Vanesa Simons' dream was to open a place where the sweet and savory options would be equally delicious. The Florida International University graduate also wanted to own a restaurant that would impress her grandfather, Leon — a man who instilled in her a passion for cooking, baking, and enjoying the finer things. That's why after a decade spent in advertising, she left Miami for her native Buenos Aires and opened Chef Leon in 2006.
Simons followed it up with a second location in Argentina, and this past Valentine's Day, she opened Chef Leon at 118 Buena Vista Blvd. in midtown Miami. She says she chose the location because it's the perfect mix of Wynwood and the Design District — much like her own personality and style. Meanwhile, she's in Miami at least once a month and considers it her home away from home.
The colorful, rustic-chic eatery took over the Bistro Cassis space and hired the French restaurant's chef, Giovanni Lopez. "I actually think I have the best chef in Miami but nobody knows him, which is good for me because I can afford him," Simons says.
Prior to joining Simons and her team, Lopez trained with the company's corporate chef to expand his pastry skills. Now he and his kitchen team do all of the cooking and baking at the restaurant. There's truly a bit of everything here — from entire pies ($39.95 to $45) to creative cocktails and a food menu with mainly organic ingredients.
Everything on the menu is available from open till close, meaning you can have an omelet of spinach, Parmesan cheese, and egg whites for dinner ($9). There's a plethora of sandwiches, wraps, and salads, as well as more chef-driven dishes. Lopez's specialties include the barley risotto ($16) and pan-seared mahi-mahi over organic quinoa with ratatouille and a berry sauce ($21.95). Dinner features a handful of specials, and no dish exceeds $28.
The eggs and chicken are organic, the beef is grass-fed, and the salmon is wild-caught. Simons says there's no single item on the menu she doesn't enjoy — and it's a big menu. Growing up, she was overweight, and in 2004 she underwent gastric bypass surgery, which forced her to teach herself how to eat properly.
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That said, her philosophy is to eat well during the week and to let herself indulge her sweet tooth on the weekends. Simons loves desserts and was adamant about offering homemade cakes (must be ordered in advance) and pastries to her customers. Cake lovers have myriad options: Dulce de leche cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake, classic vanilla pound cake, and apple pie are only a few items on the list.
It was grandfather Leon who taught Simons — or Vane, as she likes to be called — how to cook when she returned to Buenos Aires from Miami burnt out and fed up with advertising. Even though she had no restaurant experience, she decided to open a café after her grandfather convinced her it would bring her happiness. It has indeed brought her joy, and in three months, a Chef Leon franchise will open in Mendoza, the heart of Argentina's wine country. Simons says she's been building toward this goal since 2006.
She sees Chef Leon as an extension of herself and a place where people can gather and feel at ease. Unfortunately, her 87-year-old grandfather is too anxious about boarding on a plane from Argentina to see his granddaughter's work. "I kind of built this restaurant in Miami for him so he can be proud of what we’ve achieved. He’s not going to come, but he sees the pictures, and he’s happy."