Juan Mayo, a cook in the Michael’s Genuine kitchen, cooked his Stagiaire Supper meal in April and went to stage with chef Chris Hastings for a week in July at his restaurant Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. I sat down with him with the intention to do a Q & A, all I had to say was “Tell me what you learned from the experience,” then his eagerness to share, and the kindness he’d been met with, silenced me. Jackie had a similar experience when she phoned chef Hastings for the same.
“It showed me a whole different kitchen,” Juan said. “I’d never been to another kitchen before. I got there on a Monday, and they’re closed on Monday, so I had time to drive around and see the place. Birmingham is freaking beautiful. It’s really green and they have all these old buildings, and hills. They have this big furnace because it used to be an old steel town. I didn’t have a chance to go inside but I saw it driving by and it was really impressive.”
It was a very difficult time in the Hot & Hot family, chef Hastings explained.
“It happened to be serendipity. My lead guy was killed in an automobile accident a week before. He was my sous chef and also very close to me, personally. It was one of those moments when life punches you in the face. The team around you is how you make it through. Some step up and some fail. It was a very emotionally charged loss. Father Bob came in to talk to the team. It was all happening and Juan was there… so I’m in at 9:00 a.m. every morning unlocking the door. It’s like I’m old school, and I’m a sous chef again. I’m doing a.m. and p.m. It was an interesting moment. But of course Juan being Juan, he jumped right in. ‘Chef I’m here, what can I do?’
“He brought an independent energy to this situation we were in. Juan showed up in our world at a moment and brought to bear an important energy for us at an important time. It was a karmic thing. Family isn’t happy go lucky all the time, it’s big medicine… Juan was brilliant at assimilating. He just kinda has a good nature about him, he’s a nice young man, super comfortable conversations with our Latinos, got in quick with those guys. It can be really intimidating or awkward. I just don’t have time for pretense or self importance in my life at this point. And Juan has a real gift for jumping into the deep end, it really afforded him an emotional access to getting the most out of the experience because people embraced him.”
Juan continued, “When I went to the restaurant I wanted to use my time as wisely as possible, so I worked open to close every single day I was there. They had something really bad happen right before I got there, so there was a lot going on, but I was lucky because Chris was in the kitchen. It was really really fun. I got my hands in everything, from prep to working on stations, I touched the dishes from conception to completion. What they do is very similar to what we do at Michael’s. They do their own charcuterie, they butcher their own stuff, they get a lot of fish that has tags and which you actually get to track to the fisherman and where they caught it. They have a bandsaw for butchering. That was really scary. So they get really big whole pigs and they don’t have to hack at it on the block they just VVVRR (that’s the bandsaw sound).”
Chris says the experience kind of just unfolded. He likened it to his experience popping at Harry’s Pizzeria one year ago. “As you know I completely winged it, but I knew instinctively, when he shows up, we’re just gonna do the deal. I didn’t over think it over or plan it either. I feel like we connected on so many levels with your whole staff in Miami, it was so amazing. We cooked, we hung out, we made the guests happy… I get asked all the time to do events, but it was easy for me to feel really good about doing it. Just like this. You’re like family, instantly bonded. Two, three days together and those friendships continue today…”
Juan’s stagiaire supper menu to get there was Mexican at its core and all the research that he did prepared him to talk shop with the Mexican cooks working there. “Chris uses Mexican influences a lot in his menu. They have a tamale on the menu that changes every day. You would think he does a lot of southern food, and he does, but he does a lot of tex Mex., he does a lot in his own style. He grew up in the south and was big on being in the wilderness hunting and foraging and what not, but then he worked in California and has a lot of Baja influence as well and uses the product he gets to just make really good food. You have restaurants that have Mexican, Italian or French styles, but then you have restaurants like Michael’s that have really talented chefs and this locavore mentality that use the ingredients that are fresh to make something amazing.”
And July in Birmingham brings forth many ingredients we have in Miami, and lots of different things, too, Chris explained. “In the heart of the summer, Juan’s going to see things in his Venezuelan background, too. Okra, field peas, grits and all of the local things showing up from our regional farmers. There’s two types of sourcing we deal with… the trucking market.. old fashioned farming… A grower has a 100-acre farm, they load the produce onto the trucks and do a stand 365 days a year. You got to see that all the things coming off what we call the truck market. It’s a big part of the agrarian community. Plus Juan was able to see all the amazing things from the boutique growers… Heirloom everything, from squashes and melons, to summer vegetables, purple baby beans, lemon cucumbers, and more. This time of year foraging is big so we’re seeing tons of items morels, cinnamon mushroom, bush berries and wild black berries, sumac, sassafras…. Crazy wild shit that I kill for when it’s not season.”
Juan goes on, “Chris’s style is very similar to our style, but his plating styles are very different. Ours is much more rustic, and his is much more plated. They have the opportunity to really take the time because they are closed for lunch. Their schedule is very laid back, but that’s how Birmingham is, there was nothing open Sunday or Monday. It felt like a European town. I talked to Chris about it and he said that he wanted to open something that he can manage, do great food, raise his family and have a life outside of the restaurant. I think that is Michael’s mentality too now, he’s really happy to spend more time with his family. I guess when you work your ass your ass off for forty years thats what you get.
“The [Hot & Hot] kitchen is beautiful. It’s an open kitchen and since they do such a small volume, about 150 covers on a busy night, they have the opportunity to have a really nice design. It’s a triangle so on one side they have a food bar at the tip of one corner they have a wood burning oven, on the other side they have a tomato salad station, where they have a guy just cranking out tomato salads all day because thats a signature dish for them, and then in the middle of the triangle is a chopping block. They have really nice pottery bowls that they prep in, and they have little holders in the center of the triangle, it’s really cool when you look at it, it’s like a normal person’s kitchen. They make their own bread without any fancy equipment. You know when you make bread you’re playing around with living stuff, and that happens at a better temperature and humidity, so people use a proof box usually to do it. There are tons of techniques, but these guys have figured out the techniques for their kitchen and they just do it. They do baguette, ciabatta, brioche, sourdough and rye.”
With all his stages Chris sits them down to go through a long tasting menu paired with wine or cocktail or beer and just take them through the Hot & Hot experience.
“The last day, I worked prep and then I came in for dinner and they fed me the tasting menu,” Juan recalls. “I’d say the tomato salad left an impression. It’s heirloom tomatoes marinated in balsamic vinaigrette, kind of like a giant tomato sandwich. So tomatoes as a base, then a succotash of local vegetables and then a protein, local bacon or gulf shrimp, then an aioli thats got creme fraiche in it so it’s more like a consistency of a dressing. It was really tasty.”
So it comes full circle, this notion as Chris says of “your family is our family.” Jackie passed me the phone to say hello when they were done with their interview, and in just a moment Chris confirmed every sense of warmth Juan had portrayed, with his own geniality.
“Juan is family from here on in, he could show up on my door step anytime.”
Thanks Chris, for the truly southern hospitality! And Juan for sharing the experience.
Next up we have Floyd Jones. The who, what, when, where and why are below. The ticket link is here.
When: Sunday, September 22, 5:30-8:00 p.m.
Where: Hosted by Executive Chef Bradley Herron and TGHG Wine Director Eric Larkee in Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink’s private dining room in Miami’s Design District at 130 NE 40th Street, Miami 33137
What: Please join us for meal cooked by one of our own so they can travel to stage at a great chef’s restaurant.
– Welcome Cocktail + passed hor d’oeuvres
– 3 courses including dessert
– A number of awesome wines poured family style
RSVP: Please say yes to Bradley with cash if you see him or conveniently use your credit card through Brown Paper Tickets here.
Why: Your contribution will go to send Floyd to stage with April Bloomfield!