When Blue Collar opened in January 2012, chef/owner Danny Serfer spent day and night at the small eatery, nurturing it like a new baby. The then-single chef said he worked all the time, taking no days off.
Serfer explains that being there 24/7 at the start of the fledgling restaurant was necessary for many reasons. "At Blue Collar, I couldn't afford a lot of people, so I was there all the time doing everything on my own with a small, talented team.
"I'm there getting dirty, and we're having successes and failures together. There's not anything I'm not willing to do. There were times I was up to my shoulders literally in the grease traps trying to solve plumbing issues."
"When you start a career as a chef, you're on the bottom. You're changing the fryer oil and taking out the garbage. Then, when you open your own restaurant, you're the low man again. You're taking out the garbage again, but this time you get paid even less. No one ever tells you about that. Chef Allen [Susser] never told me that. When I spoke to him about it, he just laughed."
That hands-on treatment worked, and Blue Collar soon became the place in Miami for food your mom would make (if she were a talented chef), serving slow-braised meats, pork 'n' beans, and a chalkboard full of veggies.
Now, three years later, Serfer has a family and a second restaurant, which he runs with business partner Ryan Roman. Mignonette, a seafood and oyster restaurant that's slightly larger than Blue Collar, retains the down-home charm of its working-class older sibling but offers a more polished menu. Serfer has scored yet another home run with this new establishment.
With two successful restaurants and a wife and son, Serfer found himself trying to reconcile his time between work and home. "At Blue Collar I could go from the line to the table and serve people. At Mignonette, Ryan [Roman] was a tremendous help, working the front, helping me develop the menu, and giving me guidance. The challenge becomes, since I'm now living here at Mignonette, how am I keeping things going at Blue Collar? That's the hardest thing to do."
At first, the going was rougher than he thought. Guests at his first restaurant complained that they never saw the chef there anymore, equating his hands-on persona with the mark of a good meal. Serfer says, "On one level, diners at Blue Collar are like, 'Yo, what about us?' and they're right.
"Once I realized that, I made it my goal to have a balance and to find talented people and get them on board. At some point, it goes from running a kitchen to running two businesses. The key is to have great people at both operations and hold them accountable. It's a constant work in progress."
Serfer moved some people around to see who fits where. Bobby Frank, originally from Blue Collar, went on to become Mignonette's chef de cuisine. Serfer explains he trained his current Blue Collar team, including duel chefs de cuisine Derek Camejo and Ervin Bryant, and general manager Stephanie Cuervo, to meet and exceed his talents in the kitchen.
Serfer is encouraging the Miami dining scene to get to know the chefs. "Bobby just did a Bite With Belkys segment, and we're working to have Derek and Ervin on the Blue Collar website. I would like more people to know these chefs. I love those guys. I love everyone on the staff. The last two weeks of the year we were swamped, but they made it look so easy.
"We try to have a culture of warmth. We can teach people how to serve and cook, but we can't teach them to have a good attitude. If they're open and they're willing to learn, that's the good stuff you can create a good team around. You have to nurture that and do what you can to keep those people around."
Serfer says now that Mignonette has been open for nearly half a year, he plans to divide his time more equally between the two restaurants. "It wouldn't be fair to just go to one place. I love cooking and being behind the line and actually being there and making things happen, but I really want people to keep an open mind and not think, It's not the same when Danny is not there. It could, in fact, be better, because my chefs and staff are trying so hard to make it as good or better."
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On a recent Thursday evening at Blue Collar, the restaurant is packed. The casual, friendly vibe is contagious, and when a woman at a nearby table overhears me order a side of curried cauliflower, she exclaims she just had them and they're delicious. Although Serfer is not present, the chicken thigh parmigiana is succulent, and the tiny dining room hums with efficiency. I tell Serfer that the food was just as good as if he were there. Instead of being offended, he puffs with pride. "That's the greatest thing I can hear. I have to empower and let people make decisions and solve problems when I'm not around. It's also a good lesson for me for parenting."