Haven is Kitchen Heaven to Chef Todd Erickson (Part 2)

Yesterday, we spoke to Todd Erickson, Executive Chef at Haven Gastro-Lounge, about his move to Miami and found out how he got started in the catering business. Now we discover the secret behind his quick transition from Zuma to Haven, as well as the truth behind a restaurant's "organic" statement. He says that "when available and possible, I think farm-to-table is an amazing thing." However, "if you were to do only farm-to-table in South Florida in the summer, you would be a fruit salad restaurant."

From working with live eels to how he feels about the molecular gastronomy label, keep reading for insight into Chef Erickson's kitchen mantra.

New Times: So, how did you wind up at Zuma?

Todd Erickson: It was kind of like when I moved to Dallas. I didn't know anybody, and Zuma had a name. It had an identity. Plus, I'd never really done Japanese. I love Japanese, and I've used Japanese ingredients all my life. I'd always used them in fusion aspects of my cooking. But to do full-on balls-to-the-wall Japanese was a big draw. It's hard core. I was in a new city, and so I figured I might as well add something else new at the same time.

You were at Zuma for only seven months, what prompted the decision to go to Haven?

They have an international reputation and they have absolutely lived up to that reputation in this town. I continue to send people myself to Zuma. I'm friends with all those guys over there. They are a great people and good people to know. They are really an asset to the city. I told Bjorn, the executive chef, that I was leaving to do this project here at Haven. He understood. I hadn't been a sous chef in ten years. It was great to learn, but it wasn't my ideas. It's a creative thing for me. That's what I love. It's about the people and the creativity. That's what I get at Haven.

You are becoming known for your use of liquid nitrogen in food (especially ice cream) and cocktails -- is molecular gastronomy a big part of your culinary style?

I kind of shy away from the whole molecular gastronomy label because I think people get scared of that. I know it piques interest, but it also backs people away. Some people think "is this going to be too weird for me to enjoy?" I do enjoy molecular gastronomy. I like deconstructing items and putting them back together and unlikely flavor pairings and different cooking techniques. But first and foremost I'm about flavor and properly seasoned and properly cooked food.

Are there any ingredients in particular that you prefer to shy away from?

I don't think there's anything that I hate working with. I think people are intimidated by things they're not quite sure about, and that goes for the professional cook as well as the home cook. I've always been a fake-it-'til-you-make-it type of person. I just get in there and tear it apart and cook it 50 ways until it works. If you don't do that, you don't learn and you don't grow. I think that's why people don't like working with things. For example, live eels, that's a hard one to work with. Live eels fight you. You have to nail them to a board and they are slippery and muscular and fight you. It's a challenge.

You use a lot of organic product. What's your feeling on the local 'farm-to table' movement?

I think it's fantastic, this is a hot topic nationally, and when Mike (the owner of Haven) and I were first talking about this concept, he was interested in contemporary organic small plates. I wanted to do that, but my only issue was I didn't want to call everything organic and I didn't want to call everything farm-to-table. I read every food review and a lot about what's going on in our neighborhood and nationally. I think food critics are waking up to the fact that there is a Sysco truck in the back of almost every restaurant at some point. I wanted us to be honest. If we're not going to be 100% organic, then I don't want to call us an organic farm-to-table restaurant. But, I do have my farmer, Amanda, out in Homestead. She brings me my avocados, wheat grass, and my tomatoes. If you were to do only farm-to-table in South Florida in the summer, you would be a fruit salad restaurant. When available and possible, I think farm-to-table is an amazing thing. We have a weird climate down here and I want to be as responsible and honest as possible about what we do.

Haven is kind of a hi-tech cocktail lounge meets restaurant with a very small kitchen area, I'm sure that presents a unique set of challenges as a chef. How do you manage that? Did you build that kitchen out from scratch?
It's unbelievable, I hear people say "oh your flavors are so fresh." Well, it's because I'm making it right in front of you. At the chef's counter you're inches away from the produce. The white platters on the counter came from my kitchen. The only thing that was there was the hood. It was grandfathered in. If we wanted to build that exact restaurant again we couldn't because a hood is no longer allowed to be that close to the front of the building. We kept it and put beauty panels on it and had it completely refurbished. It's like a brand new hood that meets code compliance. Everything else, Mike and I designed it for efficiency. The first time we were talking about this project he showed me the plans. It's hard to believe that on a busy Friday or Saturday night we squeeze 7 or 8 people back there. Nobody has gotten killed or shanked yet. Everyone works very well in their tight, confined space.

If you had to describe your dream restaurant would it be something like this, where you are close to the customer, or do you have a fantastical idea for what you would create in the future?

The format that we have right now is very cool. I would have more tables, a dish room and a lovely walk-in cooler. I use a lot of micro-green in the preparation of all of our plates, and for that reason alone, to treat my micro-greens and my herbs better, would make me very happy. The simple things that you don't realize how important they are until you don't have them. But I do love being front and center in the dining room. I think it's great; until the guests tell me that I'm annoying them, I'll continue to say "hi." I know there are other chefs that like the barrier. When I was interviewing people, I'd point it out and say "there's no place to hide." You have to have the type of personality where you want to interact with the guest.

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Lesley Elliott
Contact: Lesley Elliott