Chef Sean Bernal of The Oceanaire Seafood Room: Interview, Part One

Locals would be hard-pressed to find anyone more downright passionate about seafood. Ask executive chef/operating partner Sean Bernal from The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Mary Brickell Village about anything with scales, fins, or claws and he has an encyclopedic knowledge. And he makes sure to get the freshest, most amazing selection of seafood at his restaurant before anyone else in town.  "If something just comes in this season I'm going to have it first," he claims, then explains how the supply is affected by weather, gas prices, and the willingness of fisherman to work. 

Born in Puerto Rico to a Cuban mom and Puerto Rican daddy, Bernal and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale when he was about 6 years old, and eventually settled in Cutler Ridge. Bernal thought he was going to become a physical therapist, But then a girlfriend's mom suggested he check out what was then the new Johnson & Wales. 

One of his biggest culinary influences is his mom: "Cooking for her was fun. It was a way to tune out for an hour or two. Which is how I kinda see it as well." 

These days, Bernal arrives at the kitchen around 10 a.m. to make calls to fish vendors from Alaska to the Keys. He buys 10 to 15 pounds of different species for the next day. "The way I design the menu is so I run out of fish," he explains. "That way it's fresh every day."

After you read all about him and get a few laughs, ask to meet him at Oceanaire or find out when he's cooking at Club Med. (He'll be in Punta Cana this June.) Maybe you can become pals and go spearfishing together or something.

New Times: What fish do you always have on the menu?

Sean Bernal: Mahi. It comes from everywhere. When I'm lucky I get some that's local. But usually it comes from South America. The quality is amazing.

Shellfish, too?

There are always oysters, a variety, at least 12: six from the east and six from the west. I always have clams, mussels, live lobster.

How many varieties of fish do you think you've worked with in your lifetime?

I have a book that's 1001 Things to Eat Before You Die, okay? There's a seafood section and I have to say I've got at least 80 percent of it down. 

What's the one species you're most curious about?

It's called a gurnard. It's a flying fish. Native to the Mediterranean. 

Speaking of strange fish, why do you always put herring out on your tables? I wouldn't think that would be so popular 'round here.

You kidding me? I have people asking for seconds. I actually have some ladies that come once a week and they buy three orders of crabcakes--they come down from Palm Beach--and they always buy a big bucket of herring.

They can't get that in Palm Beach?

I don't know. I guess they like ours. 

What's the craziest thing someone has ever ordered? 

Some guy ordered a tuna. He wanted it so well done he wanted it to bounce off the plate. I came outside and was like, is it dry enough? The guy smothered it in ketchup. 

Ever eaten fugu?

Why eat something that's gonna kill you? There are so many fish in the ocean. Why you gonna do that? No point. 

Do you often serve fish with the tail and head on?

Of course. People love whole fish. Especially the Latins. But the cool thing is, we do it tableside so the servers debone it for you. Same thing if you order king crab. They'll shell it tableside for you. We wanted to bring the service piece because it's missing in Miami.

Any rules you have in the kitchen?

Yes--Don't be late. Another big one for me is mutual respect. And at times my kitchen is like a dictatorship. And I'm the dictator. It can get loud in there. I have a couple expletives flying around here and there. 

Any music?

Reggae. All the time. 

What if your cooks don't like it?

No choice. I'm the dictator. [Laughs.] Mostly it's roots reggae: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh. Sometimes I'll change it up. Put in Gang Starr

Advice for new chefs?

Be ready for the commitment. You have to sacrifice a lot. Your social life is the restaurant. Find a girlfriend who can understand. 

Did you?

She's in the same business we are. She works for Whole Foods and she's in charge of doing special events. I met her one day when I was giving a class. I summoned up the courage to invite her to eat dinner one day. When she came here to eat dinner and I had her in my fish tank I asked her out.

Who inspired you to cook?

My mom. 

Who else got you to where you are today?

I worked for Robin Hass [at Baleen]. He taught me how to be a chef. Be gregarious, be loud. Never take no for an answer.

One of the chefs at Johnson & Wales, Chef Hensley, took me under his wing. He helped me grow a thick skin. Another one was where I did my apprenticeship at was at The Bistro. Where Pascal's is now. Chef Hans Klein was the original chef there. He allowed me to experiment. 

How would you describe your food?

Fresh, inspiring, exciting, tasty, comforting... any more? Satisfying, sexy at times...


Loyal, perfectionist, crazy at times, bad attitude at times, very easy-going (I'm a Virgo.)...

What other Miami chefs have a cooking style closest to yours?

I'd say probably Douglas (Rodriguez). 

Any restaurants you go to that you love?

I go to Yakko-San. I love that place. It's the best. Believe it or not, I go to this one restaurant called Khoury's a lot. On Sunset Drive. It's a little Lebanese restaurant. I have to eat there once a week or I'm not happy. I'll go there and I'll have falafel, the yogurt cheese they make, baba ganoush, a nice fatoosh salad, grape leaves... That's my once a week vegetarian meal. I eat fish five days a week and one day a week I'll eat meat. Another one I love is The Restaurant at the Setai. Jonathan Wright. That's so good! My favorite thing is they have this little bowl with fried anchovies and peanuts.

You're also an anchovy fan, huh?

Last week I made a ceviche here, I called it The Mattress Breaker. Uni (sea urchin), oysters, surf clam, shrimp and conch. Bound with a little bit of Peruvian hot chili and lime. I served it inside the urchin with the spines sticking out. Made for a real dramatic presentation, right on ice.

Did a lot of diners go for it?

You walk through a dining room and people are like, what the hell is that?

Since you mentioned it, you're one of few local chefs who can often be seen walking around the dining room. And you're usually carrying a tray of some interesting species...

I have fun. That's my being bored in the kitchen. I had a big 15-pound lobster once. I walked him around and gave him a name. I felt bad about killing him, but somebody bought him. 

In October I had a live king crab and I walked him around. Think he was maybe a 15-pounder, too. Biggest king crab I ever held up though was when I was in Dutch Harbor. This thing weighed at least 25 pounds. I'm holding it's legs up here by my face and its claws are down to my knees. And I'm 6'1".

Was that when you did Deadliest Catch? How did that trip happen?

That was awesome. We bought, as a company, an obscene amount of king crab. When I went, me and our Orlando restaurant, we bought 50,000 pounds of crab for both of us. We got rid of it in a year. (Now I'm waiting for October because that's when we get fresh king crab, never frozen.) That is the most amazing thing you'll ever eat. 

What can I say about Dutch Harbor? There's one restaurant, there's three bars. Two of the bars were in the same hotel where the restaurant is. I was the only Puerto Rican out there. I had a lot of people taking pictures of me because of that. Lots of natural beauty. You see bald eagles over there like you see pigeons here. 

That water was, like, maybe 5 degrees and sloshing around my feet. They had me in these rubber galoshes. We were on the boat for at least five hours.

Did you puke?

No. I was like on four pills of Dramamine. And then that morning I took a shot of whiskey. I was dazed. I was a big joke. They were like, "Hey, Miami, you brought the suntan lotion?"

What did you learn on that trip?

What I learned was a three-year-old king crab is about the size of a quarter. These animals are long-lived. The conservation in Alaska amazing. Another thing that's crazy is 70 percent of the crab that is caught is sent automatically to Japan.

Tomorrow we'll find out what he did with a Jolly Rancher, whether he wears a loincloth to fish, and what he feels is the most played out dish on Miami menus.

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Riki Altman