As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better

Michael Schwartz: "We let our food speak for itself."
Michael Schwartz: "We let our food speak for itself."
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

Michael Schwartz's success nearly cost him his marriage. It was May 2010 when the bespectacled, increasingly gray-haired chef claimed a James Beard Award for Best Chef South. He was working more than ever, nearly abandoning all other aspects of his life. "I had my head down all the time," the 52-year-old says over lunch at his flagship Design District restaurant Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. "I lived in that kitchen."

In the years since, Schwartz has become an ever-larger celebrity. Today, weekday lunches inside his black-and-white dining room with vermilion lamps and accents are a boisterous scene. You can barely hear the jazz noodling over the chatter. As Schwartz splits open an emerald-green falafel, tops it with a lavender twirl of pickled onion, and plunges it into tahini, a woman in a floral-print dress leans over the dark-wood table to say she's never had a bad meal here. Later, as he smears some grainy mustard and a velvety pork rillette onto a hunk of grilled bread, an older gentleman in tortoiseshell glasses and seersucker pants pulls Schwartz aside to insist the chef runs the city's best restaurant. "You and [Books & Books owner] Mitch Kaplan have done more for this town than anyone," the man proclaims.

And now Schwartz is busier than ever. His Genuine Hospitality Group runs five restaurants in Miami and six aboard an armada of Royal Caribbean's largest cruise ships. Three more restaurants are coming in high-end buildings under construction in Edgewater, Brickell, and Coconut Grove.

Yet as some high-profile chefs and restaurateurs choose to go it alone and open under their own flag, Schwartz's expansion has come primarily alongside cruise lines, hoteliers, and their management companies.

As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

The reasons are many. He can disperse cooks with his culinary ethos across the city. His favorite farmers receive ever larger orders. Then come the financial benefits: There's exposure and expansion at a fraction of the cost. Schwartz inks lucrative licensing deals for his brand, likeness, and know-how. Plus, it helps him get out of the kitchen to spend more time with his family, including his three children.

Whether the three forthcoming restaurants succeed could determine if Schwartz's grand gamble is an ingenious plan or a haphazard mismanagement of all of his success.

It seems a risky endeavor. "I like to have control — the more control the better — but collaboration is important too," he says. So far, he has no complaints about the working relationship on any of his forthcoming projects, although he admits being "scared as fuck" when learning Philippe Starck would design his Brickell restaurant. "I thought they were going to do whatever they wanted, but they didn't," he says.

As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

At the heart of the operation is Schwartz's belief that he can do more outside his restaurant's kitchen than he ever could inside it. "My role now is mentoring," he says. "I feel like I'm able to accomplish more culinarily through these guys by coaching, eating, talking about food, [as well as] doing research and reading."

The philosophy will be tested later this year when he opens his Italian-inspired concept Fi'lia inside the SLS Brickell. It might set the tone for his follow-up restaurants in Edgewater's Paraiso Bay and Coconut Grove's Park Grove — which will bring the total number of restaurants under his banner to 14.

But looking around the bustling dining room at Michael's Genuine, it's hard to bet against him. Though its menu has swelled and contracted, favorites come and gone, much has remained the same. A bracing peach salad, sweet and smoky thanks to a few grilled wedges of the sugary stone fruit, remains a summer staple. A recent version included ricotta salata and pistachios for salt and crunch. Hearts of palm slivers and bitter greens lent a snappy punch. It's one to re-create at home.

As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

Schwartz's crispy pork belly, a longtime favorite born in the early days of the preteen Miami hipster's obsessions with all things porcine, also has staying power. The slabs of belly are far leaner than the irresistible cubes at El Palacio de Los Jugos. Delicious as Palacio's might be, Schwartz's iteration, with a sweet and spicy glaze topped with crushed peanuts and cilantro, offers a more complex pork flavor. It deepens when a forkful hits the palate with a few shards of crisp, spicy kimchee.

Fish preparations can be likened to the later works of Mark Rothko, the painter renowned for his sprawling canvasses with large blocks of color. Here, there's little more than salt, pepper, and a hard sear. A meaty fillet of yellow jack has all the sweet, buttery flavor of a perfect sea scallop and the satisfying texture of good grilled swordfish. The same delight can be found in a portion of grouper topped with a Mohawk of charred lychees, which might already be out of season. Only a few bitter curls of arugula adorn each plate.

Getting to this point was no simple feat. And if Schwartz launched Miami's so-called farm-to-table movement, he no longer has a monopoly on it. Though he says he doesn't feel pressure to keep up, he and his top lieutenants such as executive chef Bradley Herron and director of operations Charles Bell are constantly looking for new ways to remain relevant while updating and improving what's been done. Schwartz admits the menu has at times grown too large for its own good, and the kitchen is constantly resisting the urge to overmanipulate its ingredients. "We let our food speak for itself," he says.

As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

In spite of that, the offerings in recent years have changed a bit to include some technique and far-flung gastronomies. Pleasantly woody caramelized carrots have been glazed in everything from a fragrant, peppy sambal butter to a smoky harissa.

The addition of a raw bar has brought a whole new section. A snapper ceviche offers all the familiar, bright flavors of summer via juicy bits of tangerine and mango alongside an herbaceous pop of cilantro and fatty lick of avocado. The lone problem is the overabundance of the accoutrements. There are a few lumps of translucent flesh, but so few this dish should've been advertised as some kind of summer salad.

Pasta has also played more prominently as of late. And recently, casarecce — a kind of free-form noodle whose edges curl to form a double-barrel shotgun shape — has been the platform for everything from a rich cacio e pepe zapped with lemon juice to a combination of creamy eggplant cubes and bright, biting cherry tomatoes.

Expect more of it, as well as pizza, at his upcoming Brickell restaurant. The latter should be a cinch considering the years of practice and success he's had at Harry's Pizzeria (the second Harry's opened in Coconut Grove late last year, and Schwartz says he thinks the concept can be scaled).

As Milestones Near, Michael Schwartz Finds Busier Is Better
Courtesy of the Genuine Hospitality Group

The other two forthcoming spots are still marinating, but they'll be guided by their surroundings. The one in Edgewater, which overlooks the bay and sits next to a park, will have plenty of "wood-fired apparatus." The Coconut Grove concept is being planned as the "ultimate neighborhood restaurant; it could borrow a lot of elements from [Michael's Genuine] in its familiarity and unpretentiousness," he says.

Despite his move to management, Schwartz still has the trademark neuroses of an overachieving chef. He can't concentrate on any one thing for too long. He's constantly watching how servers interact with guests, observing how the kitchen handles the lunch rush, and policing other invisible details. "That's how I am — superparanoid," he says. Even with all of the new restaurants, the worrisome tics of a first-time chef/owner are still there. It's hard to see anything wrong in that.

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
130 NE 40th St., Miami; 305-573-5550; michaelsgenuine.com. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Falafel $6
  • Peach salad $10
  • Pork rillette $11
  • Snapper ceviche $14
  • Crispy pork belly $16
  • House-made casarecce $18
  • Wood-oven-roasted grouper $24
  • Carrots $8
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