Verde's New Chef Kaytlin Brakefield: "I'm Still Learning Miami"

Living in Miami sometimes means we take certain things for granted, like the sultry weather and perpetual beach days. But more importantly, while the rest of the country is dealing with frozen ground, our harvest season is in full bloom. “The tomatoes down here are so beautiful,” says the newly appointed executive chef of Verde, Kaytlin Brakefield.

The tomatoes she’s referring to come from Paradise Farms, which the chef has made a point of visiting regularly. “We’re starting a weekly prix-fixe Thursday dinner this week.” On the $45 menu tonight: squash blossom fritters, kale Caesar salad, local grilled wahoo, and a buttermilk panna cotta with passion fruit and pineapple compote.

The latter, which we tried a variation of at a media lunch preview to get to know Brakefield a bit better, was a sweet ending to a lovely meal. One that you can indulge in for the next couple of months, or as long as Antoni Tapies exhibit Tapies: From Within has its run at the museum. It’s part of an ongoing initiative for Verde to offer pre-fixe menus that complement ongoing exhibits, and this one just so happened to give us an insight into the chef’s creative process.

Prior to moving here, Brakefield's first visit to Miami was for her job interview. “I’m really excited to be so close to the water and have all this great access to ingredients and cuisines I’ve never worked with.” She’s talking about the melting pot of Latin cultures that make up Miami’s culinary landscape.

While she originally hails from Tampa, Brakefield has spent most of her career (12 years to be exact) in New York City kitchens, first as sous chef of L’Artusi and then chef de cuisine at L’Apacio. Somewhere between, she moved to San Francisco to be part of the opening team of the revered Cotogna, as well as worked at the famed Quince. She brings to Florida her accumulation of experience and penchant for knowledge.

“I’m still learning Miami. That’s why I cook cause you’re never going to learn everything, but I’m trying to figure out where Miami is.” And according to her, we’re doing pretty well on the ingredient spectrum. “In California I learned to create dishes around ingredients and it made me look at food completely different. We’d get the most beautiful radishes and then just run with that where in New York you create a dish and then source ingredients after.” She’ll be applying the ingredient-driven philosophy she picked up on the West Coast. “I think people in Miami like to eat local. It’s coming up more and more.”

As for the exhibit pairing, it consists of three courses for $23 (or two for $19 if you want to skimp on dessert). Which, don’t cause it’s that panna cotta we mentioned earlier.

“What I wanted to do with the exhibit menu is really use the same mediums he uses to create art to create the dishes,” she says. “Stuff that’s rustic and earthy and isn’t necessarily very fancy but when put together create something complex.”
The first course, an heirloom tomato panzanella salad with watermelon, three types of basil (Thai, opal, and micro) and Aleppo pepper, has already been so well-received that it’s going on the menu permanently. Replacing it will be a hamachi crudo inspired by flavors of gazpacho with tomato water, tomato, cucumber, opal basil, micro chives, and finished with calabrian oil.
And while the calamarata pasta hasn’t made it to the menu just yet, we’re rooting for it. This near perfect and unique dish feature two types of olives, calamari ragu, and capers. “It’s an earthy puttanesca if you will.” And an example of how simple earthy ingredients come together to create a dish that has many layers to it.

Buttermilk panna cotta with blood orange and candied pistachio is the kind of stuff that dessert dreams are made of.

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Carla Torres found her inner gourmand voice while writing for Miami New Times in 2012. She has also worked with Travel & Leisure and Ocean Drive and today is involved with a tech startup. She balances passions for wine, sweets, yoga, and kayaking.