I recently asked chef Jeff McInnis a few questions related to his by-now well-publicized gig as head chef at the chichi gigi. A couple of quotes were to be culled for Miami New Times' special upcoming issue on the people who make this city groove. I don't think that's the way the issue is officially being described, but McInnis is one of our featured movers and groovers. Although I tendered only a few questions, most of his answers ended up on the editing floor (so to speak). Thing is, there's some interesting stuff in there, particularly as it relates to the differences between being a corporate chef and one who calls the shots. "Now I'm free!" says McInnis at one point, and his glee at being so is hardly restrained.
New Times: Did you expect Gigi to jump from the gate so fast?
Jeff McInnis: Without sounding pretentious, yes! I had a gut feeling that within the first few weeks it would be the popular new restaurant that everyone wanted to check out. We knew we had a great concept and the pieces just fell into place. We're well-priced, focused on flavor, and offering something to locals that's not common in Miami - unpretentious service and food that fucking rocks.
It also helps that the neighborhood is full of young professionals who are sick of getting the same old food at crazy prices that unfortunately Miami is known for. We have so many locals that have already become regulars. I literally have 20 to 30 people who eat at Gigi two or three times a week. In my entire culinary career I've never experienced this kind of local following this quickly. Usually you have to earn the respect over months and years.
Did you need to make adjustments because the restaurant drew crowds from the start?
In order to keep up with the demand we'll be opening for lunch in November, and will be extending our dining room seating al fresco soon after.
Biggest difference between being chef at The Ritz and the current job?
Honestly, there are so many differences. I went from working for a conservative hotel corporation with loads of rules, bosses, grooming standards, human resource/public relation buffers, etc...to becoming a chef that can call all the shots. Now I'm free! I cook what I want, the style I want, I change the menu daily when I want. I play loud country music, rock or gangster rap during the middle of service if we feel the urge.
I was never able to fully remove a cheeseburger, caesar salad, the "boring hotel must-haves" from my menus. Now I can put chicken feet, pig ears, crab vagina, or whatever I feel like cooking and not toss Caesar salad for thousands all day.
Today I hire my employees strictly on their capabilities and culinary talents. In the corporate world, plenty of great cooks get booted / not hired on the basis of silly reasons like long hair, visible tattoos, criminal records (even non-violent/victimless crimes), piercings, smoking weed/drug screening, English skills, etc... Today I have cooks interview through their knives, saute pan and passion for food.
But the most exciting difference is that every drop of sweat I lose when I'm working at Gigi is to better myself and my own restaurant instead of someone else's. I'm working about 90 hours a week now and it doesn't bother me like it would have at the hotel.
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I did enjoy every opportunity that the Ritz-Carlton gave me. My tenure there obviously opened many doors and I worked with some amazing people. I have nothing but respect for the company and all of its ladies and gentleman.
What dish at Gigi best exemplifies what you do there?
This question is like telling a kid to pick only one present to open the night before Christmas. I'm so excited about every dish I have on my menu and they all fit me/Gigi. There is a "meat loaf" on the menu that gets rave reviews from all our guests: Braised Short Rib Meat Loaf, smokey plantain, and soy glaze. I grew up in the south, brought up by parents both born and raised in Alabama, so there are plenty of southern/comfort food dishes on the menu like the meat loaf. The smoked plantain sauce obviously came from my tenure of cooking in the south Caribbean and Miami, and finally, it is glazed with a sweet-and-salty soy glaze to finish. I did a lot of cooking in several Asian restaurants including serving as sous chef in a high end Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. So this dish ties in my southern upbringing, local Miami ingredients/flavors, along with a little Asian twist. I've never wanted to be the chef of a restaurant that all the food has to be of one origin/cuisine. That just seems limiting and boring.
Jeff McInnis boring? Hard to imagine.