When Clay Conley left Azul at the Mandarin Oriental to open Buccan in Palm Beach, a collective gasp could be heard 'round Miami. Who would replace him? The chef de cuisine gig was plum, but stepping into a kitchen beset with so much expectation would be a daunting task.
Enter Joel Huff, the Ventura County, California surfer and protégé who earned his toque by working with José Andrés, Ludric Le Preve, and Nori Sugie. He became Azul's new chef de cuisine just a few weeks ago -- after having visited our fair city for no more than one hour years ago -- and is already planning a menu of "modern American" dishes with "Asian influences and European techniques." Like Conley, he's totally approachable. (His contribution to the conversation was even punctuated with the occasional dude and gnarly once he really got comfortable.)
We caught him just six days into the job, so he was still a little hesitant to dish, but inquiring minds were just dying to know what he had in the works for one of Miami's most talked-about restaurants.
New Times: When did you get bitten by the cooking bug?
Joel Huff: At a young age. My dad owns a construction company, and I was doing construction. I did not like it. I like to travel. I wanted to do the surf-travel thing. I had a friend whose dad had a restaurant in Denmark, and it was the summertime. I said sure! It was awesome. So I started as a busboy [at] 15. Then a friend of mine who had a sushi bar said, "Do you want to learn to roll sushi?" At 16, I was working for a sushi chef in my hometown. Then I went to cooking school in Santa Barbara. That's when my friend was, like, "Let's go to Europe and do the real thing."
No cooks in the family then? Did you follow in your mom's footsteps?
My mom is a horrible cook.
What was your first job out of school?
I worked for a ranch/chateau in Montecito, California. It just got top hotel in the United States by Condé Nast. At the time, it was five-star, five-diamond. The chef was a protégé of Charlie Trotter. I started working with him because it was close to the cooking school. The food was ranchy. It was very cutting-edge in the '90s.
Then you moved to L.A.
I went to work for L'Orangerie in Beverly Hills. It's closed now, but at the time, it was, like, the only five-star, five-diamond restaurant. I went to work for Ludo Lefebvre. It got me the classic French basis, techniques. That got me excited about fine dining. It was a lot of work to produce what we were doing. It was almost like the military. It was really intense. Every chef has that terrible nightmare job. It makes you appreciate.
Azul should be a piece of cake then! Let's talk about it. First, had you met Conley before?
I met him once. I worked at the Mandarin in San Francisco. This chef from New York, Clay, and I did a dinner in Napa Valley together.
Did he talk about Azul?
No, not really. I knew of it. In passing, I said I'd love to go to Miami one day. That had to be five or six years ago. And here I am!
Had you been to Miami before?
One other time. I did the Boca Raton Food Festival... in 2003.
But Boca is not Miami.
I went to South Beach for about an hour. It was spring break. I was, like, "Wow! I'm in Miami." It's a different feel.
So how did you find out about this gig?
[The Mandarin Oriental food and beverage corporate chef] called me. We had a good relationship after I left. I left the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco to work for José Andrés at Bazaar in L.A.
Tell me about José Andrés.
José is definitely the Spanish guy, modern Spanish. He worked for Ferran [Adrià]. He knows what's going on. He's innovative and very cutting-edge. To work for the guy behind the guy was a big deal. I'm learning from the masters who originated the whole Spanish scene. José is a big personality. He's a great chef, full of life. But he's José Andrés. He's got master plans for a big corporate thing. I wanted to do my own thing.
But you also have a good Asian background.
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I'm trained in Japanese cuisine. My mentor was Nori Sugie, who was the chef de cuisine at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City. I worked with Nori in Australia. We worked at Tetsuya's, one of the top five restaurants in the world.
Click here for part two, where you can find out what Huff considers his "style" of cuisine (or lack thereof), what his favorite meal is (hint: It's hard to find a good one in Miami), and what food he considers truly gnarly.