Kris Wessel On His New Joint, Florida Cookery -- And On Sunshine State Cooking In General

When I spoke with Kris Wessel by phone yesterday, he was in the Atlanta airport eating a Krystal Burger while waiting for his delayed flight to board. I was curious about his new upcoming restaurant, Florida Cookery, at the revamped James Royal Palm Hotel (originally built in 1939, the hotel is scheduled to re-open in October).  

New Times: It's a pretty swank venue you're heading into.
Kris Wessel: It's in a great setting. The Royal Palm, as you know, is an old Deco hotel. They're doing a beautiful renovation job on the whole thing; they're restoring the old front desk, they restored the old terrazzo ... it's not Vegas or New York coming to Miami. They're preserving the history.

How did your involvement come about?
They approached me several months ago about partnering up and asked me what I would do on the luxury hotel strip of Collins Avenue. My first thought was to get back to a Floridian idea. I was about to name the restaurant Floridian, but there's a little diner in Ft. Lauderdale called The Floridian. 

My grandmother settled here in 1926 and had ten kids in twelve years. They all grew up on Miami Beach during the forties, fifties and sixties. I spent ten years, in elementary school and high school, in New Orleans, but my father's side of the family is from Miami Beach. So I started rooting through old index files and cookbooks that my grandmother had given me over the years -- a couple of Junior League cookbooks, the Key West Women's Club book, The Caribbean Cookery, which was a bible in the mid-Sixties, and Florida Cookery, which was a late-Forties little pamphlet-like cookbook, but has great old recipes of Florida -- stuff like rum jelly, and Puerto Rican pineapple cake. It's really indigenous not just to what housewives and home cooks were cooking, but the product they were using down here. 

Are we talking hush puppies, alligator stew, tupelo honey?
Despite the name, it's not a drive towards ... a cracker approach to the food. (Laughs). My view of the cultural and ethnic influences on Miami is the whole region. What influenced Miami over the years, from the 1930s until now? Well South America influences Miami, the American South influences Miami, the Caribbean influences Miami...and New York City influences Miami -- in the way Mark (Militelo), Norman (Van Aken) and Allen (Susser) would take Florida products in the Nineties and emulate how they treated product in big restaurants in New York and nationwide ... I think they got caught up with the press in New York, and the press in California...but if you ignore South America, the Caribbean, and the American South...you have to have at least two or three dishes that have the flavor of each (of those) on your menu, or you're not giving a regional interpretation of Miami or Florida.

I mean nowadays, when the season opens up in October, you can get wild boar right outside of Lake Okeechobee. You can get frogs legs north of Jupiter. So I think gone are the days where you just have to use stone crabs and key lime pies to represent Florida and Miami. 

You're a very hands-on chef.

So how will you deal with not being able to be two places at once?
I had someone tweet to me a week ago, when the story broke, wondering if I was going to clone myself. I actually put a shout-out, 'Any clones wanting to apply, please come forward.' 

And the back-up plan?
You know what, when I got here 19 years ago, I jumped into a restaurant called Mark's Place. It was the number one restaurant in Florida. We'd do 300 covers a night, and we had nine guys on the line, a sous chef and a chef de cuisine. In a year and a half I became the chef de cuisine, and then helped him (Mark Militello) open his restaurants in Las Olas and Coconut Grove. So while I've gone on to be an independent operator/chef, I come from a background of always having had a big team. I want to build a team that can carry through the regional cooking that I'm doing at Red Light and at Florida Cookery.

What kind of menu prices are we looking at?
Well ... I walked into SLS the other day, to look at the menu, and I couldn't believe the pricing going on. But that's what it is, Collins Avenue, I can't get away from not being competitive.  
I also realize that people in South Florida will come to the restaurant because I'm a, you know ... like you said, a hands-on chef, and they're not going to expect me to rape them with the prices. And I won't.

Flight announcements started to drown out our conversation, so I thanked chef Wessel and let him be on his way home to Miami. Or maybe back to the Krystal counter.

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