A Conversation with Mike Mariola

Mike Mariola is one of the firecrackers in the reinvigoration of Wooster’s local foods movement. Mariola has lived in the small town nearly his whole life, apart from working alongside chefs in Cleveland and overseas. His first job was picking fruit at Moreland Fruit Farm, where the roots for a livelihood in local foods took hold. He tinkered in food service at the College of Wooster and Wooster Inn, the latter of which led to a connection with a pioneer of Cleveland’s local foods movement, Parker Bosley. Mariola worked as Bosley’s sous chef in Cleveland, then proceeded to train with star chefs in Paris and Washington, D.C. He returned to Wooster and in 2002 and opened South Market Bistro. The Wooster resident now operates City Square Steakhouse in Wooster and The Rail burger spots under the umbrella of his restaurant group, Mike Mariola Restaurants. Edible Cleveland caught up with him to talk about Wooster and food.

EC: Why did you choose Wooster as the first place to open a restaurant?

MM: When I worked for Parker in Cleveland, we sourced a lot of our food from Wayne County farms. I wanted to be more connected. I loved Wooster and wanted to come back home.

Now we use many of Wooster-area growers in our restaurants, like Killbuck Valley Mushrooms and Tea Hills Farms.

EC: What was the early response when you unveiled your seasonal farm-to-table restaurant, South Market Bistro, in Wooster?

MM: We were met with some skepticism during construction. Some of the residents knew of Parker’s Bistro and that I had trained with him, and their perception was that my concept was too esoteric for Wooster. The reception was so positive when we opened, with huge waiting lines. We operated it for nearly 10 years.

EC: How would you describe the food scene in Wooster now versus 15 years ago?

MM: Downtown is more robust. The farmers market has grown, and there’s been a lot more activity since the opening of Local Roots, which created a year-round space for farm-fresh food and value-added products. Now the city has a butcher, a café with artisan coffee, and fresh bakery. These are some of the building blocks for a burgeoning food scene in a small town.

EC: What hasn’t changed?

MM: This sounds kind of corny, but the community support is ingrained in Wooster. There’s a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to our economy and our health here. The seeds were planted long ago, when the late Rubbermaid CEO Stanley Gault reinvested so much of his personal money back into the high school, College of Wooster, and downtown. This passion will continue for generations to come.

EC: What does the local food movement mean to you?

MM: Local food means knowing and having a direct relationship with your source. Local could mean a 50- to 75-mile geographic radius. I’m less concerned whether a vendor is 100% organic and more concerned about being able to visit my growers and see firsthand whether they are raising food sustainably and humanely. We have a strong partnership with Certified Angus Beef, which is based in Wooster, because we wanted to improve our steak program. We visited one of their farms in Ashland, and I met with both farmers, who were my age—38—and I asked them hard questions about growth hormones and the use of antibiotics. They were very transparent. It’s nearly impossible to avoid them 100% of the time, but they were honest about when they absolutely have to resort to that route. Honesty is key in establishing and growing those relationships.

The City Square Steakhouse is located at 148 S. Market St. in downtown Wooster. Open Monday–Saturday, 4:30–10:30pm, and Sunday, 3–9pm. CitySquareSteakhouse.com