By Emily Codik
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By Laine Doss
Here are the rumors: Bicoastal celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa may be bringing his pan-Asian talents to Miami -- there's talk of the Shore Club location. Top toque Jean-Georges Vongerichten could be doing the same. And the Big Apple's Keith McNally, whose Balthazar, which publishes one phone number but keeps a “secret” one unlisted for the A list (the only way one can actually snag a reservation), has been said to be scouting a spot near the Publix on the Bay on South Beach.Now here are the facts: If any of these rumors do indeed pan out (and they just might), we'll probably enjoy having a third-string Nobu or Vong. After all these chefs are notables in the field. But in exchange we lose our culinary character.
Ever since Miami achieved a certain cachet in the national food mags, celebrity-oriented restaurants and chefs have been coming down from New York to launch outposts. The most successful of these, China Grill, now runs a virtual banana republic of eateries here. So attempted takeovers are nothing new.
But we've always managed to counter raids on our regional identity with homegrown celebs: Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Allen Susser. Originally known as the Mango Gang (or the Mango Mafia, as they later came to be called, though somewhat derisively), in the mid to late Eighties these chefs revolutionized local cookery and collectively created a vibe called New World cuisine. And they weren't content to be overworked cooks for others. Like Matsuhisa and Vongerichten, all three eventually opened their own eponymous restaurants and launched a tidal wave of Caribbean-infused gastronomy so potent the nation had no choice but to take notice. Consider that each chef has been awarded, among many others, the highest honor in the biz: the James Beard Award.
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Perhaps inspired by the budding interest in our bizarre little city, several other chefs came to take up residence in the early Nineties, with one goal in mind: to open their own restaurants. Robbin Haas began as executive chef at the Colony Bistro, took partnership interests in Bang and Bex, and now has a piece of his latest creation Baleen. Yugoslav-born and Jama executive chef Klime Kovaceski launched his Crystal Café. Michael Schwartz, who trained under Wolfgang Puck in California, opened Nemo. Jonathan Eismann came to Eastern Time to introduce us to Pacific Time. Jan Jorgensen and long-time resident Soren Bredahl teamed up to form Two Chefs. Cindy Hutson and Delius Shirley gave us Norma's on the Beach before moving on to Ortanique on the Mile. None of these men and women has a strict New World philosophy, but each one's fare undoubtedly has been influenced by Miami's tropical and multiethnic environment.
That adds up to eleven chef-proprietors, whose restaurants (with the exception of Baleen, Ortanique, and Mark's South Beach) are all at least five years old. And since eateries age like dogs, that's about 35 years in terms of public interest. In other words the restaurants have been around long enough for us to deposit them in our culinary consciousness, and to dig them out and rattle them off whenever someone mentions Miami. The city's food media, the national journalists, and the dining public now consider these chefs irrefutable hometown boys and girls who not only work here but have a personal stake in the region's economy.
So the problem lies not with this first and second generation of chef-proprietors. It lies with the third. To put it bluntly, hardly anyone has come out of these noted kitchens and opened, to either local or nationwide acclaim, an innovative restaurant.
Yes, many of the chef-proprietors have “placed” their people in high-profile positions or been on the hiring end. Van Aken guided his former executive chef Rob Boone to his current post at Bambú. Eismann found Frank Randazzo, who now strikes Argentine gold at the Gaucho Room, and Frank Jeannetti, who later teamed up with Schwartz at Nemo (and has since left and is now at the Biltmore Hotel). Hutson and Shirley brought Mary Rohan, a chef I've been watching for years as she developed her talents, into the Ortanique organization.
But it still appears that for the most part, while our most beloved chef-proprietors are being proper mentors, they're not training people to go out there and be the competition we need to perpetuate our gastronomic identity. Or are they? Klime Kovaceski is inordinately proud of one of his former chefs, Shyqyri Trotlini, who recently opened Mario's Pizza in North Miami Beach. Not exactly a landmark restaurant, but still, Kovaceski feels good about his ex-employee's potential. “If you work here,” he says, “you're not going to know how to be an executive chef in a high-end hotel. But you'll know how to be nice to the man who fixes the refrigeration.” In short he deliberately advises his staff on how to be responsible businessmen. Where they take his edicts afterwards is up to them; one of his former chefs is now a cook in a correctional facility.
Van Aken agrees with Kovaceski's philosophy. “We have an old-fashioned model here [at Norman's]. We train our people about seasonal and regional cooking. And our promise is that you work here for two to three years, and the pedigree you come out with will boost your career.”