Maybe the South Beach restaurant boom reflects this region's rich cuisine. Or maybe it's just another get-rich-quick scheme.

If you can't stand the heat...
"Okay guys, I'm dying!" croaks Jeffrey Applebaum as he shuffles back and forth in front of a long, stainless steel counter under the bright lights of his kitchen. "Come on, we're half an hour on this ticket! Let's get this food up! It's too hot in this place! I'm dying!"

Applebaum, a short, chubby man wearing restaurant-issue checkered pants bunched at his heels, rips a slip of paper off a small printing machine, "Three roast chickens, two meat loafs," the executive chef hollers, jamming the paper into a clip above the counter where a dozen other orders waver in the insufficient breeze from a small fan perched on a chair nearby. "Need a refire on this ravioli, and a lamb medium-rare." Applebaum's ten-strong kitchen staff is going full bore. "OK, let's pull it out! Roast chicken coming, two New Yorks rare. Fire another steamed fish. Pierre, fire a double shrimp. For Didier's table, two lambs medium-rare, ravioli. On the grill I need to fire a mahi and a breast." All the while, waiters, waitresses, and runners quickly ferry out the beautifully bedecked plates, held aloft on large trays.

Amid the whoosh of the oven vents, the sizzle from the grill and saute pans, and the perpetual chatter of the printer spewing out computerized orders from up front, there's little talk. Speaking wastes precious time. "OK, the breast is up with the two grouper specials, and I need a meat loaf, no gravy, right now!" Applebaum prods his four line cooks -- two on saute, two on grill -- who labor silently over their furnaces with a remarkable economy of movement. Brows and forearms glistening with sweat, squinting through the smoke and heat, the men resemble a 1930s WPA propaganda poster.

Applebaum grabs two plates adorned with seared rare tuna, mixed greens, and a miso vinaigrette. He garnishes the dish with black sesame seeds and delicately adjusts the arrangement with his pudgy fingers. The plate is out the door on a waiter's tray within seconds. It's as close to actual food preparation as Applebaum's going to get tonight. At 10:30 on a Saturday night, the crunch-time ballet has begun, and Applebaum has a dance to choreograph. "Okay guys! We're getting busy out there!" the chef warns, ripping a series of orders off the printer. "It's time ...to start ...hammering!"

Beyond the two heavy swinging doors it's all fun and beauty and money and revelry and gluttony in the dining room of The Strand restaurant on Miami Beach's Washington Avenue. Beneath the roar of conversation among the thirty- and fortysomething crowd, the funk music is but a muted throb. A normal speaking voice won't cut it. The waiters are in overdrive, it's three-deep at the bar, and anyone waiting for a table had better get comfortable for an hour, minimum. Charles Schreiner, one of three Frenchmen who bought the lease to the six-year-old restaurant in August of 1991 for $600,000, schmoozes with patrons and selectively distributes gold-laminated passes for a nightclub he recently debuted up the block. Beneath his long blond mane of corkscrew curls, Schreiner wears the smug grin of a host whose party is -- or at least appears to be -- going precisely as planned.

Two blocks away, on Ocean Drive, a chilly breeze is blowing off the Atlantic. Most of the 30-plus restaurants and watering holes on the strip are packed -- inside and out. But at the Sugar Reef, an outdoor restaurant nestled between the Bentley Hotel and the Monaco Hotel near Fifth Street, the breeze blows perhaps a little cooler. Here, a handful of people wearing wind-breakers and sweatshirts are hunched at the tiki bar. All but three of the 24 tables are empty.

"When the weather's good, we do fine," owner Rich O'Keefe says glumly. "But we've had a rainy year." He is leaning against the preparation counter in the kitchen of the restaurant he opened with his brother and two other investors five months ago, nursing a cranberry juice through a straw and swapping tales of past culinary exploits with the cook, Donald Usher. Except for a steak Martinique and a jerk chicken under way, there isn't another order in sight.

Until he bought Sugar Reef, which opened on the site of the short-lived Palm Cafe, O'Keefe was the executive chef for a restaurant in a Palm Beach County hotel, overseeing a kitchen staff of 45 and hauling down a healthy salary. "But the company went more corporate and there were memos for everything," he explains. "I had to have meetings to change the menu. I was gray and balding. Now it's growing back." The 30-year-old restaurateur grips a tuft of dark brown hair on his head. "No shit." The reminiscences get more and more wistful as the two frustrated cooks speak of kitchens past -- the real hot ones that cranked out 200, 300, and more meals a night.

O'Keefe and his partners originally served standard seafood fare, but business was slow. O'Keefe won't say how much he sunk into the place -- he shifts uncomfortably and looks away at the slightest mention of investments -- and when asked whether he thinks he will at least make back his money, he replies, "I hope it will soon. I don't want to get much into that." He looks down at his boat shoes. "The thing is that with me and my brother, this is all we know and we're kind of stuck in it."

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