Chef Mark Sabbe creates new dining experience option for residents of Plymouth Place

Article by Hank Beckman

With the opening of Thirty North, residents at Plymouth Place Senior Living recently got a new dining option.

The restaurant opened just before Christmas, and is helmed by Mark Sabbe, an accomplished chef and Certified Sommelier with an extensive background in the Chicago culinary scene.

“Thirty North is somewhere we want you to come and have an intimate dining experience,” Sabbe said recently sitting in the restaurant.

He pointed out that a good meal was more than just the cuisine, saying “the food needs to be good, the service needs to be good, the wine should be spectacular, but the company is important.”

Mark Sabbe, Chef

Sabbe, 59, born and raised in Mishawaka, Indiana, didn’t originally plan on a career in the restaurant business.

The Notre Dame fan put his loyalties to the Fighting Irish aside to attend Purdue University where, in hopes of becoming a doctor, he planned on majoring in biology.

But Sabbe soon realized that biology was not for him, changing majors a couple times before settling on a degree in communications with a concentration in marketing and advertising.

As part of one of his classes, he wound up writing articles for the Exponent, Purdue’s student newspaper, eventually becoming editor-in-chief. Editing a newspaper was a definite accomplishment, but it had the effect of souring him on a career in journalism. Sabbe didn’t want to start over by doing grunt work that he had already done at the Exponent, so he focused his career on advertising.

While he started his career in advertising, his lifelong love of cooking led him to study at Kendall College in downtown Chicago, where he earned an associate of applied science in the culinary arts degree, with a management minor.

Since then, Sabbe served as Executive Chef at Leeds Public House in Michigan City, Indiana, Executive Chef and Sommelier at Marchesa in Chicago, and Chef de Cuisine/Wine Director at Sociale Chicago, part of the Good Eats Group of restaurants.

His work experience along the way include an eclectic mix of duties.

At Leeds Public House, Sabbe set up and opened the new restaurant, found and trained staff, and served about 11,000 guests in the first month of business. He developed the menu, managed all the chefs, and contributed to the creation of a wine list. At Marchesa, he designed the kitchen from scratch, developed a menu for Continental cuisine, set up vendor relationships, and again generally ran the business. For Sociale Chicago, he developed menus for a Mediterranean-inspired small plates restaurant concept and adjacent coffee shop, only to change that focus when it opened.

Somehow, Sabbe found time to serve as adjunct faculty at Kendall, teaching cooking fundamentals and theory, restaurant management, and advanced food and beverage management. He also picked up several certificates along the way, among them being recognized as a Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, a City of Chicago Certified Food Service Manager, and a Certified Italian Wine Specialist.

He said that what drew him to Plymouth Place was directly related the experience he had caring for his father in the last years of his life.

Being a professional chef, Sabbe was more than willing to cook for his father, but Dad mostly wanted to go out to eat and order pizza delivery, leaving him somewhat frustrated that he wasn’t able to do more for his father in his final years.

So when he was considering whether or not to take the Plymouth Place position, a community of seniors, he thought of it as an opportunity to serve.

“I got to thinking that I can come and cook for these people,” Sabbe said, “and I could kind of give back a little for what I wasn’t able to do for my Dad.”

Sabbe talked about his vision for the cuisine at Thirty North.

“My first inclination was I wanted to do something a little different than they’re getting in the dining hall,” he said. “So that we could create a distinction between this restaurant and what they normally do for their food service. We’re just supposed to be an option, just like the Pub and the Bistro.”

Sabbe decided on an approach that was “contemporary American, meaning that I can basically steal cuisines from everybody.”

He noted that serving an exclusively aging demographic posed some surprising challenges.

“As we were starting to do our practice dinners with residents, most of the feedback we kept getting was that the portions were too big. Everything is great, people said, but it’s way too much food,” Sabbe said. “So I thought ‘why don’t we go to a small plates format where everything is approximately appetizer-sized.’ That way it’s not too much food and we can promote the fact that when you come here, we want you to think of the meal as more of a shared and intimate experience.”

He said that the reception from residents has been positive so far.

“People have been in love with the food,” Sabbe said, although he acknowledged a few glitches with the service. “By and large we’ve been pretty well-received by everybody. It seems that most of the residents have been walking away happy, and that’s all I care about.”

Sitting in the Thirty North dining room, Sabbe talked about how his love of all things culinary started with family.

“My Dad started it all,” he said. “He would get up on Sunday mornings, go into the refrigerator and pull leftovers out and make what he called, garbage scrambled eggs. He had a lot of fun doing it. He would be dancing around the kitchen, playing music. I didn’t realize where my love of jazz came from, until I was cleaning his albums out of the attic.”

That led to Sabbe spending more time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, who were both excellent cooks. When he went to college, he was the cook among his roommates, leading to numerous opportunities to impress campus coeds.

“The more I did it, the more I wanted to learn about it,” he said. “It was always a hobby.”

When his mother was diagnosed with cancer and the dog he had for 16 years died, he realized that, “I don’t like my job, nothing’s going right in my life right now.” So he took a friend’s advice to check out an open house at Kendall. He was so impressed that he applied to the college the same day, went to work on Monday and quit his job.

“I never looked back,” he said.


This article originally appeared on Chicago Tribune.