When you’ve been watching the South Florida culinary world as long as I have, you start to see cycles. The 1990s were dominated by the “Mango Gang” – Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Allen Susser, Douglas Rodriguez – who brought refined, fine-dining technique to the bright, tropical flavors of the Caribbean and Latin America. The next decade saw the coronation of a king and queen of Miami dining: Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine and Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s, each of whom earned national recognition for their namesake restaurants.
This latest decade has been more difficult to pin down. We’ve seen the maturing of a diverse batch of local talent: the ever-expanding empire started by Jose Mendin and his fellow Pubbelly Boys; the pop-up-gone-grown-up Giorgio Rapicavoli, who started with Eating House and recently added the much swankier Glass & Vine in Coconut Grove; and the special talent of Alter’s Brad Kilgore, named a Food & Wine magazine “Best New Chef” and a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant” award. At the same time, we’ve seen a wave of boldface-name chefs from all around the country stake their claims in South Florida: José Andrés, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Andrew Carmellini, Tom Colicchio, to list just a few.
But what we’re also starting to see, especially in this past year, is the emergence of a new generation of chefs who trained under some of those more recognized names, and are now having a go of it themselves. Even with the increasing popularity of culinary school and the shelves of cookbooks published every year, the “self-taught” chef is a rare thing indeed, and usually a myth. The nuts and bolts of the cooking trade are still usually learned on the job. Here are several young South Florida chefs who learned from some of the best.
John Gallo & Rene Reyes – Pinch Kitchen
The paths of John Gallo and Rene Reyes first crossed about 10 years ago, when they were both working stations at South Beach Italian mainstay, Casa Tua. A few years later, they found themselves together again working for the Pubbelly Boys. Both were on chef Jose Mendin’s opening team for Pubbelly Sushi in Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour, and then the next-door Spanish bistro, Barceloneta. When Barceloneta opened a second spot in South Miami, Gallo was the chef de cuisine; Reyes was his sous chef. The two have occasionally gone their separate ways – Gallo worked at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne, Reyes has spent time in some of New York’s top kitchens (Ai Fiori, Roberta’s, Estela) – but they say they always knew they’d open a restaurant together.
That finally happened at the end of last year with Pinch Kitchen, where they are co-chef/owners. Like the original Pubbelly, Pinch is very much a neighborhood kind of place. The furnishings are spare and simple, and the kitchen is open, lined by a bar with about a half dozen seats. If you’ve been once, the servers will probably remember you the next time you’re there, and may even recall your last order.
The compact menu at Pinch doesn’t overtly resemble any of the Pubbelly restaurants where the duo worked. Most dishes keep things pretty simple, but often have one or two components that provide an unexpected jolt of flavor. For a salad of fresh greens and shaved vegetables, it’s a vinaigrette fragrant with oregano. In a dish of steamed clams, it’s the salty funk of guanciale and the zing of fresh ginger. Things can get more adventurous with the daily specials. On one day, it was a tartare of fresh wahoo, the diced fish mixed with sweet, tart peaches and fiery fresh chiles. On another, it was the pork secreto, a “secret” butcher’s cut that has a robust texture like skirt steak, served with a Catalan romesco sauce, charred pearl onions, and a frothy potato foam overflowing from a crisp potato cup.
Save room for dessert: in particular, their chocolate soufflé, airy in texture but with deep chocolate flavor, baked inside of a hollowed-out orange. Poke a hole in the top of the soufflé, pour some of the rich crème anglaise inside, and scrape your spoon along the side of the orange to release its citrus perfume. It’s wonderful.
Michael Beltran & Dallas Wynne – Ariete
Michael Beltran had the good fortune to work with not one, but two of Miami’s best chefs before going out on his own. Inspired by one of Norman Van Aken’s cookbooks, the native Miamian made it a goal to work for the chef coming out of school. Though Beltran was young and green, Van Aken brought him aboard at his Coral Gables restaurant Norman’s 180. When Van Aken opened Tuyo, a restaurant atop Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute, Beltran followed him. He now calls Van Aken his “culinary godfather.” After a year at Tuyo, Beltran moved on to work for another top Miami chef, Michael Schwartz. As sous chef at the Cypress Room (now called Cypress Tavern), Beltran absorbed Schwartz’s dedication to local products and simple, straightforward cooking.
You see the influences of both chefs in the menu at Beltran’s own restaurant, Ariete, which he opened in Coconut Grove at the beginning of this year. There’s a seared foie gras, with sour orange vinegar and “temptation caramel,” which echoes Van Aken’s famous “Down Island French Toast” in which the duck liver is marinated in curacao, orange zest and spices, and served over brioche French toast drizzled with citrus caramel. Beltran’s dish adds an intriguing deep, sweet, smoky note with ember-roasted plantains, then multiplies the complex dark flavors with the bitter chocolate of cocoa nibs.
There’s also a daily fish special which highlights Beltran’s confidence in great ingredients and classic preparations. On my last visit, the featured item was excellent local pumpkin swordfish, its flesh given a pinkish-orange hue by a diet rich in crustaceans. It’s served with a hollandaise sauce bright with lemon that’s textbook other than the curious addition of peanuts. It’s unusual, but it works. And when was the last time you had Steak Diane? Beltran’s bringing it back, but lightens it up by using a lean, rosy loin of venison with the classic sauce of mushrooms and pan juices.
Ariete’s pastry chef, Dallas Wynne, had some good training too: she previously worked for former Michael’s Genuine pastry chef extraordinaire Hedy Goldsmith. It shows in a dessert that starts with a creamy chocolate cremeux that’s been a fixture on the Genuine menu, but adds a layer of pale green matcha and white chocolate, and tops it with slivers of candied orange.
By pure coincidence, I ran into Van Aken a couple weeks ago, enjoying a bit of relaxation after opening his new restaurant in Mount Dora, 1921 NVA. When I mentioned the good things Beltran was doing at Ariete, he beamed like a proud papa.
Mike Mayta & Keily Vasquez – Dusk
Michelle Bernstein is many things: James Beard Award-winning chef, TV show host, community leader through her work for Common Threads, former ballerina. Add matchmaker to the list as well. Mike Mayta and Keily Vasquez started dating while working in the kitchen at Michy’s. Mike was a culinary school graduate; Keily had grown up working in her family’s restaurants in El Salvador. A couple years later, the couple started their own bakery business, Illegal Bakery, selling macarons and other more offbeat pastry items. When Bernstein reopened Michy’s as Cena, she brought them back, with Mayta as chef de cuisine, and Vasquez as pastry chef, making them responsible for adding some new dishes to go along with many of the old Michy’s favorites. At a meal there last year, Michelle nudged the somewhat shy Mayta over to our table to talk up some of the dishes he’d created.
Unfortunately, Cena is no more. But Mike and Keily are still cooking. In September, Bernstein gave them the chance to use Crumb on Parchment, her breakfast-and-lunch spot in the Design District, as a pop-up dinner venue they called “Dusk.” The short menu they created and executed showed both the finesse and technique they learned from their mentor, and their own whimsical, goofy sense of humor.
Michelle’s croquetas were always the best in town, and clearly Mayta was paying attention to the recipe. But instead of the serrano ham and blue cheese classic at Michy’s, at Dusk they serve Caesar salad croquetas: rich with parmesan, pungent with anchovy, plus some greenery so you can pretend you’re eating a (fried) salad. Dusk’s version of chicken and biscuits features creamy, silky chicken liver mousse, accompanied by a flaky, crisp edged biscuit, and some bracingly sour zucchini pickles to cut all that richness. The “Étouffée Brute” had a name worthy of a “Bob’s Burgers” daily special, but was a lot more than just a silly pun. The Cajun-Italian hybrid, a sort of seafood stew risotto, emboldened with spicy ‘nduja sausage, flecked with crispy dried okra, and topped with a plump, head-on royal red shrimp, was a genuinely great dish. Desserts at Dusk are Keily’s domain, where she creates lovely things like her dainty blueberry hand pies, served with a sweet corn ice cream, or a classic British sticky toffee pudding, adapted to Miami with the addition of mango ice cream.
The Dusk pop-up is over, but look for them to reappear for Art Basel. Follow this couple – Mayta and Vasquez will surely be up to something else fun soon.