Left of the Corporate Center

News Alert: Chefs say working for The Man sets them free

By definition, fine-dining chefs aren't your average day-jobbers. Their hours are mostly converse to those experienced by the rest of the vocational world. Their kitchen society is a caste, made up of which group has the right to instruct another bunch on how to chop onions. Their duties can range from sautéing said onions to disarming irate dishwashers who would rather wield a butcher knife than scrub it for the zillionth time.

Usually these chefs' personalities -- especially those who are veterans of the South Beach dining scene -- reflect their choice of work. In short, these folks tend to be offbeat, artistic, and possessed of vision. Or just plain possessed: Many chefs, and I mean this in the best way, are also self-indulgent, drunken insomniacs, God bless 'em. For those of us equally strange, creative types who don't mind the oddball 4:00 p.m. breakfast date or 2:00 a.m. after-dinner-shift shot of tequila, South Beach chefs, erstwhile or current, are plenty good company.

But good company flunkies they ain't. Which is why I first started to giggle when Robbin Haas, who has been known to challenge me to the occasional drinking contest, went from running restaurants filled with lounge-itude like BANG on Washington Avenue to acting as corporate executive chef for Noble House Resorts, including Grove Isle and its signature restaurant Baleen. I continued to chuckle this past summer, when former Nemo, Big Pink, Shoji Sushi chef-owner Michael Schwartz wound up at the Beach House Bal Harbour's Atlantic in the bosom of the Rubell hotel family. And I cracked up for real about six weeks ago, when ex-Tantra toque Willis Loughhead traded in the Kama Sutra for a Ritz-Carlton, Coconut Grove company handbook that dictates just how hard Bizcaya Grill employees should click their heels.

Jeremy Eaton

Location Info

Map

Baleen

4 Grove Isle Drive
Coconut Grove, FL 33133

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Coconut Grove

Nemo Restaurant

100 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach

Big Pink Restaurant South Beach

157 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach

Shoji Sushi

100 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: South Beach

Chispa

225 Altara Ave.
Coral Gables, FL 33146-1422

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Coral Gables/South Miami

Perhaps the funniest thing is, however, just how well Haas flourished in his role, which has allowed him to come full circle, leave his comfortable corporate job, and sign the lease for his own dining spot Chispa, projected for March 2003 in the Collection building -- which houses a "Collection" of luxury cars -- next door to Merrick Park. "I wasn't bored," Haas says. "[Noble House] has taken great care of me, and I left on very good terms. I still have a real fondness for Baleen, and the property we just opened in Seattle is terrific. But this opportunity came along and I knew I had to take it."

Haas probably sounds more excited about this 220-seat project than I've ever heard him. He's started a restaurant company called Water 2 Wine, where he won't be taking the Jesus Christ imagery too literally, but hopes to capitalize on his reputation for turning restaurants into success stories. He enthusiastically describes the forthcoming menu as a "contemporary Haas take on Latin cuisine, not Nuevo Latino but still with influences of Cuban and the Hispanic Caribbean and South America. More like updated Latino comfort foods, with a reasonable check average." He adds reflectively, "I'm not thinking of [Chispa] as moving on. I'm thinking of it as moving up."

Clearly, though it may sound just as unusual for such innovative independents, both Schwartz and Loughhead are seeing their new positions in the same bright light. Loughhead especially is relishing his highly structured environment.

Indeed Bizcaya Grill is about as far away in concept and culinary direction from Tantra as one could get. But Loughhead seems especially happy with this complete paradigm shift. "I have so much more room to learn and grow," Loughhead acknowledges. "I actually have more freedom to flex my mind-muscles." Part of that autonomy, in the face of conformity, comes from the Ritz-Carlton itself. Always chef-driven, the company's insistence on top quality, both product- and service-wise, speaks to Loughhead's own preferences. In other words, he doesn't have to fight for the right to buy the best foie gras available; in fact it's practically part of his job description.

Nor is the chain of command, a series of complex links, a problem for him. In the past, at Tantra and at Palm Grill, he really only had to answer to the respective owners. Now he must confer with and win approval from management on all levels, especially German-born Roberto Holz, who oversees Bizcaya Grill as well as the culinary operations for the entire hotel. "We have a great working relationship. We catch glimpses of each other, give a wink or a nod, and we know what the other one is thinking."

The results of the New World-Old World partnership are obvious to the eye as well as the palate: that stunning foie gras served with an elegant sip of honey-lavender vinegar. Charred venison served over Paradise Farm micro-greens with amarene cherry vinaigrette. Cochinillo (suckling pig) with crisp-to-tender layers striated like a geologist's rock sample.

Given his most recent post, some of the job conditions might have seemed a little too conservative for Loughhead's taste. He recalls, "During one of the interviews, Roberto kept laughing at me. Finally I asked him why. He said, 'You know you're going to have to shave, don't you?'" But he shrugs off grooming mandates. "So I don't get to keep a goatee. In reality, whether you're working for a corporation or not, everybody in a kitchen should be keeping their hair and fingernails short. It's really not too tough to adhere to standards." He chuckles. "Roberto had a goatee when he started, too."

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