Daily Blender Exclusive: Chef Michael Schwartz

When I first met Miami chef Michael Schwartz, he was busy manning the kitchen during a Cayman Cookout dinner this past January. Knee-deep in the fast-paced hubbub of Chef Dean Max’s restaurant, The Brasserie, Schwartz was calm, cool, and collected as plates flew by on the prep table. Snapping away at photos, I had the chance to observe as the affable chef, along with members of his and Max’s kitchen crews, put the finishing touches on each delish dish before passing them off to servers-in-wait.

Having read many of the glowing write-ups on his Miami restaurant, including kudos from former New York Times critic Frank Bruni, Esquire, Gourmet, and Condé Nast Traveler, I was already intrigued by Schwartz before I met him. Delivering uncomplicated, top-quality food since 2007, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink has attracted rave reviews, propelling the eatery to the top of everyone’s South Beach ‘Must Dine’ list and making Schwartz quite the popular chef.

This week, he arrives in New York to attend the 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards as a second-year nominee for Best Chef: South. He’s certainly not stopping to take a breather with his award nomination, either. You can expect to hear more about Michael Schwartz when he opens his island post of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink on Grand Cayman Island this summer, as well as delivering his first cookbook in early 2011.

The gracious chef was kind enough to answer a few questions for Daily Blender prior to next Monday’s awards gala, offering his thoughts on the Beard Awards, his plans for the Cayman Islands, and what he loves about being a chef in Miami.

Q: Do you think the James Beard Foundation Awards are a fair representation of the culinary talent out there right now?

A: Yes.  The organization has done a great job over the years of attracting the best and brightest.  The judges are no exception — top notch and rooted in all facets of the industry.  So no stone is left unturned.  Of course there’s always going to be the ones that got away, but then again, there’s always next year.  It’s that kind of staying power that is the mark of a great chef, anyway, right?

Q: Have you had a chance to meet/dine with any of your fellow nominees (Zach Bell, Café Boulud; Scott Boswell, Stella!; John Harris, Lilette; Christopher Hastings, Hot and Hot Fish Club)?

A: I’ve only met Zach Bell but don’t know him well and haven’t had the opportunity to try Café Boulud yet.  I’d like to.

Q: Any favorite picks from this year’s nominees?

A: Ryan Hardy.

Q: Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink has been noted by a number of publications for its menu offerings. What do you think makes it really stand out from the crowd?

A: Our focus is on getting fresh, high quality product into the restaurant on a daily basis. That process is really important to us, and I would like to think that it shows in the dishes that make it to the table.  It’s very personal – we have relationships with our local farmers, fisherman and ranchers.  If we’re fussy about anything, it’s not fancy sauces or elaborate presentations but rather letting the ingredients shine through.  It’s about not screwing up a ripe brandywine or green zebra heirloom tomato. Sometimes all you need is a drizzle of great olive oil and sprinkle of fleur de sel.

A Chef in the Caribbean

Q: What are some of the benefits to being a chef in Miami?

A: The weather, of course!  People think that all we have are grouper and mangoes.   Our year round growing season means it’s not just fresh seafood and tropical fruits! We’ve got so much great produce to work with, right in our backyard in Homestead and Loxahatchee.  Great tomatoes, greens, peppers, corn, eggplant, chard, beets, and herbs of all kinds…  You name it, and we can find a way to cultivate it.  Michael Borek, the grower at Teena’s Pride, is always up to something – last week it was cucumbers of all shapes and sizes.  Borek’s neighbor, Hani Khouri, is making great local goat cheese which we source for the restaurant.  These guys are really dedicated to their craft.

Q: Anyone in the culinary world you’re keeping an eye on?

A: Sam Gorenstein — He’s a great guy and very talented.  Worked with me at Michael’s Genuine and is now executive chef at BLT Steak in Miami.  I was happy to hear he made the long list this year.  He’s definitely one to watch…

Q: Favorite ingredients you’re utilizing this season?

A: Right now we’ve got loads of tamarind coming in that I’m planning to use in barbecue sauce… And Florida sweet corn, too.  We’re doing a caponata with local eggplant.  We give a quick poach to romanesco, a spiny, prehistoric-looking vegetable reminiscent of cauliflower, and plate it with some pickled local eggplant, fresh soft goat cheese, a rainbow of sliced heirloom tomatoes, and bulls blood sprouts – our take on the house salad.  You know… What’s fresh, in-house?

Q: What can fans expect from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink Grand Cayman?

A: You can expect the spirit of the flagship restaurant to be alive and well in the islands.  Our new property is situated on the harbor-facing “Crescent” in Camana Bay, a new development with an international school and open air town center.  Those familiar with the restaurant will find lots of dishes from the Miami menu and those that are new to Michael’s Genuine, I think, will enjoy getting to know us.

Q: I spoke with Chef Dean Max at the Cayman Cookout about the difficulties of acquiring food stuffs when away from the U.S. mainland. Are you anticipating any problems facilitating your upcoming menu?

A: It’s a learning curve.  We’re working closely with our Florida farmers and will have a shipping container making trips twice a week by sea.  We’re only 40 minutes away by air and not much longer by boat. That also means that the climate is very similar to what we’ve got in South Florida, so we’re also going to take advantage of all Grand Cayman has to offer.  Not all provisions are shipped in like you might expect — you just need to dig a bit to find it! There’s an emerging farming community that we’re excited to be able to support and help flourish.  Being the first Miami chef on-island, Dean has laid the groundwork in many respects, and we’re fortunate to be able to leverage his resources. We’re also working on a chef’s garden on-site in Camana Bay; it’s like a chef’s dream… Talk about a seamless connection from farm to table!

Q: Any plans to expand outside of the Florida/Caribbean area?

A: Let’s get Grand Cayman up and running, and then I’ll let you know!

~Jennifer Heigl


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