Christine Guzman Talks Miami's Food Scene, Life In the Kitchen
Last week, we introduced you to Christine Guzman. She's a rising young Miami chef determined to
make it to the top of Miami's food chain and bring a new perspective to
In part two ahead, she gives her own perspective on
Miami's changing food scene and life on the kitchen floor. Iron-clad
with a positive outlook, she breathes fresh air to the sometimes hard
knock kitchen life.
Can't get enough of Chef Guzman? Don't forget to check out her blog, Lady of the Knife: Memoirs of a Chef, for more tasty tidbits.
New Times: How is Miami's food scene? What do you think is lacking and what do you think sets it apart?
Christine Guzman: I think there's both a lot to be desired about Miami's food scene as well as much needed improvements. I feel that many local restaurants,have succumbed to making mediocre food just to make the uninformed customer happy. To be perfectly honest, Miamians are not always the dream guests for chefs.
The average customer dining in Miami's restaurants (especially in South Beach) is a tourist or foreigner, leading to vast misinterpretations (and bad experiences) ranging from the language to dietary restrictions. It is also common for a lot of customers to want medium-well to well-done steaks. A normal chef cringes at this request. I certainly do- I'll take medium rare, please!. I figure it's just part of their culture. At the end of the day, it's all about putting out exceptional food.
Miami is in for a big treat in the years to come. There are a lot of interesting things happening below the surface and behind the scenes. Amazing concepts are coming our way.
Describe Miami's cuisine in your own words.
Miami's developing its own unique flavor. You can see the influence in the great mash-up of food that can be found here: Hispanic, Haitian, Caribbean, Southern. More specifically, at its best, Miami screams Cuban food.
What do you think are the city's hidden gems?
NAOE is one of my favorite restaurants. Kevin Cory really brings traditional Japanese to Miami and you don't hear too many people mention the restaurant, but it really has some power behind it from the local foodies. I also like Makoto, Hiro's Yakko-San, and Little Lotus. Can you tell I enjoy Japanese food? I will always enjoy Michael's Genuine, but that isn't a hidden gem anymore as much as it is a polished jewel. I have no problem in going to my very own employer, Tudor House Restaurant, on my days off to enjoy their Cuban sandwich. It really is one of the best sandwiches I've ever had.
How's the economy hitting your industry?
The economy took a big toll on the industry. Loads of restaurants are now closing, restructuring, and revitalizing like never before. A lot of entrepreneurs are being more careful with their investments and small business people can't get loans to open new restaurants.
What is life really like in the kitchen?
Kitchens tend to lead cooks into lives of long hours, prolonged heat exposure and hard work. When the line gets busy with orders, it is not uncommon to hear "Coming Down" When executed properly, the whole process of dinner service can look like synchronized swimming. It is not uncommon to hear the following phrases on a busy night: "Coming Down". "Fire Table 25", "Yes, Chef", "Second course in the window", "XXX is 86'd".
All of those cooking competition shows glorify a fraction of what we do on a day-to-day basis. You want to know what I did today besides my normal prep work and cooking on the line? I cleaned the walk-in refrigerator. Where are the shows about that? This is, of course, not a complaint, but a showing of pride. Cleanliness and organization are the building blocks on which all restaurants should pride themselves. It's a domino effect. The cleaner and more organized a place is, the more efficient it will run and the better the end product. It's certainly not an easy or glamorous job, and it's definitely more hectic than the ones portrayed in movies. But at the end of the day, I love what I do, and I love the people that I'm surrounded by. It's one big family.
How do newbies get treated in the industry?
Newbies are at the bottom of the barrel. In a normal European kitchen, commis were mandated to cook family meals, chop herbs, pretty much all of the low rung, basic chores. Somewhat similar in American kitchens, commis are often given cleaning and simple prep work to prove themselves to work with the chefs and cook for the customers. It takes a long time to gain the respect of your peers in the working kitchen environment
How does life in the kitchen compare to Anthony Bourdain's accounts of it?
First hand, I haven't really seen anything too crazy, but I've heard enough stories to know that there is truth to his statements. Granted, it is no longer the 80's and there is more control in the kitchens. Nowadays (at least in Miami), the partying seems to be strictly for after hours. Better for the customer.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
Don't give up! Give it your all and never look back. Some words I
live by that are guaranteed to take you to the top: dedication,
perseverance, common sense, and talent. You have to have thick skin and be willing to get dirty. The first thing they tell you in culinary school: If you're not willing to work nights, weekends, and holidays, then quit right this second.
What are your big plans for the future?
Most importantly, I want to keep working under well-respected chefs.
Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef at Tudor House Restaurant, is a great
example. His food is simple, but with a twist and delicious. I see so
many intriguing qualities in his food. Whether it is pickled produce,
braised chicken, or a foam, his use of colors, creativity and preciseness brings a dish together. I
hope to be half the chef he is one day.
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