edwards' specialties - Chicken Wellington and prime rib of beef.

"I have this nice coffee rub I'll do on the outside of the prime rib," he explained. "It's made out of coffee, rum, brown sugar, soy sauce and Worchestershire. There's no beef stock involved at all, though it doesn't taste at all like coffee. You put all that brown sugar in there, which thickens it up as you boil it, and then add the prime rib drippings in with it."

He said the Chicken Wellington begins with a raw chicken breast, and he puts bread dressing in with it, wraps it in puff pastry, and bakes it so the pastry puffs up and gets nice and brown when it's done. He plans to serve it with a rosemary Madeira sauce, along with a side of saffron rice and green beans almondine.

If that's not enough to get your mouth watering, consider all of the fancy wedding cakes The Exchange also produces. From May to October, Edwards estimated they baked some 160 of them and they are booked with many more right through October.

Edwards meets with the brides first for the planning stages and later delivers them all after they are baked.

"I just put them in the van and go!" he said. "We had one of them tip a long time ago that just didn't hold up, but otherwise we've never had a problem, even with those tall, stacked cakes. In some places it's tougher than others, like the DECC where they have those big welcome mats with rough surfaces. I've learned I just can't go straight across those things with the cake cart because it's like going across a washboard!"

He said the most popular flavor is The Exchange's signature white cake with raspberry white chocolate buttercream filling, though he said they can do pretty much any kind of fruit filling - such as lemon, banana, caramel, blueberry or strawberry.

"One of the grooms selected kind of an Elvis cake once - peanut butter banana," he related. "So I put a thin layer of peanut butter on a chocolate cake and then a layer of peanut butter buttercream with chocolate icing over it!"

Edwards and The Exchange do catering for all sizes of groups.

"The smallest group we did was three - and then one person couldn't make it!" he laughed. "It was at Glensheen, for one of the Congdon granddaughters who wanted to show her friends what it was like. We cooked for just the two people in the formal dining room. I got some live lobster and stuffed it with baby shrimp, Parmesan cheese, and nuts."

He said he's also done parties for several hundred people at Glensheen, the Depot and other area hotels, as well as catering meals a few times a year on the Lake Superior Railroad Dinner Train and teaching cooking classes at Blue Heron Trading Company.

On Oct. 1, Edward will also take over the reins as new owner of Alotti Biscotti, a specialty bakery business in the Twin Ports that makes biscotti from scratch for various grocery stores and other outlets in Duluth and Superior as well as up the North Shore. They also bake all of the cookies for the DECC and them to outlets out of the area as well.

"I'm moving the operation over to The Exchange and we're going to try to mesh the two businesses into one kitchen," Edwards explained.

Folks attending this Saturday's CMH Foundation Gala at the Lost Isle will get a "sneak preview" of the Alotti Biscotti baked goods.

And with all of Edwards' years of experience in area restaurants, as well as in the kitchen of The Exchange, just what do you suppose this very busy chef has to eat when he gets home at night?

"Once in a while I might bring something home from work, but otherwise it's usually frozen entrees or pizza," he admitted with a rueful grin. "I have some nice steaks in the freezer - but they've been in there a long time...."

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