It’s easy and predictable to complain about Miami’s dining ecosystem. It’s not as simple to figure out how to fix it.
Some chefs and restaurateurs are all too eager to latch onto whatever is trending. There are waiting rooms full of apathetic servers. And no matter the era, celebrity chefs wash onto the shores of South Beach with a never-ending rotation of posh eateries.
What has improved, however, is the base of locally grown talent operating independently owned restaurants. Today, many of the chefs and cooks who toil in their kitchens spend time together outside of work, whether cooking for special events or drinking and eating late into the night.
In Miami, it began in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the Mango Gang helped stick the city’s pin on the map.
“We were always eating with each other, working together on sharing purveyors, and sharing ideas,” says Allen Susser, who for nearly three decades ran Chef Allen’s in Aventura.
That sort of chef community is a critical kind of infrastructure found throughout major culinary capitals and one that needs to expand in Miami to attract and maintain the kind of talent that the city’s better restaurants groan about not being able to find.
“When I was working in L.A., a chef could send a cook somewhere, to another restaurant to learn something for a month,” says Alex Chang of the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar. “Here, I don’t know if I could send someone anyplace other than Alter.”
But the landscape hasn't been all that bleak, and this generation’s heroes — such as Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein — have helped carry the flag. If you poke around social media, you can find that cooks and chefs from Eating House, Edge Steak & Bar, La Mar, the Dutch, and others regularly get together, though there must be a few female cooks out there they could bring into the mix. A handful of chefs recently collaborated with Pincho Factory’s Nedal Ahmad to create a week of burgers celebrating the home of the pastelito burger’s fifth anniversary.
In recent years, the most noticeable chef gathering has been Jeremiah Bullfrog’s annual Pork Is Good (PIG) project. The sixth edition will happen this Sunday at 3 p.m. at the semipermanent GastroPod next to Wood Tavern on NW 26th Street in Wynwood. The lineup over the years has gone from just a handful of cooks to 16. This year, Quality Meats’ Patrick Rebholz, who’s been stunning crowds with his charcuterie, will join the fray along with William Crandall, who recently departed the iconic Azul at the Mandarin Oriental to man the kitchen at Izzy’s.
“I feel like I can call them at any given moment either for advice or a favor,” Bullfrog says. “These kinds of things we have to do. We all have the same mentality in that we want to make the dining scene better.”
If you need any convincing that a Miami chef community can be beneficial to the city’s dining scene, check in with Steve Santana. The soft-spoken onetime programmer–turned–tortilla man used to volunteer-cook at Cobaya dinners and on Jeremiah’s GastroPod. In 2012, he quit his full-time job to take over the small kitchen inside the Broken Shaker. After that, Giorgio Rapicavoli brought him on to run lunch service at Eating House.
Today, his small Collins Avenue taqueria, Taquiza, is a must-stop for anyone eating their way through Miami. His tortillas, nixtamalized and pressed in house, can be found throughout the Magic City.
“If someone wants to learn or be involved and is willing to work, there’s tons of help out there,” Santana says. “People will take them in, show them the ropes.”
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