Kris Wessel: Florida Cookery at the James Royal Palm Hotel Is Personal

What does a chef do before opening a new restaurant in a luxury South Beach hotel?

If you guessed taking his daughters on an extended road trip, you might have gotten the same email we did from Kris Wessel. If you speak with Wessel for more than 30 seconds, you'll learn that everything he does -- from cooking to travel -- is all about family.

The owner of Red Light Little River is preparing to open Florida Cookery at the James Royal Palm Hotel in October. A press release states the restaurant will "represent the best of Florida food traditions executed by a native son." But what does that mean?

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It means taking his grandmother's cookbook, Florida Cookery, out of the frame it's been displayed in, and using the recipes as a base for his new menu. It means visiting quail farms and cheese makers throughout the state of Florida to source local ingredients -- and taking his daughters, Natasha (14) and Anais (9) with him (with a stop at Aquatica in Orlando to play with dolphins). But mostly, it means his restaurant is going to be very personal. We spoke with Kris, who told us about what he did on his summer vacation, his new restaurant, and what it really means to be a true Floridian.

Short Order: With all that's going on with the planning of your new restaurant, what made you take your daughters on a three week long road trip from Miami to New Orleans?
Kris Wessel: We had planned to go to New Orleans to visit my parents, so I decided to take my daughters on a culinary journey. We went fishing, visited goat farms, dairies. We had adventures. It was great.

We hear you went to Tales of the Cocktail. Not a place for kids, is it?
No I didn't take my daughters to Tales of the Cocktail.

I took myself to Tales while my girls hung out with my sister and her children. I only did two of the nights there.

Where did you go on your family road trip?
I knew I was going to do the drive, so I thought I would hit as many farms as I could and take the girls with me for the ride. It's amazing that we don't even know how close we are to some great cheese makers and quail farms. They're only about three hours away from Miami, around Orlando.

Did your daughters enjoy the farm outings?
Believe me, they didn't want to leave the water park. Seriously, my oldest daughter is very much an artist and has an expanded mind for a young girl. My youngest is full of energy and would explore everything if given the chance.

There were some trip highlights. Going to Cedar Key and checking out the clamming was fun. We went fishing. My ex-wife is French and their dad's a chef, so food has always been a part of their culture.

What did you learn on your trip?
I'm dealing with some meat distributors that are having a hard time getting Florida venison, wild boar or quail. It's mainly because there are only one or two USDA processing companies in the state. So, if you're a small quail farmer or have a wild boar preserve, for the most part it's tough for these small farms to get their product to the processing plants.

What's the answer to that?
In the past, there hasn't been that much of a want or need for local game or alternative proteins. Just putting more venison or quail on any menu benefits the small farmer. If more chefs put local meat on the menu, that generates more demand and that will trickle down to the small farmers.

You're from Florida, but lived in New Orleans for a time and have family there.

from both Florida and New Orleans. From the time I was 8 to 18, I

lived in New Orleans. Before that, I lived in Miami and after the age of

18 I moved back to Florida. I went to school in Tallahassee and I've

been here for 20 years.

So you left New Orleans just as you became a young man?  I would think that's when the city gets interesting.

you've got to remember I'm 6'5". There's a saying in New Orleans that

if you can reach the top of the bar, you can drink. When I was 15, I was

over six feet tall, so in high school we didn't hang out in street

corners, we hung out in bars.

As a kid, I worked in the big touristy restaurants and went to

local bars after to party. It was great growing up in New Orleans,

believe me. I took off for the hotel and restaurant program at Florida

State, finished at FIU, and I've been here in Miami ever since.

Florida Cookery is all about your Florida roots. How deep do they go?

dad grew up here in Miami Beach with nine brothers and sisters in the

'40s, '50s and '60s. Dad got tired of the over development of the hotels

on Miami Beach, so he want to Loyola and didn't come back, but his

brothers and sisters all stayed in Miami.

When did your family first come to Miami?
My dad's family came here in the '20s and my grandparents had ten kids, who all grew up on Miami Beach. My grandmother was a great cook, and she used the local products that were down here.

Your grandmother is the influence for Florida Cookery...
Florida Cookery was my grandmother's cookbook. It

was actually a pamphlet-style Junior League-type cookbook from

the '40s. I have one of the only copies. Her recipes use locally-sourced ingredients. So there's mango pie and coconut punch. I think back over

the years at all the Thanksgivings and family get-togethers and that's

what we were eating.

I have pictures of my uncles pulling up speared hogfish right off of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Back then, spiny lobster was called crawfish. Sea turtles were abundant, so they were used for their meat. If you look at old Keys cookbooks, you'll see recipes using mostly native seafood and native fruits.

Why did you choose the James Hotel in South Beach for the venue for the Florida Cookery concept?
The James Hotel approached me and asked what would I do at a

luxury hotel. I said a Floridian concept. My family is Floridian. My grandfather was in construction and his crew worked on the Delano,

the Lutheran church on Pinetree -- all these

iconic structures. My grandmother had a laundromat, worked as a maid in

Miami Beach hotels, and had ten kids. So this was an incredible working

class family that staked roots in Miami.

One of my uncles became a judge in Palm Beach. My father moved to New

Orleans, but all of my 27 cousins and aunts and uncles all grew up here

in Miami, so it's a very personal statement that I'm making at Florida


What is South Florida cuisine?
We were the cracker side of Florida culture, but there were these other cultures that arrived. Influences from South America, the Caribbean, New York. That's what really make up Miami Beach. If you exclude any of those, you're not representing everything that south Florida is, was, and, will be.

When is Florida Cookery opening? Still on track for October?
The second week is still a go for the soft opening and we should be fully there by the end of October.

I'm knee deep in menu writing now because I'm working on the room service menus, the rum bar, even the banquet menu. But I'm leaving room at the restaurant so I can change the menu as the seasons and product dictates.

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