Four Culinary Connoisseurs Discuss the Future of Miami’s Food Scene
They own the term “Foodie-in-Chief”: four icons that revolutionized the culinary scene and made the city an international restaurant. We meet at Mondarin South Beach to chat about the past, the future and why the iPhone is not part of the dining table.
From left: Shareef Malnik, Michael Schwartz, Lee Brian Schrager, Henry Delgado and Cindy Hutson at the Mondrian South Beach Hotel.
Without question, Miami’s restaurant scene is growing at lightning speed and has turned into a garden with culinary options. To truly appreciate the city’s rapid growth as a culinary destination, I’ve rounded up some of the original drivers of our beloved South Florida food culture for a special round table conversation – a stroll through the past and a look at how far we’ve come in the last 25 years. Cindy Hutson represents the original Mango Gang, a group of chefs responsible for a culinary revolution here in Miami in the 1980s, and Michael Schwartz is well known for leading a culinary crusade in Miami’s Design District. We are also joined by long-time Smith & Wollensky general manager Henry Delgado, who has just led the hot spot on the water through its milestone and its 40th anniversary renovation, and Shareef Malnik, who grew up in the kitchen at The Forge and finally took over the business from his father in the 1990s.
What are your most vivid memories of your earliest days on the Miami dining scene?
Henry Delgado: It was just the Clevelander in the early 90s and the News Cafe. Then of course we got to Smith & Wollensky, Nemo and Joe, and that was it on my neck of the woods.
Shareef Malnik: There were these other great places on Ocean Drive like Cafe Milano on the eighth, but my world revolved around The Forge. When I retired in 1990 things started to drain away and the city got a lot more interesting. There were all these new people who had never heard of The Forge and I had to go out and get this new population.
Michael Schwartz: When I moved here, The Strand really showed me there was an opportunity to do something different to build a more legitimate food scene.
Cindy Hutson: We opened Norma’s on the beach in November 1994. We took over a place called The Lazy Lizard and built it ourselves. Every morning we had to wake the homeless out of my door and spray the urine smell out the front door.
What was your first favorite Miami Beach restaurant?
CH: Amano – it was Normans (Van Aken) at the Betsy Ross Hotel. He was in the kitchen every night.
HD: Pacific time.
MRS: An early meal reminder for me was the tomatoes in the News Cafe. It was always one thing. And I stole that [restaurateur Mark Soyka]- Now I have these big bowls of tomatoes everywhere.
SM: I lived around the corner from Nemo and went there for brunch every Sunday, often by myself, and just sat and ate a great meal. But I have to tell you that Cafe Milano was my nightspot.
HD: Shareef, you had the absolute best Wednesday night at The Forge. It was the best place, the only place to go on Wednesday night.
SM: That started in the early 90s when I was trying to put The Forge back on the map with this new demographic. I ran into Mickey Rourke and told me to come over for dinner. And he said, “I’ll bring my mother on Mother’s Day.” And I thought, oh god how do I get through? So I said to myself, why don’t I invite a lot of people in one evening and bring him that night and he’ll think it’s like this every night? And everyone else will think that it does so every night. I only planned to do it for a couple of weeks but ended up doing it for 16 years. I had the first infamous annual Ocean Drive party, and they did it on a Wednesday … and the cars were backed up from The Forge to the Julia Tuttle, and I said, “I think we have something here.”
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a chef / restaurateur here in Miami?
MRS: Cannibalize too many restaurants, compliance with rules and regulations, personnel and labor costs – there are many challenges. I think about how we used to just beat it up, write a menu, and open it. If I knew what I know now, I would never want to get into this business.
HD: For the newcomers, the cost. The rent. You are almost doomed before you even start.
CH: The staff is for sure the greatest. Like Michael said, I just knocked one restaurant down at a time, and now all of these people want marketing plans …
When you look at your career all these years later, what do you think has given you that staying power?
CH: My gift is to get to know the guests and bring out a uniform product. I can’t give up, I’m there. And another thing I hear about Ortanique is that when guests come to town they want that “Miami” feel.
HD: We just celebrated 40 years at Smith & Wollensky. It’s about taking care of people, improving the quality of the product and connecting with the guest. I think it’s about keeping the promise.
SM: The smithy is a kind of interface between me and my family and the community. I think of all of the people who work for me and all of the people who have so many memories of The Forge – the quinces, bar mitzvahs and weddings, first dates, blind dates, divorces, court wins, and business closings. I really want to make sure it survives and moves on.
MRS: Consistency sure, but probably slow, calculated growth for me. There was a component of reinvention, but not at a pace that distracted the eye from what made me successful from the start: offering an honest product and genuine hospitality.
Is there anything you are doing today that you never thought you would do 25 years ago?
CH: From day one, I never thought that I would become a chef. I’m still in the kitchen – no matter which restaurant I’m in, I’m still in the kitchen.
MRS: Operation of restaurants on cruise ships.
SM: The intimate relationship I have with our guests; I didn’t think I would do that 25 years later. I get a report on who’s coming every day and I reach out to people and curate who’s coming.
How has social media changed the way you do business?
CH: You’d think social media would get me a younger crowd, a millennial crowd, but I don’t think millennials go out in my type of restaurant and eat that much.
HD: These little children, once they sit at a table, if they love food, the world knows.
MRS: We have people who are meant to be, but I just don’t know they moved the needle about the restaurant. It’s hard to quantify. I think it took the attention from enjoying a meal.
Aside from pricing, how has your menu changed in 25 years?
CH: I tried to take off the classics but there were times when I did and people were angry. But I do specials all the time. My menu changed because in the beginning everything was Caribbean and then I traveled a lot and read about food culture and now it’s very diverse.
HD: The traditional menu probably lasted about 10 years and by 2007 we knew we couldn’t go any further; We could see trends come and change. And we said we have to stay true to who we are, but we have to take things in and out. A couple of times a year there are a couple of things that we rotate.
SM: There are certain things that really annoy customers when they come off the menu, and sometimes it kind of is – well, you’re one in five people who have eaten this dish. A lot of people like that continuity. When I took over The Forge in 1990, one of the things I wanted to focus on was being a steakhouse.
MRS: We made a conscious choice as we changed the menu every day, but some things just stuck. And what happened was the menu kept getting bigger and now the idea of the menu is the same – we try to source locally and buy abundance and change the menu but now it changes less than it used to.
Was there a restaurant that you were surprised didn’t come here?
HD: Van Dyke – that was a classic.
SM: China grill and pumperniks.
MRS: Wolfies or Schlingelhaus.
What’s your local hidden gem?
SM: Alloy Bistro downtown. I just had my anniversary dinner there.
CH: NIU kitchen. It’s delicious every time I’ve been.
HD: My ceviche.
MRS: I’m enjoying a nice pita hut experience. But you have to ask about the laffa, not the pita.
Photography by: PHOTO BY GESI SCHILLING