Chef Julie Frans' slender fingers crush a golden flower, and some petals take flight on the ocean breeze.
"These are marigolds, which I use a lot," Frans says. "When they’re mixed in with something, they bring out a grapefruit-esque flavor. You’ll traditionally see this on Indian food, so I use it on West Indies spiced chicken breast ($25) and some of the salads."
Frans is standing in the middle of her compact organic garden just steps from the beach. After a two-year hiatus, she has returned to Essensia at the Palms Hotel & Spa to introduce a Caribbean-inspired menu, a direct reflection of her travels during that time away.
"I traveled, started a few restaurants, one in Barbados," she says. "That was a really great lead-in to doing this Caribbean menu."
Pointing and plucking, crumbling leaves, and offering their aromas to be inhaled, Frans is as comfortable in the garden as she is in the kitchen.
"We’re just starting our summer spinaches and a ton of herbs: Cuban oregano, tarragon, rosemary, chives," she says while yanking out a stowaway weed. "I think it has a lot of impact to understand what’s growing in this backyard, so then you can plan your menus according to knowing what else is going to be growing at the farmers' market and you can get more in tune with what's out there."
Frans describes herself as a "veggie-centric" chef, making sure vegetables play an important role in meat and fish dishes. Originally from California, she says her background had more of a Mediterranean-California focus with Thai influences and that she had to learn about using ingredients native to Florida, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
"It’s been really fun adjusting my style."
Having a farm-to-table restaurant — or garden-to-table, as she prefers — was a top priority for her when she came onboard in 2011.
"We have the first garden on the beach. People said, 'You’re never going to be able to do it with the ocean right there' because of the salty breeze," she notes, "and there are certain things that do really well."
Right now that includes collards, several types of kale, summer spinaches such as Egyptian and Miami varieties, Cuban oregano, tarragon, rosemary, chives, and plenty of flowers. "I really like to use a lot of flowers in the food, not necessarily just as garnish," she says. "So I have a whole bed of flowers!"
What doesn't come from the garden comes from locally sourced ingredients. Frans is a dedicated advocate of the movement Slow Foods Miami. She says her priority from the beginning has been connecting with local farmers. Dishes include seared local corvina served with carrot coconut ginger purée ($32), Jamaican jerk pork tenderloin with guava habanero rum sauce ($26), and an islander seafood bouillabaisse for two ($38).
"The bouillabaisse is really popular. It's nice because it’s not a traditional bouillabaisse with the broth; it’s got a curry sauce with it," she says.
"Some of the guests that have been coming for years and years were a little mad at me when I took over the best sunbathing spot in the whole hotel," she offers with a hearty laugh before clarifying that guests are truly pleased with the new menu. She grabs a broad leaf, almost the size of her palm. "This is one of my favorites. It's Cuban oregano, and you can just smell it and feel the power of it," she explains while making a fist. She raises it to her nose. "It’s pungent!"