Chef Mark Stark has a three-part formula for a successful restaurant: great food, great fun, and a great location. Judging by the popularity and reviews of his five Sonoma County restaurants—and the fact that he was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2013—he’s worked that formula well.

With his wife, Terri, Mark runs Stark Reality Restaurants, the group that ranges from their first foray into the business, Willi’s Wine Bar (with its small international plates and vast selection of local wines, and named to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants in four consecutive years) to Stark’s Steak and Seafood (lauded for its meat program of Certified Angus beef, American Kobe, and its in-house aged beef). Then there’s Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar (small plates of sustainable seafood, including lobster rolls and seviches), Bravas (Spanish tapas), and Monti’s Rotisserie (where carnivores dig into the wood-fired selections).

An Orange County, California, native, Stark grew up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay area, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then returned to D.C. as a pastry cook for the Four Seasons Hotel and chef at the City Club. From 1989 to 1995, he manned the Seattle stoves of the Bellevue Club, and followed that with a stint as a corporate chef.

By then, he and Terri were ready to launch their own place, and Willi’s Wine Bar opened with a splash in 2002. With each restaurant, the bond Stark has with local purveyors and farmers has grown, as has his exploration of world cuisines. He has to keep growing as a chef. As he said in the commencement speech he delivered to 2013 CIA Greystone graduates, “Avoid mediocrity. I’d rather reach for the chandeliers and fall flat than be ordinary.” Mission accomplished.