The National Hotel, a Miami Beach landmark, has undergone a $12 million renovation that promises to bring the property up to par with neighbors that include the Delano, SLS, and Ritz-Carlton.
Part of the renovation includes the hiring of Gastón Sánchez as executive chef of the hotel. Sánchez is tasked with overseeing all of the National's culinary operations, including Tamara Bistro, Aqua Bar & Grill, the Blues Bar, and all in-room dining and catering.
A Miami native and Johnson & Wales alumnus, Sánchez has worked for some big names in the culinary and entertainment industries. The young chef, who was inspired to cook by his grandmothers, studied in Spain with Ferrán Adrià, spent a summer in Peru with cevicheros, and grilled meats in Argentina with gauchos before returning to the States to cook for the likes of Gloria Estefan and Sean Combs.
As part of his duties, Sánchez will introduce a new menu at Tamara, reinterpreting classic restaurant fare with different techniques and flavors.
Examples include steak frites, made with a blood-orange-mojo-marinated ten-ounce churrasco; a take on camarones enchilado, served with green and ripe mofongo; and a ratatouille turned into a vegetable stir-fry with Israeli couscous.
The National hired Sánchez to amp up its food and beverage programs to better compete with its Collins Avenue peers. Although Tamara Bistro has consistently received nods for solid fare, it is frequently outshone by rival hotel restaurants that boast big-name chefs like José Andrés at the Bazaar or glitzy themes like Bianca at the Delano.
Also revamped is the Blues Bar. Taking a cue from the Regent Cocktail Club, the Raleigh's Martini Bar, and the Social Club, the National's former D'Lounge will serve pre-Prohibition cocktails from 5 p.m. to midnight daily.
We asked Sanchez about his extensive culinary background and his plans for the National Hotel.
New Times: When will your new menus be implemented?
Gaston Sánchez: We're rolling out the new menu in phases. Right now we've already launched the tapas menu for the bar and the dinner menu. Lunch and breakfast will follow as early as next week.
In the past few years, although the National Hotel is a beautiful property with solid food, it seems like it was overshadowed by its glitzier neighbors and their celebrity-chef-driven restaurants. Do you plan to turn around the National and Tamara Bistro and make it more of a destination for dining than a service for hotel guests?
I think that is exactly the goal we want to reach. We absolutely want to make Tamara Bistro and Blues Bar destinations for locals, which is why we have a new cocktail and a new dinner menu. Here in South Florida, we have access to great seafood, but there aren't many places in South Beach where you can get fresh-caught local seafood and bold flavors. Having said that, I'm geared up for locally sourced fish and grass-fed meat free of hormones. As far as the seafood, if it's tropical, I'm getting it fresh.
Describe your culinary style.
My style is what I describe as "global." I like to say that Miami is a salad bowl, not a melting pot. Each ingredient holds its own yet is consistent within the plate. I'm a Miamian, born and raised, and my parents are both Cuban. I have been fortunate to travel and experience different flavors and cultures, but this is my home and this is where I would like to gain respect as a chef.
What is your concept for the hotel's culinary operations?
I've been here for over a month, and when I first got here, I wanted to assess the situation, but there wasn't enough time. I put the batteries on, like they say in Spanish. It is an elegant property, and it allows me to play with a mix of the old Gatsby glamor and the New World. Having had such a beautiful renovation, I wanted to create something to match with that renovation.
Can you tell us a little about the cocktail program at Blues Bar?
We have an excellent mixologist on board, Armando Aguirre, who has come up with a great cocktail menu that combines original creations with traditional cocktails. I'm working with him very closely, and I stand behind him 100 percent. We both have an affinity for molecular gastronomy, which is something I'm trying to integrate into some dishes. Some cocktails include the Floral Flute, the National Hemingway, the Tamara Bella, and the Cucumber Fresco.
You studied with Ferrán Adrià. What was the most important thing you took from that experience?
I was in Spain about a month, and the opportunity arose and I took it. It was more a seminar sort of thing, but I had the opportunity to learn a lot. What I remember most is learning about the decomposition of ingredients, that you can pull something apart and extract the essence of each component.
You also worked for Gloria Estefan and Sean Combs as a personal chef. How did that come about?
I had a great experience with the Estefans. I started at Larios on the Beach, which turned into a corporate chef position, which included Bongos and Larios. That opened the doors to celebrity-world, so to speak, and started my relationship with Sean Combs as well. Gloria Estefan was into healthy food and good living, and I've always made it a point to try to make healthy food as tasty as possible.
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Will you be creating healthy dining options at the National?
Absolutely. I had a catering company called Paleo King. Paleo is, of course, a diet that consists of basically how cavemen ate -- no processed foods, no GMOs. That philosophy is reflected in my menus. I can also cater to vegans, vegetarians, and people who are gluten-free. I can cook a dish for you in duck fat or coconut oil and it will be just as tasty. It's important to me that people indulge in healthy food.