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When restaurateur Mary Anne Richter initially dined at Café Max in Pompano Beach, about three days after it opened in 1984, she was hardly impressed. “I went in for dinner with two friends, and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” she laughs. “They lost the exhaust, you couldn't eat, the wood-burning oven [malfunctioned] -- everything was just a mess.”
Nevertheless she had a feeling about Café Max, the California-style eatery proprietors Dennis and Patti Max opened as their first venture together. “Even under the worst conditions, I could tell this was going to be phenomenal. I just knew by [the Maxes'] knowledge, their enthusiasm, what they were trying to bring here,” she explains. Going on her instincts, Richter, who was acquainted with the Maxes socially, half-jokingly offered the pair her services: “I said, “Okay, if you're ever looking for another partner, let me know.'” To the Café Max bargaining table she brought an investment partner, John DiMarco, who also assisted in getting Café Max off the ground.
But approximately two months after debuting, one element was still off. “We were missing the chef who understood the vision,” Dennis Max admits. Richter agrees that the chef Max had initially hired wasn't working out. But it was Patti Max, the partner most eligible for the Underappreciated Player Award, who discovered Mark Militello, the creative force who would propel Café Max into the national spotlight. (Patti Max did not acknowledge requests to be interviewed for this story.) “Patti went from restaurant to restaurant looking for a chef,” Richter recounts. “I remember her saying she found him at this little spot [in Fort Lauderdale] doing Mexican food.... A few months after [he was hired], we got the Dining à la Carte Award for Best Appetizer, and that basically started the career of Max.”
Not to mention the career of Mark Militello, though Richter does admit to a certain irony stemming from that first honor. “It's funny,” she says, “because [the award] was for Patti's recipe, the caviar pie. [But] Mark was definitely significant in the success of Café Max.”
And success it was. In 1985 restaurant critic Lucy Cooper wrote in the Miami Herald:“In a business arena so overcrowded that its failures are estimated as high as 90 percent, Café Max is a phenomenon. It is this year's major success story.” Dennis Max concurs that Café Max was a right-place, right-time kind of eatery. Indeed it had become a tricounty draw in what Max calls “the emerging South Florida market. The license plates and credit cards were from all over.”
Never a slow mover, Max capitalized on Café Max's rapid rise and opened Max's Place in North Miami a year later. There Militello asserted himself in creating the precursor to New World cuisine. In 1985 he described his philosophy to Cooper: “I have been very much influenced by such California chefs as Mark Miller and Jeremiah Tower ... with their emphasis on a free style and the use of fresh products obtained, as much as possible, from local sources.... Because I live in Florida, it would follow that I would want to use Florida products and be influenced by the cooking of the region.” Just don't call him a Floridian, or say his cuisine is Floribbean. If there's one thing Militello has remained consistent about over the years -- right behind his disdain for the press -- it's his hatred of labels.
Militello came out of Florida International University, where he graduated from the hotel/restaurant school with a bachelor's degree in applied science. (The chef hails from a suburb of Buffalo, New York.) Earlier goals for him included playing college ice hockey and becoming a doctor. He achieved the first, scrapped the second and, like most chefs, found his vocational niche at a relatively young age. By the time he was 30 years old, he was running the two most popular restaurants in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and had received kudos from local and national media alike.
Unfortunately as a Max partner, Militello was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on cuisine. In 1986 he became the chef at yet another eatery, the ultrastylish Maxaluna in Boca Raton, which would initially prove the most popular of the three. As a result not only was Militello overseeing the trio of restaurants as a corporate chef, according to Richter, he also was driving to all three counties, sometimes visiting every location in the same day. Such commuting left little time for culinary creativity. Nor did it lead to hands-on supervising. Charles Saunders was chef de cuisine at Maxaluna, where he quickly made his national reputation. Oliver Saucy says he was hired on at Café Max right when Max's Place opened. As a result he rarely worked with Militello. “I was technically hired by Mark, but he was mainly at [the restaurant] in Miami.” Not that Saucy minded. The then-twentysomething had what he calls “free creative rein within the framework” of the restaurant's concept. In fact he did so well that in 1988, he and his partner, Darrel Broek, a general manager at Café Max, bought the place from the Maxes. Now called Darrel and Oliver's Café Maxx, the restaurant is still one of the most respected in the nation.