2020: Miami Chefs Look Back

Karla Hoyos
Karla Hoyos Photo courtesy of The Bazaar by José Andrés
Twenty-twenty will forever be the year the world stood still.

The year started with promise. South Florida hosted the Super Bowl, the economy was rosy, our days were filled with blue skies and our nights with cocktails and cool breezes. Sure, there was talk of a virus called COVID-19, but for nearly all of us, a global pandemic didn't seem possible.

We all know what happened next.

Though few have made it through the year unscathed by illness or financial peril, the restaurant industry was hit particularly hard. Through it all, however, chefs, restaurateurs, brewery owners and their staffs held fast. They helped to provide food for first responders. They pivoted their business models. And they persevered.

As 2020 finally draws to a close, New Times checked in with some of the people who provide us with nourishment and a convivial atmosphere through good times and bad. We asked them two questions: How did you fare in 2020? And How do you think 2021 will look?

Then we listened to what they had to say.

When asked to look back, most began with a variation on "Fuck 2020." But, in the end, the stories they told were of teachable moments and moxie. Some chefs learned to rethink how they handled their businesses. Some found strength in their employees. Some shared stories of breakups with significant others. One had a baby.

In the end, 2020 was a year where we all walked through fire. Most of us made it out. Some didn't. But chefs, of all people, know that even if you get a little burned, you still go on with the evening's service.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the companion piece to this story, "2021: Miami Chefs Look Ahead."

Karla Hoyos (The Bazaar by José Andrés)
When you go through hard times, that's when you grow and learn. A lot of restaurants struggled, a lot of people lost their jobs, even lost their battle with COVID. But I honestly think we will all come out kinder beings. If we didn't grow from this, it was a wasted year. I was so grateful for the people at Bazaar that stayed even though we couldn't give them more hours. I'm grateful for World Central Kitchen and the work I do there. I was sent to Spain to train chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants on how to transition their kitchens to cook thousands of meals a day. I was in Spain for three months and we made over 3 million meals. What I saw will impact me for the rest of my life. People would wait in line for two hours to get a plate of food. I never imagine that in Spain — a First World country — I would see that. It was intense and shocking. You realize that sometimes when you complain, it's about nothing. I'm grateful for what I have.
click to enlarge
Danny Serfer
Photo courtesy of Danny Serfer
Danny Serfer (Blue Collar, Mignonette)
We learned some valuable lessons about business this year. I've never looked at so many Excel spreadsheets before. I've been looking at food costs more carefully than I've ever done and I was able to find some routes to hire back as many people as I could and make them as whole as possible. That was awesome. At Blue Collar, the pivot to takeout was not that challenging. The food isn't fussy and precious. A lot of items are braised, so the saucy dishes travel well. I like to think we spend extra money on better containers and it's worth it. At Mignonette, we had some success doing the Red Sauce pop-up. Now that we're able to do dining again, we have a more focused menu and it's been really solid there. There wasn't enough business downtown to save Vinaigrette. Personally, I feel blessed because my businesses are open, my family is healthy, my kids and wife are happy. I'm holding it together.

Michael Schwartz (Genuine Hospitality Group)
I realize how fortunate we are to be in Miami and in a state that allows us to stay open. Compared to the rest of the country, we are blessed. I think about all the things we learned from closing, and pivoting, and navigating through PPP. It's taught us how to change the broken business model that hospitality has in terms of efficiency and profitability. Our team has a new understanding on how to run a business. Hopefully we won't forget when we return to "normal" — whatever that looks like. There's been a lot of pain and suffering and it looks like another round of PPP will help. I'm really proud of my team and the way they have been so creative. We got a little bit of a hall pass with guests realizing that we are trying to do something that's new and difficult, and I thank them for that. People forget that we are still in the thick of this thing.
click to enlarge
Derrick Turton
Photo by R Allen Photography
Derrick Turton (World Famous House of Mac)
2020 was a character-building year filled with a lot of adversity but a lot of diversity. The scariest part of going through a pandemic is the unknown. We cooked for first responders. We started shipping across the country. We ship direct through our website with baking instructions. We now deliver mac and cheese to Brooklyn and Los Angeles and Tallahassee. We never would have thought to do that if not for the pandemic. Sometimes you get into your comfort zone — and comfort kills. What I'm grateful for is that the community has come out for us, and I haven't fired or laid off one single person.

Johnathan Wakefield (J. Wakefield Brewing)
2020 started out great. We rolled into Wakefest in February, had a great festival, then the brakes came on. I don't think I've ever done as much scrambling and rethinking a business plan. We've worked hard to ensure we're sanitary and safe. I think every business should have the ability to stay open. We're lucky to be paying the bills and breaking even. Rent hasn't gone down and sometimes I scratch my head because no new businesses are going to come in and pay Wynwood rent. I really hope the rents would adjust to reflect a pandemic. We have seen positivity come out of this, however. We have a strong support base and people are still buying our beer.
Luis Brignoni (Wynwood Brewing Co.)
2020 started out strong. It was our first year for a partnership with the Miami Heat and we were excited to see them go to the playoffs. This was a year of rolling with the punches and trying to hold on. We shifted our focus from on-premise sales to off-premise sales. We now sell a variety pack of our beers. The biggest takeaway is how resilient our team is. We got our hands dirty. Our off-premise salespeople started working at 4 a.m. to make sure our beer was stocked at supermarkets. Our taproom staff and production staff we flexible with all the changes we had to make to sell beer to-go and then reopen the taproom.

Yonathan Ghersi (26 Degree Brewing Company)
There's no amount of business-school training that can prepare you for a pandemic. I got really lucky guessing my way through a lot of this so far. Even if you're a 20-year industry veteran, there's no way anyone could have been prepared for this type of year or been ready to navigate these waters successfully. The reality is that this is difficult for everyone, but our biggest gripe is that our government picked winners and losers. Those that served food were the winners, they got to be open. Breweries, for the most part, were the losers. If you didn't serve food, you couldn't do business. I'd be OK with the restrictions if it had been an equal and fair application of the law. I just want to know: What was the objective? What were they trying to accomplish with that?

David Martinez (Café La Trova, Sweet Liberty)
2020 was, by far, the most difficult and challenging year that I’ve ever worked in this industry. But it was also a year where we all came together and helped each other out more than I’ve ever seen, which is certainly not surprising of this industry. I think I have tried to focus on all that was good in 2020 rather than the challenges that it presented. We certainly learned how to become more efficient and versatile in order to survive the storm. (via email)

Liz Machado (Vegan Cuban Cuisine)
2020 was a harder year than usual, but we made it through. In terms of business, it has been a year of success and growth. We were lucky to go into the quarantine with a strong online customer base, and in April our orders really exploded. But it wasn't easy. I was diagnosed with coronavirus while eight months pregnant back in June, which was really stressful. And my grandmother is still recovering. We had to close for over a month, but fortunately I had light symptoms. The day after we signed the lease, I gave birth, and on September 15 we opened our new store.
click to enlarge
Peter Vauthy
Courtesy of Red South Beach
Peter Vauthy (Red South Beach)
2020 can kiss my chef ass. This year took every pound of flesh out of me. I'm still here, but it's been brutal on so many levels. I think what I'll remember the most is how viciously people came after the restaurant industry without evidence. The cost is going to be high when talented chefs are forced into corporate jobs. At Red, we've paid our managers the entire time. I wasn't going to lose a good team because of COVID-19. I've kept my circle very small. I have my Red family and then I go home to my dogs. The only upside is that I've learned to take care of myself better and I've realized that I really, truly love to cook. I can't not be in the kitchen. I miss the people and the interaction.

Nicole Gates (Lil Greenhouse Grill)
We started the year off amazing. Oprah Winfrey came to the restaurant in January, the Super Bowl was here, and we thought the year was made for us. Then a month later, our lives were forever changed. You go from sheer panic to survival mode to frustration to a miraculous hopefulness. What 2020 taught me most of all is that things we thought were necessities are actually luxuries. If someone leaves the safety of their house to come to your restaurant — it doesn't matter if they're dining in or taking out — it's not because of the monogrammed napkins or the art on your walls. It's because of your good food and your consistent service. That's the nitty-gritty of the restaurant business. This is Business 101. Why are you in it? If you can answer that, you'll survive. If you came out of 2020 not learning anything, that's your own fault.
click to enlarge
Matt Kuscher
Photo courtesy of Kush Hospitality
Matt Kuscher (Kush Hospitality)
My children are my restaurants and I now have eight kids to worry about. When we had to close, half our staff left and that makes me want to cry. The most memorable time for me was realizing there was nothing I could do. We spent time redoing Spillover as Kush, and there's no question it was the right move. I never really bought into delivery, but we had to lean into that. Kush by Stephen's in Hialeah was a bit troubling because we don't have the built-in community we did at the other locations. We finally reopened and less than two weeks later, we self-shut-down because an employee wasn't feeling well and did end up testing positive. Some employees didn't come back. We reopened the bar at Stephen's last month and it's getting busier, but we really have to be creative. We had to redo the cocktail program and really market it. We are lucky in Hialeah in that we have a parking lot and a patio we can utilize. The reality is that the restaurant business is fucking tough. It's a margin of pennies for people like myself. It's been tough financially, but Miami is a resilient city and the PPP money was huge. It gave me the leverage to keep operating.

Emi Guerra (Breakwater Hospitality Group)
I’ve experienced the highest high and the lowest low in 2020. The “low” was seeing the restaurant, bar, nightclub, and event industries get crushed. More specifically, it was hard seeing the effect it’s had on the hospitality workforce as a whole. These new guidelines basically give our industry the ability to open, only to lose money and risk losing our businesses for good. Seeing how we got here and the hardships these small businesses are going through made me realize that our industry has very little voice within the community and with policymakers. On the other hand, nothing has brought me more joy than my wife and I welcoming our baby girl, Evarista, into this world in June. Seeing our family grow and being able to spend time with them has really allowed me to change my perspective on life. (via email)
click to enlarge
Cindy Hutson and partner Delius Shirley.
Photo by Michael Pisarri
Cindy Hutson (Ortanique [closed])
2020 started out pretty good. We were consulting on Cervecería La Tropical, a brewery opening up in Wynwood, and we were excited about creating the food menu for it. Our restaurant at the Cliff Hotel in Jamaica was getting great reviews. And then, of course, Ortanique closed. We just couldn't pay the bills. We couldn't pay the staff. I have to say, I cried a lot and thought about the last 21 years. We had such a good run. Delius [Shirley] and I did so many things over the past two decades, yet I thought I was a failure because it closed. But then we had an outpouring of calls and emails from people. They let me know that Ortanique had an impact on their lives. The more they reached out, the more I grew to realize that what I thought was a failure was one of the greatest successes of my life.

Michael Beltran (Ariete, Chug's, Navé)
2020 forced me to do a lot of soul-searching. I reflected on the journey we have had, not just this year but from the first time I picked up a pan or terrine mold. It was a “fifth gear” kind of year, when you think you hit a gear you never knew you had and keep pushing harder. It forced us to be more relentless than ever. I’m fortunate and blessed that my relentless attitude is not just my own. My staff family are cut from the same cloth. Every time the world attempted to hold us down with a new curfew, a new rule, or more bad news, we all pushed harder. They were relentless not only to survive but to excel and take any opportunity to improve. That first night that Ariete reopened, the guests came back and acted as if a part of their life, their own home, had returned. It seemed like a moment when they reunited with family. That made me feel like we had done our job and [that] what Ariete stands for really is more than food. It’s community. (via email)
click to enlarge
Lee Schrager
Photo courtesy of South Beach Wine & Food Festival
Lee Schrager (South Beach Wine & Food Festival)
It was the year of learning how to sink or swim and knowing the importance of being flexible. We had to rethink the New York Wine & Food Festival at the very last moment.  We changed the dates of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. I'm a creature of habit, so learning how to pivot was a big deal for me. Helping the local restaurant community was vital. We took $500,000 of the funds we raised at the 2020 festival and, with the approval of Florida International University, turned it into seed money for the restaurant fund we set up. On a personal note, I'm a very social person, so I had to learn how to be home alone. I think it was a big adjustment — just learning how to enjoy the time.

Brad Kilgore (Alter)
2020 absolutely affected me both personally and professionally. Even though there have been negatives, there have been positives. I see life as the glass is half full. Everyone in our industry is going through a transition and you hit some walls along the way and you get back up. My mental energy right now is to not try to fix the world, but how to be a part of the new world that were going into. I've been working at least 40 hors a week since I was 14, so I'm giving myself permission to take a little step back. I'm okay, with that, too.

Diego Oka (La Mar by Gastón Acurio)
My 2020 was different just like everyone else’s but I want to look at the positive things it brought. I was able to spend more time with my family, especially my wife and son. On the business side, we were able to work on projects that we never had time to address due to lack of time, so that helped spike my creativity. We also had a chance to rebuild our team while fine-tuning logistics with a reduced budget, menu, and hours. Our team worked hard together to reinvent La Mar during this pandemic. Those who were on the team had to truly take ownership during these times and I believe we came out stronger in the long run! (via email)

Greg Tetzner and Jackie Richie (Old Greg's Pizza)
2020 was a tough year and a dumpster fire. But from that dumpster fire, we were able to start following our dreams. COVID-19 stopped our pop-up from happening in April, so we started baking from the house and sending pizzas to friends for feedback. Brad [Kilgore] saw a post on Instagram, tried our pizza, and liked it so much he lent us his kitchen at Ember. We are so grateful for that.
click to enlarge
Stephanie Vitori
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Vitori
Stephanie Vitori (Cheeseburger Baby)
2020 was a lesson in adaptability for me. It's also the year that the Miami Beach community came together, and I think the residents and business owners needed that. When I opened 20 years ago, it was all locally owned shops and restaurants. Now it's a complete 180. During COVID-19, the community rallied together and local government heard us. They're making it easier for us to get licenses and gave us extensions to pay our bills. I don't agree with everything, but they did hear our voices. I'm trying to throw a positive light, but it's been tough AF. We've been through hurricanes and Zika, but this is another ballpark. I had to deal with price-gouging and curfews and being shut down. But in this, I found a treasure in collaborating with Bob's Your Uncle. Bob's is a treasure. It's a neighborhood bar and co-owner Danielle [Savin] just made me feel welcome. It's two women coming together to be a part of the community. I'm thankful something so good came from something so bad.

Eileen Andrade (Finka Table & Tap)
I really thought [at first] that nothing would shut down and that this would go away. But then things got worse, and we got pretty proactive. We started doing cocktail mixes to go. We never had a strong takeout scene, but we've pivoted and I think that's going to benefit us in the future. When someone dines at a restaurant, you always have the opportunity to make anything right on the spot, but when someone gets home with a meal, the food needs to be ready to eat. We had three months that were really crap, but I try to look on the positive side of things. My team has gotten stronger. The people who weren't meant to be here for the long haul left. It was a cleansing of sorts. There's a new energy at the restaurant and it's an energy that I like. On a personal note, this was a time for soul-searching. For me, it was about bettering my business and finding the people who truly love what they do.
click to enlarge
Chef Adrianne Calvo
Photo courtesy of Red Fish by Chef Adrianne
Adrianne Calvo (Chef Adrianne's Vineyard Restaurant and Bar, Redfish by Chef Adrianne)
I risked it all to expand this year [with Redfish], betting on the human spirit that we would be okay. People's lives revolve around restaurants, whether you're celebrating or just hanging out with friends. I knew we'd get through the pandemic eventually, so I just hung on. My other restaurant was open for 13 years, so we were careful. The day after we were ordered to shut down dining-room service, me and my executive chef were cooking. I took care of my people all the way through. Just doing what you can has been my mindset. I was going to fight through to the end. This is grassroots from the ground up. This is not a big corporate chain, so we went into gladiator mode.

Luciana Giangrandi (Boia De)
We opened in June 2019 with an evening dine-in model only and had been killing it until COVID hit. We had to flip our business model two days after the lockdown, and even though we kept our team that wanted to keep working, we all missed the interaction and hospitality aspect of the business. It was tough seeing purveyors having to shut down and people getting laid off everywhere. We really realized how things can just crumble even if you are doing well. We reduced our menu to a more practical takeout version and started offering sandwiches and specials during the day because of the curfew, and it was nice to see a lot of our regulars coming by for takeout daily. For now, we’re only operating outdoors on the covered sidewalk and some of the parking lot. It’s not an ideal situation, but we’ve learned to be more creative and agile and it’s motivating to see that the reason for us opening in the first place still exists. We opened thinking this would be a neighborhood restaurant where people could share great moments, and people need that now more than ever.

Ben Potts (Beaker & Gray, the Sylvester)
We started the year with our restaurant, Beaker & Gray, having a great start. Our newly opened bar, the Sylvester, was earning the hearts of many patrons. When things were officially closed for quarantine, we weren't sure what to do, what to tell our staff, and all we knew we could do was take it step by step and hold on. Through navigating government-assistance programs, trying to decipher what meant what and if we were even allowed to open, it was a confusing time. After getting through the worst of it, things seem to have stabilized somewhat, but the future is still unknown. We are fortunate to have a dedicated team that has stuck with us through the hard times and we are grateful for all of our patrons that have ordered takeout, dined with us, and supported us through this year. We have learned a lot and will continue to persevere. (via email)

Tim Petrillo (The Restaurant People)
The hardest decision I've ever made was to furlough our hourly employees. Never in the history of our company have we ever had to do something like that. You can have all the values as a company as you want, but at the end of the day, when your back is against the wall and you can't stick to that, what's the point? So we made sure to keep our managerial and salaried staff. I didn't realize how much that meant to the team. It was great to see us come together as a company to get through it. And because of that decision, we've been able to ramp up right away. When you open 11 restaurants at the same time, it's not easy, and we couldn't have done that without our staff.

Sandy Sanchez (La Fresa Francesa)
Our client base has been amazing. They have been there for us through takeout-only and 90-degree weather and we are really grateful. We reopened for a minute with restrictions, did that, closed, and then built a new patio to accommodate outdoor dining. The whole process was exhausting, not knowing week to week how to operate. Now we have La Fresa open only Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays as a bistro-style eatery, where customers can get a daylong full menu. And in the end, that has worked out really well. The staff gets their full 40 hours of work on those three days, then they get to be home and take care of themselves. Our quality of life has improved, and these schedule changes gave us time to do things we couldn’t do, like fixing things at the restaurants and getting creative with the menu. We lost revenue, but the overhead has changed too, and it all fell into place.

Marc Falsetto (Handcrafted Hospitality)
The hardest thing was the look on my 300-plus employees' faces when I had to furlough them at the beginning of the pandemic, knowing they'd have no way to provide for their families. Nothing prepares you for something like that. After that, it was learning to constantly adapt and pivot from all the changing CDC guidelines. That being said, 2020 has been good to us overall. Crazy as it sounds, I had one of my most successful restaurant openings to date, and it was in the middle of a pandemic. At the end of the day, people want to be social, and if you're offering a good product and good service, they'll come. The silver lining in all of this was taking a step back. I was moving so fast for the past ten years that I finally had the time to stop, slow down, and look at my company culture and business model.
click to enlarge
Bunnie Cakes founder Mariana Cortez and her youngest daughter at the new Downtown Doral location.
Photo courtesy of Bunnie Cakes
Mariana Cortez (Bunnie Cakes)
2020 was a bittersweet year for us but I’m also incredibly grateful. We had so many changes with our relocation to Downtown Doral, but I’m so happy we are closing out the year with so much community support. This year we launched national shipping sooner than we anticipated because of the pandemic, and the response has been amazing. My personal biggest worry was making sure my family and team were safe and felt supported with so much uncertainty.

Della Heiman (The Doral Yard)
Above all, reflecting on 2020 fills me with an overwhelming sense of appreciation and admiration for frontline healthcare workers around the globe, who continue to fight valiant, daily battles to save lives. Their bravery, resilience, and selflessness have been beacons of hope and inspiration. Within our team, a silver lining was that we were able to delay the opening of our new Yard in Downtown Doral until October. Those seven months gave us the opportunity to learn about COVID-19 from fellow entrepreneurs, who were already finding ways to pivot. In some ways the pandemic has created unique challenges and stressors related to hiring, scheduling, and the day-to-day dynamics of running a business. It's not easy to transmit positive energy and inspiration when you're wearing a mask or talking on Zoom. On the flip side, this environment allowed us to add some incredibly talented people who likely would not have been seeking new jobs if not for the pandemic.

Myles Chefetz (Myles Restaurant Group)
The first two months of 2020 were the best I've ever experienced here in Miami. Then we suddenly went from the ultimate high to the ultimate low. It was this surreal moment of this is really happening, when we were forced to close all our dining rooms and move to takeout. I didn't furlough any employees — I really looked at this as a two-month thing. In June we were opened again and everything came back. Then the infection rates spiked again and July and August were even worse. [The ten o'clock curfew] was almost impossible to navigate around — there were times we would have people getting their entrées before their appetizers because we would have to get them out by ten. I've been in the restaurant game in Miami for over 30 years. All that time, my worst rational fear was a fire or a tsunami. I've lived with curfews after hurricanes. I've lived with being closed for days. But what happened in 2020 was so beyond what was imaginable. It's a complete wipeout. It's all about staying alive and keeping your employees alive.
click to enlarge
David Grutman
Photo by Morelli Brothers
David Grutman (Groot Hospitality)
It started out on such a high: We had an epic New Year's Eve with the Jonas Brothers at the Fontainebleau. Then Miami hosted Super Bowl LIV, and naturally LIV was insane. I think that was one of my most favorite weekends. Unfortunately, the whole world was then hit with this devastating pandemic, and we closed our clubs and our restaurants — a horrible moment in time for a lot of my team and colleagues in the hospitality industry. The silver lining was that I got to spend so much more time with my beautiful family. Groot Hospitality did not stop working, though. We kept cooking, kept creating. We've reopened with more innovative menus and awesome chefs. (via email)

Additional reporting by Nicole Danna, Juliana Accioly, and JennyLee Molina.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss