After working at Azul for six years, Andrew Balick got the opportunity to head the kitchen at Pied a Terre, a small restaurant inside the Cadet Hotel in South Beach. In the first part of the interview, he spoke about why he wants people to try his tasting menu. In the second part of our chat, he discusses how he got into cooking, why he left culinary school, and what he thinks of Miami's dining scene.
How would you describe the cuisine here?
You can find some Asian touches but ultimately eclectic Mediterranean. I'm sticking to the Mediterranean base. You'll find a lot of the herbs, peppers, eggplants, a lot of those ingredients mixed in with local ingredients. We have an abundance of seafood here and I can't understand when I go to a lot of these places and there's no local fish on the menu. It's sad. You have such great resources right here but it's just finding the people that can get it to you too. I call my local guy first to see what he has and then what he doesn't, where I need to fill gaps, I go elsewhere. I'm a fan of oysters from colder climates but as far as the fish goes, local, from here.
I noticed you have triggerfish, cobia ...
It's funny because I grew up fishing in these waters and we used to throw triggerfish back. It was garbage to us, you know. This guy who I buy the fish from was like, dude, just try it. I'll give you one for free. It is delicious. It's a pain in the butt to clean, the skin is very tough but it is unbelievable. It blows snapper out of the water for ceviche, there's nothing wrong with snapper, it's delicious, but that's how good this stuff is and people just have to give it a chance. Right now I have a fish he also turned me onto: barrel fish. Seasonal, deep water, the eye on it is like the size of a baseball, it's caught from like 800 to 1000 feet of water, so you can imagine the flesh is beautiful, pristine. That's the thing, I call him up and say I want something for ceviche and he'll call me back and say this is what we have.
Where did the passion for cooking from? I read you used to be a pre-dental student.
My dream through middle school, through high school was to go to the University of Florida. I loved UF. My family went there, my dad went there, my mom, my grandfather, everyone went there so I was brought up sitting on the couch, watching Gator games. Up until high school there was no bigger decision in my life than where I was going to college. I only applied to two schools: University of Florida and UCF, knowing that if I didn't get into University of Florida, I'd be two hours away and I could still go to the Gator games. Once I got there and spent two years there, toward my sophomore year, I started realizing that there's more to it than just being here, you have to do something. I started really thinking, what am I going to do with my life, so I've always loved to cook.
I remember watching Food Network when it first started, before it had any direction and 30-minute meals, there were a few guys there and all they did was cook, things today you don't see on the Food Network. I remember when it was informative and I really learned a lot from that. [My mom] would flip out because I would come home and mess around with everything in the kitchen. At UF I had a friend who was bartending at this bar and grill and I thought, let me check out this place and I'll try and cook and we'll see what happens. So I lied on a resume and said that I had worked at places that I hadn't and I got a job. It was a one-man operation. You were the dishwasher, you were the cook; the only thing you didn't have to do was order.
So it was just you?
Just me. That was the first time in my life that I was in front of a gas burner. I'm turning it on, like, how do you turn this thing on? It was that bad. I figured it out and I really enjoyed it and it went from there. I decided to leave after my sophomore year and come back to Miami and I attended Johnson & Wales.That's where it started.
But you left Johnson & Wales as well ...
I started working part-time in a restaurant in Hollywood and a unique opportunity - everything is about timing. There's a chef owner and the three chefs that worked for him walked out on a Friday afternoon. They had their issues; that left me like the lone, part-time pantry person, making the salads and going to school. The chef owner approached me and said, you know, I wasn't going to offer you anything until you got done with school but I'm in a unique situation here. If you want, I'll make you my sous chef. You're not ready to be a sous chef, but I have no choice really. So I thought about it and said I can put school on hold because who wouldn't love to get out of culinary school and go work at a successful operation? And here I was in the middle of culinary school and someone's handing me that.
I didn't tell my parents and I took the job full time and I started learning real quickly that I was learning ten times as much on the job. I mean in school they put you in groups of three or five. Here's one recipe for the three or five of you, here's an hour and a half, go knock it out. Are you kidding? What are you going to learn? You learn the fundamentals and what not but to survive in the kitchen, there are no survival skills in culinary school. I learned to survive, I got thrown in the fire at 19 years old and to this day that's the best move I ever made. I look back and that was my turning point. Why am I an executive chef at 29? I attribute that early learning curve to this guy for giving me that opportunity and throwing me in the fire. He taught me, literally, how to survive on the line, how to cook, how to cook fast, how to keep your head above water, put out a good product. That taught me how to survive and I say that Clay taught me how to be a chef. Clay taught me the refinement in cooking, the right way to cook, the seasonality of things. He really polished me per se.
How did the opportunity at Azul come about? Right timing again?
My father is a dentist and one of his patients was a line cook there. [The restaurant in Hollywood] had closed and it was moving and in that transition I ended up leaving, I backpacked through Europe and I had just gotten back. I was I no rush to find a new job. The line cook told my dad that they were hiring. My dad told me to get my butt down to the Mandarin and fill out an application. The first day I did a stage was Michelle Bernstein's last night at Azul. I think that helped me too because just like when Clay left a lot of people left, when chef Bernstein left a lot of people left and opened the doors for other people. I don't know that they would've hired me, she might have, I don't know, but she had a pretty established crew at that point in time so I think I kinda got in there at the right time. I didn't know who was going to be chef. That was the first time I was in fine dining and I remember coming in thinking, oh, I'm a sous chef, I know everything. No, I realized real quick I didn't know anything. I was very humbled when I walked into the Azul kitchen but I knew how to survive and I learned real quick to keep my mouth shut and just learn as much as I could.
Did anyone in your family cook?
No, absolutely not. My mom jokes about people telling her that she must be the best cook and it couldn't be further from the truth. She cooked a few things growing up but I think it came from when we went out to eat. My father would let me eat things as a young kid, I wasn't just eating chicken tenders and pizza and things like that. I appreciated good food. Up to this day, I get disappointed when I see bad food in the sense that you can just tell that the person making it just didn't care.
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How have you seen the Miami dining scene change?
I remember when I started [at Azul], there wasn't much around us. Mary Brickell had just popped up, the Epic wasn't there, the new JW Marriott wasn't there. I think a lot of people took a shot and a lot of people missed but I see the constant, the same restaurants that are still there, that do well, you look at Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz... I think it's come leaps and bounds from where it was. You can tell just by the fact that so much is being invested into all these restaurants opening. I don't think that it's where it needs to be yet or where it's going to be in the next 10 years but I think it's well on its way and I think you can attribute that to a handful of chefs down here that have really put Miami on the map and the two that I mentioned before are huge parts of it.
We did the tasting menu at Azul and you could get the best food in the world in, the biggest white truffles and the best wagyu beef, but what sells? The churrasco, the ceviche. Here I didn't want to put ceviche on the menu at first. I tried not to. You put ceviche on the menu it's the best thing that sells. It's what people want down here. It still dominates the scene. That's why I'm so focused on this tasting menu concept. But I think as far as the dining scene, I think it's only going to get better. Some restaurants down here are being thrown around in the same sentences as restaurants out in California, out in LA, New York, Chicago. It's huge because those are the best restaurants in the country in those cities. Just to be mentioned speaks for itself, but it's a small group of people doing it.