Solea's Chef Michael Gilligan Talks Gingerbread, United Way

It's not every day you hear about a guy from Birmingham, England, cooking Spanish cuisine that everyone wants to eat. We suppose that makes Michael Gilligan a special kind of chef.

Gilligan, who will present dessert this weekend at a United Way event, got his start not only working at Michelin-starred restaurants but also cooking for Princess Diana and her whole royal crew. After running food business at the Conrad Miami for many years, he's now the executive chef of the W South Beach and of Soleá, one of the city's hot spots for Mediterranean cuisine.

He spoke with us about cooking as a kid and why eating family style is a good way to meet people.

New Times: How long have you been at Soleá?

Michael Gilligan: I opened Soleá [last year]. I was here six months before it opened. I'm the executive chef of the hotel and the executive chef of Soleá.

Where are you from?

Originally, I'm from England. I went to school in England, and I studied there, worked all over Europe, and then I moved to New York in '93 and I lived there for ten, 11 years, and I've been down here since 2003. I was the executive chef at the Conrad for five years, and then I came over here to open up this place.

Have you always loved to cook?

Oh, of course, I've been doing this all my life.

Do you have a favorite cooking memory?

I first learned to cook in the kitchen with my mother; God rest her soul -- she passed away this summer. My family owned Irish pubs. My parents are Irish, I was born in England, and we owned an Irish pub, and my mother used to make the big Sunday lunch there, all the rest of the family inside. I'm the youngest of the family, so she used to give me bits of dough to play with. I was in the kitchen; it was the warmest place in the whole building. It's freezing there, not like Miami. And she would give me bits of dough to play with, and I would make like a little gingerbread man, and then I'd be eating it and realize it needed more sugar, and use cherries for the eyes. And I just got into cooking, and I've been doing it ever since.

When did you decide you were going to work with the United Way?

I've always done a few things with them when I was the chef at the Conrad. And this year, they got in touch with us to see if we would like to be part of their celebration, and I said, "Sure, why not?" and it's for a good cause and it's a lot of fun. A bunch of chefs get together and we're doing a great dinner. There's going to be a lot of great wine there, so that's where we're going to go with it this year.

What can people expect from the part you're involved in?

Oh, this is going to be a lot of fun. We're going to serve the dinner family style, so the appetizers are going to be from Chef David at the River Oyster Bar and Chef Richard at Sakaya, and the main courses from Alejandro Pinero at Sustain and Tom Rhyneer of Miami Culinary Institute. So there's a wide variety of different types of foods and different styles. It's going to be family served, so it's going to be a little bit more interactive. It's going to be a bit of fun. And I'm doing dessert.

Have you decided on the menu?

Yes, it's called chocolate sabotage. It's chocolate four different ways.

Michael Gilligan will present dessert at the United Way's Miami Wine & Food Festival event Cellar-bration Saturday, April 16. Beside the food and wine, it features dancing and live music by jazz vocalist Kevin Mahogany. A champagne reception and silent auction begin at 6:30 p.m., and dinner starts at 7:30 at the InterContinental Miami (100 Chopin Plaza, Miami). Tickets cost $300 per person or $3,000 for a table of ten and are available at miamiwinefestival.org.

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