Transplant Chefs: Julie Frans', of Essensia, San Diego Roots

Miami's become a fledgling gourmet city, and chefs de cuisine from across nation (and world) head to our sunny shores to join our foodie renaissance. Given that we've only recently come into our culinary own, it's no surprise that our restaurants are awash with these eager out-of-towners.

These chefs from various cities and culinary backgrounds bring a fresh diversity of foods, flavors and influence to our collective tables.

One such transplant is Julie Frans, Signature Chef of Essensia Restaurant at The Palms Hotel and Spa. Julie relocated to Miami from the also-sunny shores of San Diego, where she ran a highly successful catering company and chef agency. Her new haunt is known for its hormone-free meats, sustainable ingredients and farm-to-table approach to food.

We spoke to Julie about her San Diego roots, what excites her most about Miami, and how Cali cuisine has influenced her menus at Essensia.

Short Order: What prompted you to relocate to Miami and take a position with Essensia?
Chef Julie Frans: Actually the two were not related, but the way everything fell into place was clearly serendipity at work. The move and the position were both meant to be!
The story goes like this: My husband and I were running a high end catering and chef service in San Diego, and had also started a family while our business was still young. We made a decision to leave our six-year-old business behind to focus on our family. My husband returned to his previous position as a private chef in Miami, and I had planned to write cookbooks and develop web-based culinary programs. The position at the The Palms more or less found me, and it was too perfect of a fit to pass up.

What do you find most exciting about Miami's culinary scene?
here's just so much! I've been here almost 10 months and have barely scratched the surface of the culinary scene. I haven't been to any restaurant more than once and there are still so many to check out. The food here is as varied as the culture, and one could spend a lifetime exploring the numerous culinary treasures this city has to offer.

How does the culinary landscape differ from San Diego?
San Diego is extremely progressive when it comes to health. I think the food is driven by a focus on health and nutrition, and people are very knowledgeable about food allergies and sensitivities, organic nutrition, the importance of eating locally and seasonally, and overall about how food relates to holistic health. Even the most gourmet restaurants tie into that idea through concepts like small portions, fresh ingredients from local farms, wild and seasonal seafood, and lots of natural elements. It's not about health as in "low fat" - it's about natural food, "from the farm" in San Diego.

What changes do you see coming to our city?
I think Miami is on a similar path as San Diego's. I see more and more guests asking about gluten free options, or coming to Essensia specifically because we serve natural, organic food and conscientiously-sourced ingredients. The more people are educated about eating locally and seasonally on a national level, the more diners we will see making this culinary transition in big cities across the country.

Essensia is focused on a farm-to-table mentality. What about your background led you to this type of approach?
I was an international yacht chef for several years before starting my business in San Diego, and I became very "green" and eco-minded.

I had to rely on local produce and markets. Never knowing what each port had to offer, I couldn't plan ahead. I quickly learned that the best way to make great meals was to just let my day-to-day menus flow with what was fresh & available. I learned to keep my menus open and my recipes flexible because my food could only be as good as the ingredients I was using. My catering/chef service was born from the same train of thought: let the ingredients decide your menu, not your recipes. I think my traveling yacht chef positions made me a very versatile and creative. I had to learn to think on my toes and create something amazing from whatever happened to be available.

How does your current position differ from your previous experience?
My position at Essensia (and The Palms, in the bigger picture) allows me to do what I do best: provide great food for people to enjoy and appreciate.

The thing I learned with running my own business was that in the end, I was doing everything except following my passion, which was creating and actually cooking.

I was the "E-myth": the entrepreneur that ended up spending all my time running a business, not actually practicing my trade. I'm not a business woman; I'm a chef! I am a lover of great food, and I am passionate about enriching people's lives through food. I yearned to get back to the kitchen and to the table.

At Essensia, I have the time and space (physically and mentally) to grow and care for my restaurant and garden, to connect with my guests and my community in a relaxed and genuine way, to create food that combines the hotel's mission and concept with my own style and signature, and to create menus and recipes with fresh, local ingredients that people are excited about.

Oh yeah, and I get to do what I initially came to Miami to do; raise my two beautiful children in a happy, healthy home. I've found a pretty amazing balance. And, as food is the transfer of energy, my happy balance comes through in my food.

How does your city of origin affect the menus you create for Essensia?
Using local, fresh, farm ingredients is in my genetic makeup at this point. My husband and I actually met at a farm, each preparing for our separate clients, discussing the new ingredients we were seeing at the farm and how to use them. "The Farm" isn't just something I talk about, or think is a cool place to source some ingredients.

In San Diego, I based my menus around what I was getting at the farm. Here in Miami, I do the same thing. Menus are based on the farm's offerings. It's more challenging in Miami than in San Diego, and for a hotel restaurant than a private catering company, but I have years of experience doing it, which is certainly coming in handy now!

What dish would you say is most representative of your San Diego experience?

My menu is such a mix of cultural influences and life experiences, it's really hard to say! I've traveled so much, and can trace every menu item to a different idea and place of inspiration.

The seafood chowder screams summer in Alaska. The shrimp fritters represent my months in Thailand. The grouper is all about my life in Santa Barbara. Dreams of scallops in orange miso started in Hawaii.

But, what is specifically San Diego?
The short rib with ancho chile chocolate demi, served with celery root puree and fried leeks and cumin roasted farm carrots. We had amazing chefs working for us in San Diego, and we collaborated on recipes which have evolved through the years. This Essensia entree was inspired by flavors and ingredients that we played with in San Diego. You can trace the roots to the local San Diego farm ingredients and the "across the border" Mexican influence of chile, chocolate, and cumin.

Julie hosts a complimentary Chef's Garden Tour and Tasting every Wednesday through July 18. She'll show guests the organic produce, herbs and greens in the garden and prepare a tasting utilizing these ingredients. The tour commences at 5 p.m. in the sandy area in front of the garden's entrance. For more information call 305-908-5458.

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