Marvin Woods, author of the recently released The New Low-Country Cooking, sounds mildly surprised when asked about his reception here in South Florida. I've got nothing but positive writeups and warm welcomes from the people here, he says. My best book signing was in Pembroke Pines. I sold 55 books, which is amazing. I might have had one or two friends there, but the rest of the people I didn't know.
Woods just moved to Pembroke Pines from North Carolina, so perhaps it's not too astonishing that the community there would support one of its own. Even so it isn't really that hard to figure out why locals seem willing to buy Woods's book. For one thing the tome, which promotes coastal Southern cooking with innovative style, is pleasantly straightforward. Traditional recipes for black-eyed peas appear alongside more modern takes on fare like the gingersnap-braised chicken. But neither type of preparation is overly stylized nor complicated.
If that doesn't convince the home cook to invest, then there's the Frogmore stew or seafood gumbo that Woods brings along to each signing for 60 to 70 people to taste. Not to be too cynical, but let's face it: Spot somebody something for free and he's more likely to dish out the cash in the end.
And it may be that people fondly remember the 36-year-old Woods himself, no stranger to the gastronomically minded down here in the subtropics. A good-looking guy who wears a bandanna wrapped around his head instead of a toque, he popped on to the Miami dining scene in September 1997 with a blast of baking powder at the now-defunct Savannah (in the spot where Tuscan Steak currently is). The restaurant served Woods's signature reinvented Low Country cuisine, but it also presented the community with something more: the first high-profile black-owned business on South Beach. Peter Thomas, who was Savannah's main proprietor, is Jamaican, and Woods, who was chef-proprietor, is African American. Tired of covering Latin-Anglo conflicts, the media loved the opportunity to get into basic race relations, recalling the days when the Beach was bigot-friendly. One media player got even more involved. Channel 4 (WFOR-TV) anchor Angela Rae married Woods in 1997, and the wedding was considered celebrity news.
So the question is not why Woods has been greeted with arms as open as the expanse of South Florida sea and sky. It's why the hell would he come back in the first place?
Despite positive reviews and a big fan base, Savannah barely survived the season, going under in June 1998. Savannah was mismanaged, plain and simple, Woods recalls. Peter wasn't supposed to be the operating partner but he fired the general manager. So he took over. But Peter is a high-profile person. [The restaurant] became like a living room for him. His friends would come and hang out and get comped. Plus, he observes, People go into the restaurant business for the wrong reasons. They don't realize the profit margin is small. You make a nickel or a dime off every dollar.
So Savannah was nickel-and-dimed to death and Woods was out of a restaurant. He also was out of his marriage, which died about the same time, falling victim to the restaurant business, Woods acknowledges.
But rather than bemoaning his ill-fated luck, he quickly moved on to the National Hotel, which had just opened a month or two before. By July 1998 he was installed as executive chef of the Oval Room, a beautifully designed dining room that resembled a formal library, once again getting good press for his kitchen wizardry. I still consider the sweetbreads that he made at the Oval Room to be one of the best preparations I've tasted.
Yet turmoil set in once again, Woods notes wryly. Although he was hired by the corporate folks who ran the National (among other hotels), he was at the mercy of the general manager on site. And in the next ten months, the hotel would run through five of them. Finally, Woods claims, the corporation hired a manager whose experience was in Hyatt hotels, a move the chef considered a death knell. The National is a boutique hotel. It should be run like a large restaurant, he explains. Restaurants don't show profits in the first year, and at this point the hotel had been open less than a year. But this guy's mission was to show a profit. He considered the Oval Room a large expense that would never make money. So he gutted it and turned it into a banquet hall.
Woods's nemesis fired him after he refused to cook preportioned food, like TV dinners, in the restaurant's new less-formal eatery, Café Mosaic. His cookbook project had stalled (his first publisher, Random House, backed out, and his second publisher, William Morrow, was bought out by HarperCollins), so he took a job in catering, working parties for affluent people such as Wayne Huizenga. But catering is not really my forté, Woods says. I did it for a season and it wasn't a good season. After the Super Bowl, I left and hightailed it for Charlotte [North Carolina].
The move to Charlotte was something of a no-brainer. His parents had retired there and Woods considered the area ripe for his cooking style. But he ran into the same problems faced by chef-proprietors all over the world: lack of funds. Woods says one of his investors, a restaurateur from New York (where the New Jersey-born chef had made his name at places such as Arizona 206 and Café Beulah), had a serious crisis. The other, a Miami hotel developer whom Woods had met in London (where he lived from 1989 to 1993), wanted to keep his business in Miami. So he convinced Woods to come back, and in March 2001 the pair plan to open a place together. Woods won't reveal any details, but he will say it won't be another Savannah. I'll be cooking African diasporic cuisine, he offers. That's my niche and that's what I need my own space for.
Meanwhile he is keeping busy on a book tour -- HarperCollins finally published the book under the William Morrow imprint this past July. And, Woods says, he also consulted for [Mark] Soyka for about a minute. According to the chef, he was hoping to head the kitchen at a Soyka acquisition in Broward County that was going to be called Josephine's. But he left in disgust when he was informed that the menu would largely be the same as the one at the Miami-Dade eateries Soyka and Van Dyke Café. They told me I could do specials, Woods snorts.
Typically, though, Woods bounced back from the disappointment. He's running a Website called DiasporaFoods.com, where consumers can buy spices and African roots. He's got vague plans for another cookbook sometime in the future, on which HarperCollins holds an option. And he's living the life back in South Florida, an area he doesn't plan to leave again. If for nothing but the weather, I love it here, he admits. I'd rather go through a hurricane any day than a Northeastern winter. But the real reason, he says slowly, is the way former South Florida patrons have responded to him, one of the only African Americans in the celebrity chef business: I've been blessed.
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