Deciding to get fit and eat healthy helped Mark Conway become a food celebrity and change lives.
In 2004 Mark Conway was fast approaching 30 and didn’t like the image that stared back at him from the mirror. He was about 80 pounds overweight–walks to the mailbox winded him; phantom pains shot through his arms and legs when he sat; his feet were always swollen. Terrified, he arranged for a checkup.
“We did a physical and the doctor’s face got really grave,” says Conway, now 44. “Eventually he turns to me and says, ‘Son, your body is on the verge of shutting down. We have to do something – and I mean now.’ ”
A quintet of emergency medications was prescribed; five more would offset side effects. The cocktail scared him. He knew it could be an endless road, where one medication leads to another, so he started researching his situation and discovered that at his age, diet and exercise should fix most of his symptoms.
“I remember feeling shocked and pissed off and so relieved I could cry,” Conway says. “My diet had literally been killing me. I vowed then and there to change the way I was living. And food was going to be at the center of that change.”
The resolution, along with a lot of hard work, led Conway, who lives in Virginia Beach, to a thriving culinary career in Tidewater restaurants and food-related television and radio. His latest food-oriented endeavor is a new radio show with celebrity chef Patrick Mosher’s Spoony Network.
Known as Family Meal, the program launched on the iHeartRadio platform in January and has become one of the network’s top performers. The show features culinary personalities ranging from former White House chefs to WWE superstar-turned-cooking- guru Mark Henry, Food Network staple Chef Plum and British food personality Simon Majumdar.
Conway was raised in a military family that split time between Florida and Norfolk. They didn’t eat healthy and his understanding of food came mainly from fast-food menus and the backs of cans. So, some six months after his health scare, he enrolled in nutrition and cooking classes. There he discovered a new passion.
“The more I implemented the practice into my life, the better I felt,” he says. “The difference was so remarkable: I felt like I was discovering myself and becoming a brand-new person at the same time. Each step I took down that path, I just wanted to take another.”
By 2007 Conway had shed more than 60 pounds and was a certified national trainer and nutritionist. Teaching fitness classes at Norfolk’s The Gym Downtown, he realized that, for most people, the biggest hurdle to a healthy lifestyle was a lack of basic cooking knowledge. Intro sessions that focused on food became a staple of his lessons.
“The experience felt more meaningful than anything I’d done in my life. … The ‘students’ were just so sincere,” he says. “They asked a ton of questions and were hungry to learn more.”
But Conway’s food knowledge was somewhat limited. He needed to learn more. So he started working part-time jobs at various Tidewater food trucks and restaurants, which led to stints at bakeries and, in a fortunate twist, several appearances on cooking segments of a local network TV show.
“Basically, I’d met an anchor and joked about how, if someone ever backed out on her or whatever, to just give me a call,” he says. “Well, one day she did. The guy who was supposed to do the cooking segment had some kind of emergency. I drove over right away and filled in. It turned out well and they started asking me back.”
He parlayed the experience into a job working as a sous chef under Williamsburg luminary David Everett. The position, Conway says, was a mentorship, apprenticeship and culinary boot camp rolled into one. A period of staging (read, stah-ging) – where chefs apply to work in kitchens for free to learn skills – in about 30 of Boston’s top restaurants followed.
Conway says a knack for bugging chefs and asking questions led him to found the live-streaming television show Kitchen Ambush, with Norfolk-based media group ViewItDoIt in 2017. The concept? A number of top chefs were hit with a list of locally sourced ingredients (often featuring subpar oddities like produce from the day’s school lunch); whoever cooked the best meal won a prize.
Filming at that year’s World Food Championships led to media partnerships with the organization and an affiliated five-series Kitchen Ambush cooking competition in 2018.
“I guess I’m one of those guys that can’t say no to an opportunity,” Conway says.
But Conway says he’s found the perfect niche in the Family Meal radio program. He calls the program eerily full-circle, as the first germ of its concept occurred to him in 2007 or 2008 while he taught cooking classes at the gym.
“The cooking segments were very focused, very on-task,” he says. But when they sat down to eat? “Everybody started sharing these great stories. And I mean, really personal stuff, too. I remember thinking, ‘So this is the power of the dinner table.’ ”
The idea stayed with him. It expanded when Conway entered the world of pro kitchens. There he experienced the ‘family meal’ – that is, the dinner that cook staff make with one another before the night’s shift.
“Everywhere I’ve worked and studied at, that’s been my favorite part,” he says. “It’s this time when you cook together and try new things and figure out where you’re strong and where you need to get better. I can’t tell you how much I learned and how many friends I made cooking those meals.”
The two perspectives merged with a 2015 fan letter.
A single mom with two teenage daughters emailed Conway after a local TV segment exploring the lost tradition of home-cooked dinners. She was working two jobs and struggling to connect with her girls. They ate a lot of fast food and rarely sat down together. Conway’s broadcast inspired her to plan a spaghetti dinner. The family cooked it together and ate at the table. Afterward, she wrote, the three talked for hours. When her daughters asked to make dinners a weekly event? She wept for joy.
“She called it a saving grace,” Conway says. He knew the feeling: Good meals and the camaraderie they inspire gave his life purpose.
At the Spoony Network, Mosher recognized his talent for using cooking to connect. Conway, he says, has a knack for using food to humanize larger-than-life personalities and make their stories accessible. “We wanted to give him the ability to explore that passion and a platform that would truly bring it to life.”
“I wanted Family Meal to be about the stories we tell around the dinner table,” Conway says. “I wanted it to be about the amazing, universal power of food to bring us together and, on occasion, help us make sense of our lives.”