Left of the Corporate Center
By definition, fine-dining chefs aren't your average day-jobbers. Their hours are mostly converse to those experienced by the rest of the vocational world. Their kitchen society is a caste, made up of which group has the right to instruct another bunch on how to chop onions. Their duties can range from sautéing said onions to disarming irate dishwashers who would rather wield a butcher knife than scrub it for the zillionth time.
Usually these chefs' personalities -- especially those who are veterans of the South Beach dining scene -- reflect their choice of work. In short, these folks tend to be offbeat, artistic, and possessed of vision. Or just plain possessed: Many chefs, and I mean this in the best way, are also self-indulgent, drunken insomniacs, God bless 'em. For those of us equally strange, creative types who don't mind the oddball 4:00 p.m. breakfast date or 2:00 a.m. after-dinner-shift shot of tequila, South Beach chefs, erstwhile or current, are plenty good company.
But good company flunkies they ain't. Which is why I first started to giggle when Robbin Haas, who has been known to challenge me to the occasional drinking contest, went from running restaurants filled with lounge-itude like BANG on Washington Avenue to acting as corporate executive chef for Noble House Resorts, including Grove Isle and its signature restaurant Baleen. I continued to chuckle this past summer, when former Nemo, Big Pink, Shoji Sushi chef-owner Michael Schwartz wound up at the Beach House Bal Harbour's Atlantic in the bosom of the Rubell hotel family. And I cracked up for real about six weeks ago, when ex-Tantra toque Willis Loughhead traded in the Kama Sutra for a Ritz-Carlton, Coconut Grove company handbook that dictates just how hard Bizcaya Grill employees should click their heels.
Perhaps the funniest thing is, however, just how well Haas flourished in his role, which has allowed him to come full circle, leave his comfortable corporate job, and sign the lease for his own dining spot Chispa, projected for March 2003 in the Collection building -- which houses a "Collection" of luxury cars -- next door to Merrick Park. "I wasn't bored," Haas says. "[Noble House] has taken great care of me, and I left on very good terms. I still have a real fondness for Baleen, and the property we just opened in Seattle is terrific. But this opportunity came along and I knew I had to take it."
Haas probably sounds more excited about this 220-seat project than I've ever heard him. He's started a restaurant company called Water 2 Wine, where he won't be taking the Jesus Christ imagery too literally, but hopes to capitalize on his reputation for turning restaurants into success stories. He enthusiastically describes the forthcoming menu as a "contemporary Haas take on Latin cuisine, not Nuevo Latino but still with influences of Cuban and the Hispanic Caribbean and South America. More like updated Latino comfort foods, with a reasonable check average." He adds reflectively, "I'm not thinking of [Chispa] as moving on. I'm thinking of it as moving up."
Clearly, though it may sound just as unusual for such innovative independents, both Schwartz and Loughhead are seeing their new positions in the same bright light. Loughhead especially is relishing his highly structured environment.
Indeed Bizcaya Grill is about as far away in concept and culinary direction from Tantra as one could get. But Loughhead seems especially happy with this complete paradigm shift. "I have so much more room to learn and grow," Loughhead acknowledges. "I actually have more freedom to flex my mind-muscles." Part of that autonomy, in the face of conformity, comes from the Ritz-Carlton itself. Always chef-driven, the company's insistence on top quality, both product- and service-wise, speaks to Loughhead's own preferences. In other words, he doesn't have to fight for the right to buy the best foie gras available; in fact it's practically part of his job description.
Nor is the chain of command, a series of complex links, a problem for him. In the past, at Tantra and at Palm Grill, he really only had to answer to the respective owners. Now he must confer with and win approval from management on all levels, especially German-born Roberto Holz, who oversees Bizcaya Grill as well as the culinary operations for the entire hotel. "We have a great working relationship. We catch glimpses of each other, give a wink or a nod, and we know what the other one is thinking."
The results of the New World-Old World partnership are obvious to the eye as well as the palate: that stunning foie gras served with an elegant sip of honey-lavender vinegar. Charred venison served over Paradise Farm micro-greens with amarene cherry vinaigrette. Cochinillo (suckling pig) with crisp-to-tender layers striated like a geologist's rock sample.
Given his most recent post, some of the job conditions might have seemed a little too conservative for Loughhead's taste. He recalls, "During one of the interviews, Roberto kept laughing at me. Finally I asked him why. He said, 'You know you're going to have to shave, don't you?'" But he shrugs off grooming mandates. "So I don't get to keep a goatee. In reality, whether you're working for a corporation or not, everybody in a kitchen should be keeping their hair and fingernails short. It's really not too tough to adhere to standards." He chuckles. "Roberto had a goatee when he started, too."
Schwartz gets to keep a little beard that makes him look more like a jazz musician than a chef -- hotel owner Jennifer Rubell and family aren't exactly the Waltons, and have always been known for their very contemporariness. Still they do run their properties with serious business in mind. As a result Schwartz says positively, "They're actually pretty demanding." For him, coming off ownership of three top-notch eateries, it's a relief to know that his employers have the same high standards he holds.
He appears as satisfied as Loughhead with his decision. "It's like an oasis up here. Unassuming, unpretentious. It's a beautiful room. Calming. You can see the ocean. By the time you get from the lobby to the restaurant, you're already in a great mood," he says.
The slower, more peaceful pace has allowed him to gradually make changes to the dining room, which has been stripped down slightly to its original clean, lovely lines. The wine list is still in flux, but Schwartz's New World preferences are already being added via bottlings like the Kim Crawford unoaked Chardonnay, which comes with -- you guessed it -- a screwcap. The menu, which will be finalized by next week, now boasts such high-end comfort food as homemade potato chips with caramelized onion dip (you'll never eat Lipton's soup mix with sour cream again) and roasted beet salad with blue cheese and shaved fennel. Fish, as befits an eatery with an enviable ocean view, is a main-course highlight here, and the preparations range from grilled black grouper to pan-fried, butterflied yellowtail snapper. "The menu is very straightforward, much less eclectic [than Nemo]," Schwartz sums up. "You're not going to read it and go, 'Oh, my God.' The food speaks for itself."
Then again, so do the patrons, which are practically a sea change for both Schwartz and Loughhead. "I'm away from the Beach and it's so nice and normal," Schwartz laughs. "We're just starting to build up a clientele. I expect to draw from a lot of different areas. I'm really looking forward to it." Loughhead hopes to retrieve a lot of customers from his more sedate Palm Grill days, folks who might have been scared off by Tantra's club scene. He's already doing brisk business with the Coconut Grove business community, who seem uniformly delighted with a place to take clients for lunch and dinner.
Still it should be noted that none of the chefs has dumbed down his personality. Schwartz tells me that "Brussels sprouts are the most hated vegetable in America" -- which is why, perversely, he has them on the menu, roasted with chunks of salty pancetta and served with a masterful lemon aioli. "Everybody I know loves them," he says. Loughhead already has running jokes with regular customers. And Haas, though it remains to be seen, may be spending his Chispa profits at the luxury automobile Collection. "I am something of a car buff," he admits.
Currently Schwartz and Loughhead are working some serious hours, and Haas cheerfully notes, "Twelve-hour days are right around the corner." They haven't gotten much time off, and I suspect there are some none-too-happy wives and girlfriends around. But personal lives will come back into play when the restaurants are running hitch-free. Meanwhile the chefs are immensely satisfied with their decisions. Asked about his preference for corporate chef versus independent, Schwartz answers for all of them: "The better one is the one you're doing at the time. This is right for me now, so I love it."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.