Kris Wessel, a tall, lanky New Orleans native, is Miami's blue-collar superstar chef. He looks and acts it -- a laid-back demeanor, a hard work ethic, and a no-nonsense, populist approach to dining. His acclaimed Red Light Little River was carved from a ruinous space wedged in a formerly seedy motel on a then-overweeded Little River -- in a neighborhood still known for the other type of red-light action (and no, we're not talking about traffic intersections). The restaurant reflects the man: Red Light resembles a working-class diner, and prices are salt-of-the-earth low -- especially for a restaurant operated by a chef who just last week nabbed a James Beard nomination for Best Chef in the South.
We chatted with Wessel about a host of things while sitting at one of the restaurant's outdoor tables on a typically beautiful Miami morning. Though it appeared we stayed a bit too long and no doubt set him back in his prep work -- this guy really is the hardest working chef in town -- at least we got a three-part interview out of it. Actually, two parts and a recipe, which runs today through Wednesday. It seemed natural to begin the conversation with the big Beard news.
How did you find out about the nomination?
Hedy Goldsmith [currently pastry chef at Michael's Genuine], who I worked with at Mark's Place 13 years ago, texts me the other day, and it was like, 'First your Saints won, and now the Beard nomination. Congratulations.' And I'm thinking, What are you talking about? I've been so busy -- it's that time of year, and since the New York Times piece came out, we've been up 25 or 30 percent -- that I haven't absorbed it yet.
How surprised were you?
It's amazing, really. I worked for Mark [Militello] 15 years ago when he won it, and it was huge. [Mark's Place] was a $3 or $4 million restaurant back then and very well-established and whatnot. I mean, I'm not a $3 million restaurant; we're in the back of a motel and all. But if I think of it as an Olympic sport, and degree of difficulty is involved... I've cooked out of one oven for almost two years, almost 100 seats.
How many burners do you have?
I have a flatop and two burners. I'm in the process of getting another four burners. So then I think, If the category is Best Chef, well, I'm maximizing the position of chef to the hilt [laughs].
Describe your food in five words.
Flavor. Soul. Unique (to Miami). Simple. Accessible.
What other Miami chef's style of cooking is closest to yours?
I think Michael [Schwartz] and Michelle [Bernstein] have components similar to mine and use similar regional products.
Any ingredient you don't like working with?
I don't particularly care for tripe, although I've worked with it and cooked it. But other than that, not really.
What ingredient or dish is on too many local menus?
Over the years, I've seen the gamut, from overuse of portobello
mushrooms to overuse of sesame-seared tuna to overuse of whatever the
latest trend is -- which is always overused, especially in this town.
Favorite ethnic food hangout?
I like going late night up to Hiro's Yakko-San. That's a good time for sure.
Communal tables in restaurants. Cool or not?
Yeah, I think so.
A great topping for pizza.
Shredded duck, Morbier, and pear jam -- which I had on the menu as a
grilled cheese. I put it on a piece of flatbread the other day and
kinda liked it.
Most exciting young Miami chef.
What's your definition of young? [laughs] Younger than me, I guess... I
hardly get out to eat. I hear good things about John Critchley at Area 31. And I like Timon Balloo, my old sous at Elia. He was the chef at Domo Japones and now is the chef at Sugarcane Lounge. I send people there. He's very creative, great sense of flavor.
I like the old Plantation Cookbook
from New Orleans. It's from the mid-'70s, but they did a couple of
editions of it. It's got some good recipes -- not just from New
Orleans but good basics.
Three most important factors in a plate of food.
Flavor. Texture. Correct temperature.
Best restaurant city in America.
Even though I love my old city of New Orleans, I still have to say New York, just because of the diversity.
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After a hard day's work, you need to unwind: Pot, beer, martini, or yoga?
Oh God, I need yoga. I wish there was yoga in a cocktail -- hmmm,
that's a good name for a cocktail... Um, none of the above. Getting away
from work is the way I unwind.
Red Light Little River
7700 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Tomorrow, in Part Two of our Q&A with Kris Wessel, we get more
conversational in discussing what Miami still lacks as a food city,
hear about a "slapback" from Michelle Bernstein, and talk about his future plans
-- is that Le Maison de la Casa Wessel we see over yonder horizon?