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Josh Gripper
Josh Gripper
Noho Hospitality Group/Andrew Carmellini

Josh Gripper, One of Miami's Best Pastry Chefs, Trades Cake for Steak

The cooks were suspicious. Standing in the fluorescent-white kitchen of the Dutch (2201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-938-3111; thedutchmiami.com) inside the W South Beach, they were stunned to learn Josh Gripper, the restaurant's soft-spoken, bespectacled pastry chef, would soon take over the entire operation. For years, Gripper, 38, was best known for his simultaneously comforting and sophisticated desserts such as creamy lemon bars with Italian meringue and blueberry ice cream, and coconut custards with Fresno chili-mango sauce and mango-lime sorbet. Now he would reign over the rest of the menu despite spending the last decade and a half specializing in sweets.

"We were talking between us cooks and saying, 'Are you serious? He's going to learn all of this? I don't trust him,'" says Nicaury Fernandez, a 23-year-old grill cook who's worked at the Dutch for the past three-and-a-half years.

The switch would be neither quick nor easy. Gripper would abandon his chef's role and its perks for the life of a grunt line cook to master the whole kitchen and develop the required palate and spectrum of skills.

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In doing so, he made an all-too-rare career decision and joined the ranks of chefs such as Empellon's Alex Stupak and Barcelona's Albert Adrìà, who left behind successful pastry careers to take over restaurants. In today's celebrity chef-driven restaurant culture, success remains elusive, and most young up-and-comers are lucky to get noticed even in their local markets. Only the best chefs are willing to step outside their comfort zones, and it's always a risk.

"I was impressed he had the vision to take a step back and be humble about it," says Andrew Carmellini, the James Beard Award-winning chef who owns the Dutch as well as a fleet of American and Italian restaurants in his New York City base. "If you become prominent in your career and known for something, to take a 15 percent pay cut is a big deal."

It's a move Gripper, who has a 16-month-old son, Hudson, has been quietly working toward all his life, and one necessary as he supports a young family.

Born and raised in Queens, he was always the most helpful of all of the kids in his grandmother Eloise Burnette's kitchen.

"She was from the South, and that was her food. She would cook collard greens, apple pie, and crazy stuff like chitterlings and calves' brains with eggs, and I was the only one that would eat it," he says.

As with many cooks, school wasn't his thing. He swapped computer programming classes for culinary school and began working as a delivery truck driver while scouring the back of the New York Times for a kitchen job. He found it at Butter, a clubby restaurant where he worked for free to learn basic prep work.

Soon, though, an old boss helped him get a job at Daniel Boulud's Michelin-starred Café Boulud on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was a stark change from Butter, where the cooks would sometimes smell weed wafting up from the owners' subterranean offices, Gripper recalls.

"You go into [Café Boulud] and the atmosphere is intense — everybody has their heads down," he says. "It was the first place I went into where everything was fresh every day. We spun the ice cream every day, we made new petits fours, the sauces, the meringues, the madeleines, and we didn't use anything left over at the end of the night."

Alongside him in the kitchen were soon-to-be Momofuku's David Chang and Tien Ho. There were Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, who today run some of New York's best Italian restaurants. Eventually, Gripper buddied up to the chef de cuisine — Carmellini — and the two hit it off at a party in Queens where Carmellini played guitar and Gripper rapped.

Next came short stints in some of the city's best kitchens, including a brief time with Carmellini at the Michelin-starred Italian spot A Voce, followed by Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park, once the top restaurant in the world and widely considered the best in the United States. Like Gripper's time at Boulud, watching Humm work was transformational.

Josh Gripper, One of Miami's Best Pastry Chefs, Trades Cake for Steak
Photo by Anthony Nader of 52chefs

"He's a master at delegating," Gripper says. "I've never seen someone organize a dish, a menu, a kitchen the way he does to create dishes while also teaching and improving all of the cooks."

Eventually, Gripper grew tired of New York City and landed a job running pastry at Gotham Steak inside the newly reopened Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Then in 2012, a chance call came in from his old pal Carmellini to help open a new location of the Dutch in Miami Beach. In the years that followed, the place set a new standard for beach hotel restaurants, which until that point had been pricey brand extensions for absentee celebrity chefs. Instead, the Dutch re-created Carmellini's simple approach to American cuisine with the tropical leanings and ingredients abundant in South Florida.

There were, and continue to be, spectacular pastas such as house-made spaghetti with Manila clams and chorizo alongside precision entrées like diver scallops with heirloom potatoes and Honeycrisp apples, as well as fragrant baharat-spiced biryanis. Gripper's desserts, particularly pies like salted lime and peach, were standouts that attracted as much attention as the mains.

About two years ago, however, Gripper saw the ceiling. The restaurant and the hotel's massive catering operations were running well but left him feeling detached from the kind of work that first drew him to kitchens.

"The logical conclusion was that if I loved cooking and wanted to get back to holding ingredients in my hand and putting them on the plate the right way, I had to restart," he says.

So with encouragement from Carmellini and Compère Lapin's Nina Compton, Gripper did just that and for a time had the strange sensation of being a novice in a familiar place. He spent a week working in Carmellini's other restaurants to get his bearings before returning to Miami Beach.

"I would have to make a chicken jus and I'd be standing there wondering which pot to grab; a server might come back and ask a question about a dish and I wouldn't remember all of the ingredients; or I'd jump on the hot line and wonder, Am I cooking this fish right? Is it underdone, overdone? There's no time to think about it. You just have to know," he says.

Luckily, his fellow cooks were helpful and offered tips like which dishes to start when and gentle nudges reminding him of plates yet to be done. The first few days were brutal, and reminiscent of one hung-over shift at Café Boulud where a chef after a long night sat him down for a hard chat. Things slowly got better, even though Gripper says he still felt like he was moving in slow motion and couldn't speed up.

Eventually, everything started clicking, and though all of the cooks still harbored a degree of skepticism, they began to come around.

"He would come in early to learn prep. He'd jump on any station that needed help. He was bouncing all over the place," Fernandez recalls. "For a kitchen to work, the cooks need to respect each other, and we respect him more now than when he started, even more than when he was the pastry chef."

It's starting to pay off. Gripper, in collaboration with his staff, has begun branching out and creating his own dishes. There's been roasted guinea hen with a breast cooked sous vide and confit thighs over Swiss chard; crispy octopus with crispy yuca planks and a pungent Brazilian moqueca; and foie gras terrine with Granny Smith apple gelée and black truffle brioche.

Still, it hasn't been easy, and Gripper sometimes likens the experience to raising his son, who each day is able to do a bit more.

"Trying to be effective and blend in with the other cooks and doing what they've been doing for years was hard," he says. "You go home and you say, 'Fuck, I wasn't that good today,' but you come back and do it tomorrow and the next day and the next."

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