Today some might argue that chefs have become more popular than ever. I am not talking about the celebrity chefs that appear on cooking shows or who have created empire like chain restaurants. I am talking about the ones that live right in our backyard, the ones you can touch and feel (although I wouldn’t recommend that). They work in their own kitchen and have become local celebrities, with or without them knowing it. Their dishes, decor and cocktails are splattered on Facebook timelines, shared with family, friends and strangers on Instagram and #hashtaged for all the world to see. The Shaved Truffle is a new series, with the idea of taking you behind the #hashtag and bringing you an intimate look at the chefs that make some of South Florida’s eateries great.
We are honored to have our first interview with Chef Michael Schwartz. We applaud him for his bravery in sitting through a rookie interview (I hope I don’t let him down). I used a different name, so that I can still get into his restaurants if this interview should turn ugly.
Chef Michael grew up in Philadelphia and started in the restaurant industry as a bus boy in what he called a “swanky upscale” italian restaurant and slowly worked his way into the kitchen. “That was the intro that piqued my interest enough and it was off to the races from there.” His first chef position was at a restaurant in Vail, Colorado in 1989. In 1995 he moved to South Florida and opened up Nemo on Miami Beach. A James Beard award winning chef and restauranteur, Chef Schwartz has become (at least in our mind) the King of the Design District in Miami. With the opening of Michaels Genuine in 2007 his foot print continues to expand with the addition of Michael’s Genuine Grand Cayman, Restaurant Michael Schwartz in the iconic Raleigh Hotel on Miami Beach, Harry’s Pizzeria, The Cypress Room and a recently announced venture with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
Have you ever thought to yourself, it would great to get a taste of the West Coast Food scene? I’ve been dying to eat at the (fill in the blank) top restaurant in New York, Boston or Philadelphia? If not, we certainly have. Chef Michael Schwartz, has for a night, answered your prayers. In 2011, Chef Michael and his team started the Chef Pop-Up Series, where he invites his chef friends (even the James Beard awarding winning ones) from all over the country to use his kitchen, cook their dishes and re-brand Harry’s Pizzeria, with their restaurant name (i.e. Barbuto Pizzeria, yes Yoda cooked here). Harry’s Pizzeria has hosted an impressive chef guest list including, Chef Jonathan Waxman from Barbuto NYC, Chef Jenn Louis from Lincoln in Portland, Chef Marc Vetri from Vetri in Philadelphia, Chef April Bloomfeld from The Spotted Pig in NYC and Chef’s Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette from Toro Boston and NYC. Just to name a few.
On the eve of Chef Pop-up Series number 23, The Ordinary Pizzeria, we spoke with Chef Michael about his thoughts on today’s restaurant industry and his successful Chef Pop-Up Series.
Shaved Truffle: Tell me a how you came came up with the concept
Chef Michael: We took this little space over, that used to be a pizzeria and activate it in a way that was more than the neighborhood pizzeria. What we did there is different than a normal pizzeria anyway. At its core, its about having fun. The menu, the style of pizza and the way we do things is different than what people are used to with a normal pizzeria, but are used to with what we (MGFD) do. We looked at it as a potential venue and a place that we can easily close for a night and do something different. Part of the original idea was to do this series and have friends come and cook, hang out and use them to stimulate our staff and our culture. The result of that is Miami gets to enjoy these chef and their cooking, without leaving Miami.
ST: “Your friends?” These aren’t just your everyday chef’s, in fact most of them are James Beard award winning Chefs.
CM: Yea, isn’t that cool? All of these relationships started differently, but it’s a benefit of being in this industry for so long, coming up on 35 years. A lot of these relationships started from traveling and wanting to eat in the best restaurants in the cities you are traveling. A lot were related to charity work, charity functions and fund raising events that we as chefs, do a lot of. We get so see our friends and meet new friends and relationships begin to blossom. The comradery in the hospitality industry is pretty strong around the country and we all lean on each other for various things aside from just enjoying each others food, restaurants and establishments. We call each other for advice, references for people, or share ideas about running businesses. It has shifted and changed (the hospitality industry) but at its root, it has always been a caring, sharing close knit group of people
ST: How did your first Chef Pop-up go?
CM: Gabrielle Hamilton, it was amazing! In a way, when we look back, we didn’t know anything about doing these events and she was wonderful. It was a great experience. We got to spend time with her and learn from her. She was very involved with the dinner, the food, the cooking and really connected with the staff. It was a little stressful and each one since has become a little more comfortable as we got used to it , the staff got used to it, the guests got use to it and what their expectations were. Now about half of the guests that attend have been to a handful of them. It was one that stands out and they all do. The interesting things is, out of the 22 we have done, 2 were people that I had never met or eaten at their restaurants. And the rest of them I can say they are all friends. It’s been an amazing experience. We go to charity events around the country now and people ask us if they can come.
ST: Have you ever been invited to be a guest chef in anyone else’s kitchen?
CM: A couple. When my book came out, I did a bunch of these, and thats how I met friends to. I did a dinner at Vetri, one at Barbuto, did one at Animal and we have one coming up with Jeff Michaud in Philadelphia, similar to the series we put together.
ST: Where do you see the Chef Pop-up series going in the future?
CM: We do it for the same reasons we did it in the beginning. We will continue to do it, not because it is trendy or not because we believe the work pop-up will get us more business. We do it because we love to do it, we are inspired by our friends and our chefs and we just love it! We are not going to change it, we are not going to not do it because everyone is doing pop-ups now. We think that what we do is great for Miami and its great for us. Its a huge source of inspiration for our culinary team and our culture, which is important.
ST: You commented on other pop-up like events popping up around town. What are your thoughts around that?
CS: I think it’s great. We are all looking for ways that set ourselves apart from other restaurants in town or to connect locally. Some other restaurants have done dinners with other local chefs, i think thats good. I am all for any of it, any of it that is genuine and legitimate for the right reasons. I am not for the ones that are overpriced, or not sincere.
ST: How do you continue to get your innovation? Do you wake up from a food dream and write it down?
CM: That has happened in the past, I am not going to lie or say that it happens all the time and romanticize the creative process. We get inspiration from anywhere, so it’s everywhere, it’s everyday, but for me mostly now I rely on my team. I can have an idea or a thought or a certain dish that I want to try or an ingredient that I want to push the chefs to work with and hopefully that will push them in a direction. I try to spend time with the chefs, we sometimes travel together and share ideas that we draw inspiration from. But for the most part it’s the chefs right now and the culinary team that gets me going. It’s a lot, I can’t drive it myself, and I really don’t drive it at all, I really rely on these guys. Anyone that has more than a few restaurants would say or should say the same thing (or they will lie) that they hire great people and try to inspire them to innovate.
ST: Twenty-Two Pop-ups and counting, with #23 popping up next Tuesday April 8th. Your guest is Mike Lata, another James Beard award winning chef from The Ordinary. Tell us about it.
CM: We’re really excited to have Mike in-house. We’ve had fun working together over the past couple of years at food events, the first time was Charleston Wine & Food. Recently in Palm Beach. Great chef, great guy. His food is special. Really clean, not fussy and about the product at its heart. I keep hearing such great things about The Ordinary. Really beautiful looking restaurant. Need to get there already! Glad he’s coming to us in the meantime.
We have been to four of the Chef Pop-Up events and while the guest list brings us in the door, the intimate cozy setting and the feeling of being in Chef Michaels kitchen with a friend of his in from out of town, eating unbelievable food and drinking great wine, keeps me wanting more everytime. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend you attend one, you’ll be hooked. #ThisIsReallySomethingSpecial.