When Alexandra "Alex" Guarnaschelli opens her three concept places at the new Nautilus South Beach Hotel (1825 Collins Ave.), Miami Beach residents will already be familiar with her face, if not her cooking.
The celebrity chef is a judge on Food Network's Chopped, alongside Miami Beach restaurant veterans Scott Conant (of Scarpetta and Corsair) and Geoffrey Zakarian (who owned Tudor House in South Beach). Guarnaschelli, who is also executive chef at New York City's Butter restaurant, grew up with food. As the daughter of cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, the chef first learned about food by watching her mother test recipes at home and then spent time in restaurants in France, Los Angeles, and New York, including Guy Savoy's La Butte Chaillot, Daniel Boulud's Daniel, and Joachim Splichal's Patina. Guarnaschelli is also a chef instructor at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education.
Guarnaschelli's three restaurants at Nautilus South Beach are set to open this Friday, October 23. Driftwood Room is the main dining room, and Nautilus Cabana Club will serve more casual fare by the pool. The chef will also be in charge of the property's lobby bar. The native New Yorker says the decision to expand to South Beach was easy. "Miami Beach is beautiful, and I'm all about the ingredients. That's the driving force of most of what I do in cooking.
"I have the opportunity to go to Miami a couple times a year, and I started looking around the markets and eating around the restaurants. It's a land dripping with natural resources. I love a good steak, but I'm a closet vegetarian, and all the produce in Miami just speaks to me. I also have the chance to collaborate with people I love and respect on a project that's not too large and feels very personal and intimate. I'm not a person who has tons of restaurants, so all those items I described add up to a pretty compelling equation."
The chef plans to spend plenty of time in Miami, though she hasn't yet decided where to live: "I haven't gotten that far yet. You overestimate my powers of organization." Luckily for Guarnaschelli, her restaurants are located in Nautilus, which officially opened October 15.
The 250-room hotel was designed in the 1950s by architect Morris Lapidus and has been restored to its former glory and given its original name. "I love that there's that feeling of history at the hotel. I grew up in an old building in Midtown Manhattan, and so I love that underneath the new paint and the pool is a feeling of history. My initial reaction is to get up, roll out of bed, and get to work. Miami Beach is not my hometown, so I should probably spend my time absorbing the surroundings."
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To get acquainted with her surroundings, Guarnaschelli has spent time exploring Miami's culinary and cultural scene. "We went to the Coconut Grove farmers' market; I visited Zak the Baker; I had Panther Coffee and real Cuban coffee. There's this thread of Cuban tradition snaking its way through Miami that I love. There's a lot to work with here. I'm just pretty inspired by it. I know that sounds hokey, but I am. I don't want to take over Miami — I simply want to enter humbly and be a part of the culture."
The food at her Miami Beach restaurants will be inspired by the Mediterranean and Miami Beach. "I lived in France for several years, and I visited the coast and the Riviera a bit. There's a unique feeling you get looking out at the Mediterranean. I think if we can capture a little of that, we would have a success. In restaurants today, there's an inclination to pile things up so people have a feeling of bounty, but there's something about eating a well-cooked fish. There's a way to harness the energy of the food and have that feeling of being by a beach. So 'don't get in the way' is my feeling. Let's not get in the way of the good stuff we've got here."
Saturday, February 27, 2016, the chef will host the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Dolce Brunch at her new restaurant (tickets cost $200), giving her a chance to spotlight the venue for hundreds of discerning food fans. "We're all about the brunch, so no partying for me the night before. I'm really excited about the Dolce Brunch. When you open your doors to a community of people who are food-centric, it's a time to put your best foot forward. Brunch is a time to not be serious, but I'm taking this one very seriously."
Guarnaschelli will travel to the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale the following day to cohost a bloody mary brunch with her fellow Chopped cast members (tickets cost $175) as part of SoBeWFF. That brunch holds a little less pressure. "The bloody mary brunch is a time for people. It's a chance to see the cast of the show. People feel like they know us. It's an unscripted show where they see our reactions. When you see someone on TV and you meet them in real life, it's kind of a magical thing."