Interview with Philippe Ruiz of Biltmore's Palme d'Or, Part One

While some of the top-name chefs manning kitchens in Miami are busy working on bacon-infused ice creams and three-pound slabs of steak, the Biltmore's chef Philippe Ruiz continues to focus on making light, classic French dishes with a modern edge, often using just a few natural, high-quality ingredients. 

Thankfully the critics -- and guests at his restaurants -- have noticed. He was recently  nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef in the South again. [Last year, his name appeared in the same category for his first James Beard nomination ever, but he lost to Michelle Bernstein.]

Though his last name may signal otherwise, Ruiz is a native Frenchman, born in Saint-Julien-en-Genevois. He developed his skill attending the Hotel School in Bonneville, France and working under chefs at numerous Michelin two-star restaurants. While classic French is his forte, he developed a flair for exotic flavors cooking at the renowned La Samanna in St. Martin before finding his way to the Biltmore in 1999. Today he presides over two restaurants, the poolside Cascade and the resort's signature dining destination, Palme d'Or. (In case you weren't aware, Zagat elected Palme d'Or the top restaurant in the Miami / South Florida Restaurants 2010 Survey.)

Dining at either of his restaurants is unique. Don't bother asking for condiments; there are none to be found. "Nothing," Ruiz confirmed, in his heavy French accent. "No ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, mint jelly, Tabasco --nothing. I hate it." The same goes for French fries. Even the most prestigious guests wouldn't dare ask for a side with their meal. 

"[But] for kids I'll do anything they want," he confirms, with a smile. See, even the strictest chefs have a soft spot.  

Though he calls himself slightly impatient and tough, diners find him sophisticated and straightforward, just like his food.

New Times: How did you find out about the nomination?

Philippe Ruiz: A guest just sent me an e-mail to congratulate me. And me, I said, "What the...?" After another e-mail I went online... and I found out I was nominated again.

How surprised were you?

I was not thinking about it.

First Zagat, now this. Why do you think you're having such a banner year?

I don't know. I try to be consistent, even if it's not easy with stuff, we try and keep it the same.

What do you think of your other competitors in the category?

It's not for me to judge what a chef does in his restaurant or what kind of food he's doing. Miami is a place for everybody: Some people like Chinese, Thai, French...

It's like Zagat: If the people vote, it's the right of our guests to decide.

Why is working at the Biltmore different than anywhere else? 

The Biltmore is one of the nicest hotels in Miami. There's so much diversity. It's never the same day. We have some chefs come in for gala dinners, cooking classes with those chefs...

What's your schedule like? 

I come in from 12 to 12, five or six days a week (it depends on events). I'm lucky when it's cold outside, so I don't have to worry about the pool [Cascata]!

Strangest customer request?

One couple asked me, for their wedding, to have 23 courses for 25 people. It took us all night and it was a five- to six-hour dinner. It was nonstop. There was no tasting. They had to trust me.

How many kitchens and helpers do you have?

For Palme d'Or, eight, and then six at the pool.

Any rules of conduct in your kitchen? 

Everybody shaves. No piercings. Short hair. No crazy stuff. I like to be straight. It's important to keep discipline. How you look reflects what you put on the plate.

Any background music in the kitchen?

No music.

What do you believe is the most important advice you can give to a new chef?

Work hard. Cooking can be for everyone. Be patient. A lot of Michelin chefs... never went to school. 

Who or what inspired you to cook?

At the beginning, I wanted to be a baker. I tried it as a kid and I didn't like it. After I finished school, I went to try a small bakery in town. Every day you do the same thing. I said, no, no. After, my parents found a small hotel restaurant in my town and during summer school, I tried cooking there for two months. From fish to meat to veg, every day was never the same thing. We were always doing something different. I was 14 [years old].

So is anyone in your family a chef?

No. My father is a watchmaker. My grandfather used to work as a meat purveyor, though.He used to bring me to good restaurants. When I started cooking school, he used to bring me to nice restaurants, just him and me, for me to see and appreciate. 

Later, working for Guy Martin was my first Michelin Star experience. Those were some very tough days. And, at the end, when I left, because I had to do military service, he wrote me a nice letter, gave me a big bottle of champagne, and said thank you. I was 18 years old.

You served in the military?

One year. I used to be a mountain soldier--it was tough!--for the first two months. Then I became the private chef for the general because I worked for a Michelin Star chef. 

Describe your food in a few words.

Simple, classic/modern, generous, consistent... appetizing. The eyes eat first. 

What I try to do more and more is buy the best products and not add too much stuff to it. 

Describe yourself in a few words.

Humble. Sometimes crazy, fair, slightly impatient. I'm pretty straight and tough. 

Any cooking mantras?

Be simple. Do your job the best you can.

Tomorrow, in Part Two of our Q&A with Philippe Ruiz, we chat about screaming chefs, tuna overkill, and Ruiz's plans for the future.

Palme d'Or at the Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables