Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where Are South Florida's Best New Chefs? - Part 2

Not so long ago, the local press was bemoaning the absence of new young chefs in South Florida. When Food & Wine announced its "Best New Chefs" in the Spring of 2009 and there were no South Florida candidates, New Times instead offered its own alternative list of local "Best Old Chefs 2009." (Of course, they could have noted that two of the chefs honored by F&W, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook of Los Angeles' Animal, actually do have Miami roots, having cut their teeth with Michelle Bernstein at The Strand). A few months later in August, Lee Klein of New Times posited that the Miami food scene was stalled, and pondered whether or not there was a "farm system" of younger talent that had trained under the chefs like Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein, Norman Van Aken, Dewey LoSasso, Jonathan Eismann, Allen Susser, Kris Wessel, and so on, who were ready to "pick up the torch and start opening personal, passion-fueled places that showcase their own distinctive vision and approach to cooking?"[*]

A good question, and one that hadn't gone without asking here at FFT. Indeed, almost exactly a year ago when the 2009 James Beard Award semi-finalists were announced, I asked "Not a single Florida nominee for the "Rising Star Chef of the Year" category - what to make of that?" and in April asked again "Where Are South Florida's Best New Chefs?," actually trying to answer the question that New Times raised in response to the F&W announcements.

What a difference a year makes. All of a sudden, it seems you can't lift a fork without poking into a chef whose resume includes a stint with one of the venerable names of South Florida cookery. One of them was even nominated for a James Beard "Best New Chef" award this year: Samuel Gorenstein of BLT Steak is a Chef Michael Schwartz alum, something I probably should have figured out when I tried his porchetta di testa, done in exactly the same fashion as at MGF&D.

But Chef Gorenstein is not alone. Simon Stojanovic, another MGF&D alum, will be heading the kitchen at the reincarnated Altamare. Timon Balloo, chef at the newly opened Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, was in the kitchen with Michelle Bernstein, Allen Susser (Chef Allen's) and Tim Andriola (Timo) before going out on his own. Frederick Kelley, still another chef listing a stint at MGF&D on his resume, is co-chef with Jeremy Fernandez at the new JB Kitchen and Bar (f/k/a Badrutt's Place). A year ago Alejandro Pinero, who had worked at the Strand with Michelle Bernstein and Talula with Andrea Curto and Frank Randazzo, became chef de cuisine at Fratelli Lyon. Juan and Vani Maza spent a brief time in Michelle Bernstein's kitchen at Michy's before going it on their own at the now-closed Alta Cocina, and now the recently opened 72nd Bar + Grill. Gerdy Rodriguez, who has been everywhere, including at Mundo with Norman Van Aken, now is the chef at MIA at Biscayne. Maria Manso, who cooked the line at Norman Van Aken's A Mano on South Beach, is the executive chef at the Delano. As Michelle Bernstein has opened more venues, she's created more opportunities for younger talent like Berenice de Araujo, the chef de cuisine at Sra. Martinez, and Jason Schaan, who has that position at Michy's. Andrea and Frank are stockpiling some young talent in the kitchen at Talula with sous chef Kyle Foster (highlighted, among other places, in "Sous Chef Kyle's Tapa of the Day"). Edited to add: Norman Van Aken seems to be grooming a real, bona-fide next generation, with son Justin Van Aken working with him on the opening of Norman's 180.

It was interesting to see that in an interview today, Chef Kris Wessel at Red Light, (who himself got started locally with Mark Militello), also mentioned the importance of younger chefs breaking out on their own and spreading their wings. Edited to add: And Sam Gorenstein likewise says many of the same things in an interview which came out just hours after this was first posted.

But the question remains: can the progeny cook? Or perhaps more to the point: do they have the creativity, vision, and drive to create unique, distinctive restaurants that will add something meaningful to our local dining landscape? And - to be fair - will they be given the opportunity?

Chef Gorenstein is in something of a box at BLT Steak, given the self-limiting nature of the steakhouse format, though he pushes at the corners of it with his daily specials. Simon Stojanovic would seem to have a little more wiggle room with Altamare; perhaps not surprisingly, a good bit of the preview menu looks a lot like the MGF&D menu, and he is quick to acknowledge Michael's influence. Fratelli Lyon's menu seems more driven by the concept than by the chef, and some of the other places I've listed here I've not yet tried. Ironically, the place that might be most clearly showing off the creativity of its chef could be Sugarcane, which I called a "concept restaurant", perhaps giving short shrift to Chef Balloo (even though I also hopefully made clear that I liked the food).

But the true "chef-driven" restaurant highlighting, and providing a platform, for young talent remains elusive. Elusive, but not extinct: at Naoe, Chef Kevin Cory has created what may be the most interesting and unique restaurant in Miami right now. Chef Elida Villaroel shows flashes at Charlotte Bistro, and I'm willing to give her some time to find her way. From the couple things I've tried, I suspect Chef Lou Ramirez is capable of doing a lot more serious cooking than you'd expect from someplace called Lou's Beer Garden.

I've been mulling these things over against the backdrop of the news from Spain that El Bulli will be closing for two years, to reopen in 2014 as a non-profit institution that will be "about creativity more than cooking." When I read A Day at El Bulli, one of the most interesting things was Ferran Adrià's incredible dedication to the process and methodology of creativity. Indeed, the book is as much about the incredible organization, focus and discipline that goes into constantly creating something unique as it is about food, and the lessons are probably equally valuable to just about any discipline that values creativity.

So it seems that the creative process will be the primary focus of El Bulli in its next incarnation, which will raise a fascinating question: can creativity be taught? It's a question that could be answered on a much smaller scale as we see the next generation of young chefs to emerge from Miami's kitchens try to find their own culinary voices.

[*]The most amusing part to me about these meanderings? It's apparently always the same old story. If you go back ten years in the Wayback Machine, the story of the day in 2000 was "New Generation Chefs?" Rumors of national names opening Miami restaurants were swirling, several big-name local chefs had established, maturing restaurants, and the big question was where the next generation of innovative chefs would come from.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Frod. It's nice to see the culinary community in Miami growing and getting some luv. It's also nice to have an increasing variety of restaurants to enjoy a meal at and that this includes unique options rather than "me too". In the end, everyone benefits.