Food News

Interview With James Beard Semifinalist Myles Chefetz of the Prime One Twelve Empire, Part One

A veteran Miami restaurateur, Myles Chefetz owns some of the hottest eateries in town -- all of which are within a block of one another. First came the eclectic Nemo, which was followed by the amped-up diner Big Pink. Chefetz really hit his stride six years ago with Prime One Twelve, which reinvented the steak-house concept. Good luck getting in there; the wait is often two hours, even with a reservation. Other successful culinary forays include Shoji Sushi and Prime Italian. Most recently, he has debuted the Prime Hotel and Lounge, cementing himself as the king of South of Fifth Street.

While Miamians have long acknowledged Chefetz's restaurant-mogul status, he was recently recognized as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's prestigious Outstanding Restaurateur award. As a longtime friend and fan of Myles, I sat down with him to get the skinny on his James Beard nomination, the secrets to his success, and the deviled egg craze.

New Times: Congrats on the James Beard Award. I think I was the first person to tell you about it. What was your reaction?

Myles Chefetz: I was more surprised than anything because I don't have a PR company. I fly under the radar because of that. I don't publicize myself personally. Many of the other nominees have New York connections, and the James Beard Foundation is out of New York. Stephen Starr has New York connections, for example. I am not really involved with the James Beard Foundation. How did they get my name out of 21,000 names? .

What has been the key to your success as a restaurateur?

I have a real passion for food and the business. I have an unusual understanding of what people like. I represent the masses. 

It's a combination of elements: the way food looks, the way it tastes, the variety of food, and the way a menu mixes together. The ambiance in the place should not be overwhelming, yet it makes you feel good. There are a lot of subliminal things that hit the senses.

I have a crazy attention to detail. The restaurant business is all detail. It's more than that, obviously. It's taking care of people. It's understanding hospitality. It's getting that right mix of showtime every night. I turn to Prime One Twelve because that's the one that's been the huge success that one can only dream of in a lifetime. That has to be the same show going all the time. It's a tireless effort.

Is it ever quiet at Prime One Twelve?

No. I've been busy for six years. We've always had a wait except for a couple hurricane evacuation nights. Only on mandatory hurricane evacuation nights. Regular hurricane evacuation nights we were still on a wait.

What mistakes have you learned from along the way?

I've learned not to jump at every deal. I was very aggressive when I was younger. As I've gotten older, I've realized that there is a huge time opportunity cost with every deal. When I was younger, people would throw money and locations at me. I thought if it didn't cost me anything, I could make a lot of money from this. The mistake that I learned is not to jump at every deal.

I'm much more conservative today. I've realized I only have a certain amount of deals in me. I'm not a deal junkie. People think that I am because I have so many restaurants, but they are all very methodically planned out now. Each restaurant has an impact on the other restaurant. I was going to open a place in Las Vegas and New York. Coincidentally, the economy turned. But even before that, I was nervous about not being here because I control my restaurants so well by being here. The double-edged sword is that everyone wants to see me. When I'm not there, which is so rare, people get upset.

How often are you at your restaurants?

I go sometimes 30, 40 nights in a row. The only thing that has stopped me in the past was getting physically sick, which is not the way that one should do it. There have been a few nights that I am going to take off and then I get a call that so-and-so is coming in and wants to see me. So I end up going in anyway. Plus I live here. I live eight seconds away. With traffic, it's a ten-second commute.

Why are all of your restaurants clustered so close together?

The obvious reason is that I'm lazy. No. I can keep better control. I also like this area. When I opened Nemo 15 years ago, this was slated to be the luxury, high-end residential area. It has evolved into that. It's accessible. I get offers all of the time from different areas of Florida, whether it's Palm Beach or Aventura, but I don't have any interest in it. To me, it's like why not be here just to take make a couple of extra dollars? It doesn't make sense to me.

Which is your most successful restaurant?

Monetarily, Prime One Twelve. It's not only nationally known, but it's internationally known. Prime One Twelve took the steak-house concept to another level. It was the first modern steak house in the United States. Now look at how many places are copying it. It spawned almost an entire industry.

You've found other restaurants that have copied your menu right down to the font.

Yes, I have. In fact, I think they've just photocopied the menu. They haven't even bothered to reprint it. I'd like to send them menu updates from time to time.

What do you think of all of the steak houses that have opened in Miami?

It's good to a certain extent. But the market is overloaded and they won't all survive. When I opened Prime One Twelve, there was only Smith & Wollensky here. There was Tuscan Steak, which was more Italian. Now we have five modern steak houses here. With the recession, obviously they start to get redundant. I don't know that there are enough people to go around for all of them.

How are you weathering the economic downturn?

I'm really fortunate. I took an old retail concept and meshed it with a restaurant concept. The old retail concept is that retail brings more retail. It's like the mall concept. By creating Prime One Twelve and Prime Italian across the street, and now the Prime Hotel, it becomes a whole event. It gives people more reason to come to my corner. My business is actually up. This year, I'm up 18 percent from last year. I've been fortunate not to be hit by the recession.

Do you know how many people would kill to be in your position?

It's a double-edged sword, I have to say. This is the real proverbial "be careful what you wish for." My life is so run by that restaurant. Not that I'm necessarily running the restaurant, but the restaurant runs me. It is so busy every night that I don't get a break. I could take a break, but it's demanding. You wish for this runaway success. But me being neurotic and always wanting things to be as close to perfection as possible, it's very hard to leave. Two nights ago, for example, I didn't go in. That was the first time in 40 days. I got a text from a customer telling me that the cheese biscuits we make at Nemo were undercooked. My first thought was, OK, I've seen them like that at times. My second thought was, Had I been there, I could have rectified the situation immediately. I would have gone into the bread warmer and taken out ones that were cooked properly.

Do you keep up with food trends?

Absolutely. South Beach has changed a lot in the last five years. Back when I opened Nemo, it was very artsy. People in the '90s were looking for food with 100 ingredients. A lot of those people have moved out. If you look at a restaurant like Joe's Stone Crab, for example, Joe's is very approachable and understandable food. I've gotten more into that as I've evolved as a restaurateur. It's not all about me pushing and forcing a concept on people. It's giving people what they want and doing it really well. It's understanding what the people want and what your market is. At Prime One Twelve, I cover all ethnicities. It's a very diverse menu and I'm constantly working on it.

You were one of the first people to do gourmet deviled eggs, and now they are on everybody's menu.

It's unbelievable. Not only are they on every menu, but they are truffled deviled eggs with the caviar. I'm seeing them everywhere. When I was growing up, I loved deviled eggs. I used to eat them in the elementary school cafeteria with the paprika on them. A steak house, to me, is high-end comfort food. It's things you always ate growing up. Like the tater tots. I had them when I was a kid. So I came up with the idea to do tater tots. Now they are on tons of steak-house menus. They are all over the place.

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our Q&A with Myles Chefetz, we get more in-depth on celebrities who dine at Prime One Twelve, his new hotel, and other upcoming projects.

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Jacquelynn D. Powers