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Acclaimed Chef And Campanile Co-Founder Mark Peel Dies At 66

An image of Mark Peel as he teaches a cooking lesson.
Chef Mark Peel teaches a cooking lesson at the Los Angeles Times Celebration of Food & Wine on September 5, 2010.
(Michael Buckner
Getty Images for LA Times)
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Additional reporting by John Rabe.

Chef and restaurateur Mark Peel, the co-founder of acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant Campanile, died on Sunday at age 66 after a short battle with cancer.

"Mark was a standup guy," says former Los Angeles Times food editor and James Beard Award-winning food author Russ Parsons, who knew Peel for decades. "He was one of the first chefs to regularly shop at farmers markets even when there wasn't a camera crew with him. And he was hugely influential even though he rarely blew his own horn. Mark's death is sad not just for the Los Angeles and California food community, but for the whole country."

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Peel grew up in California and started his culinary career as a teenager, working as a dishwasher and a fry cook, among other jobs.

Peel attended UC Santa Barbara before transferring to the hotel and restaurant department of Cal Poly Pomona.

Premiere of Los Angeles Food & Wine - Red Carpet
Chefs Mark Peel (left) and Wolfgang Puck arrive at the premiere of Los Angeles Food & Wine at LA Live on October 13, 2011.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez
Getty Images for DCP)

He started peeling vegetables for chef Wolfgang Puck at West Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison, which closed in 1985, and worked his way up to assistant chef. According to Star Chefs, Peel was sent to work at two French three-star restaurants, La Tour d'Argents and Moulinde Mougins, as part of Ma Maison's informal apprenticeship program.

Peel returned to Los Angeles and worked at Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica, where he met his future wife, chef Nancy Silverton, in 1979. He then worked for a year at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

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He spent three-and-a-half years working as head chef under Wolfgang Puck at Spago, which opened in 1982.

Peel and Silverton married in 1984. A few years later, they bought the airy, church-like building at 624 S. La Brea Ave, which had been built in 1929 for Charlie Chaplin, and transformed it into a bakery and restaurant.

In January 1989, Peel and Silverton opened La Brea Bakery in the front of the space. In June of that year, they launched Campanile. Seasonal dining and farm-to-table fare is now so common that sophisticated L.A. diners barely register these phrases. But back in the 1980s and '90s, Peel and Silverton were among the culinary trendsetters who helped brand California cuisine as a distinct ethos.

Both the bakery and the restaurant were a hit. Peel and Silverton sold La Brea Bakery in 2001, reportedly for more than $79 million (although due to the number of investors and the amount of debt the venture had, the amounts Peel and Silverton each received were reportedly much smaller).

In addition to the praise Peel received for his skill on the grill and his devotion to fresh produce, Campanile became famous for its less fancy fare, including its grilled cheese sandwiches.

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Los Angeles Times Celebration Of Food & Wine
Chef Mark Peel teaches a cooking lesson at the Los Angeles Times Celebration of Food & Wine on September 5, 2010.
(Michael Buckner
Getty Images for LA Times)

After Silverton and Peel divorced in 2005, she exited the restaurant and Peel ran Campanile until it closed in 2012. Upon its closure, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote, "I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as visceral a reaction as I did to the rumors — and, finally, the announcement — that Campanile was shutting down after 23 years."

Gold went on to call Campanile "a restaurant one idly dreams of introducing one’s unborn grandchildren to" and to say, "It is hard to overstate Campanile’s contributions to American cooking. It wasn’t the first fine restaurant in the country to operate with a grill at its heart, but it codified the style, as well as the practice of reinterpreting simple dishes — steak and beans, Greek salad, fish soup — with first-rate ingredients and chefly virtuosity."

In 2013, chefs Walter and Margarita Manzke opened République in the former Campanile space.

Peel also influenced and helped train a bevvy of talented chefs. Suzanne Goin of A.O.C., Bryant Ng of Cassia, Suzanne Tracht of Jar, Matt Molina of Hippo and Mozza, and Jason Fullilove of Barbara Jean all did time in his kitchen.

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Since closing Campanile, Peel opened Prawn Coastal Casual in downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market. He has authored or co-authored several cookbooks and also appeared on food television shows including Top Chef Masters and Knife Fight.

According to his obituary in the L.A. Times, Peel had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer only nine days before his death.

Peel is survived by his wife, Daphne Brogdon, who recalls a night when Mark received a restaurant industry award. She tells LAist that when he got up to speak, Peel said, "We are basically doing manual labor jobs, and it might not always seem important to us. But we should never forget that we give people magic moments. Mark gave people a lot of magic moments."

Peel is also survived by five children: Vanessa, Benjamin and Oliver Silverton-Peel, and Vivien and Rex Peel.

Vanessa Silverton-Peel told the L.A. Times, "My dad in so many ways was really ill-fit for the emergence of this whole rock star-chef era. He always thought of himself as a cook, he thought of himself as doing manual labor."

[Full disclosure: Peel had been a frequent guest on various KPCC shows. He invented a cocktail to honor the opening of the Mohn Broadcast Center and brought his team to the station to prepare and serve the drink during a party.]