It’s 5:40 a.m. on a recent Friday, and I’m blasting up I-95 under a nearly full moon-lit sky thinking I’m late. Myrtille Quillien runs on baker’s hours, and they began 40 minutes ago in pastry’s corner of the kitchen at Amara at Paraiso. I arrive relieved to find out I’m just in time. She’s in the dining room’s coffee station, brewing coffee for the crew arriving later on and making her own morning cup — a long espresso latte with steamed milk filled to the brim of a juice glass. We have a laugh about the Google calendar notification we both received at 4:50. I had mistakenly set today’s appointment remembering the much earlier wake up call for my visit to the commissary in the fall to make bagels with Pastry Chef MJ Garcia and her team, which at the time included Myrtille.
“We start here at 6,” she smiles. “The morning here is a bit different. It’s the first half hour checking everything. It’s not like at the commissary where it is a lot to do right when you get in and MJ has organized the day’s prep list to assign everyone tasks. It’s a little quieter, just Yesenia and I for a while.”
A soft light has begun to emerge in the horizon, a thick yellow band bleeding into blue-green. Although it’s still dark at (the now one hour later) 6:15, for me the sky transfixes at its most dramatic. It’s that moment on the verge, the sun’s proud entrance imminent yet still tucked so deep into the unknown below. Mesmerizing, and gone in a hot flash not more than 20 minutes later. Not quite so subtle after all, all this anticipation, and Myrtille jams a pint container to prop open the “in” swing door, one way only during service. This isn’t just a trick to ease the flow of traffic that will pass through in waves from both directions as prep ramps up later on.
Pre-dawn here isn’t all about the sunrise, that view so different from any other time of day that few rarely witness. It is really about the dough — because so is Amara. There are two types for the restaurant’s empanadas alone, one of the first items to greet guests on the menu. Myrtille’s first helper to arrive is Yesenia, a transplant from ella pop café, and she begins there, scooping heaping stainless steel spoonfuls of glistening starch-white lard from a tub that smells like bacon. Once stretched in a pasta roller, cut into discs and portioned onto wax paper, it will be filled with tender pulled short rib, crimped and then baked to golden brown. The other is fried, puffing to a crispy delicious pocket thanks to the fluffiness of cooked yuca in the mix.
The root of the cassava plant synonymous with Cuban cuisine also forms the base of the pâte à choux for the restaurant’s addictive savory snack, cheesy yuca puffs. The dough is cooked raw over a burner as the rising agent, then mixed with a blend of cheeses before resting, rolled into balls, and frozen before hitting the frier and sprinkled with parmesan at plate up. Myrtille is starting with the flatbread, a yeast dough that began as the Harry’s Pizzeria recipe and then took shape over the summer as Executive Chef Michael Paley worked through how they wanted it to eat.
“The more you let the yeast dough rest, the more it will develop flavor,” she explains. “So we let it rest until it rises to the top of the bowl, but maybe a little longer is ok, too.”
Myrtille is from Nantes, a city on the Loire River in Brittany. Yes, she is French and is all those things you dream a paragon pâtissier to be, but the cliché is not lost on MJ. This import from the northwest reaches of France had an “interesting” resume which immediately piqued her interest for the commissary gig in the fall. MJ started developing her and showing her the concept of how we approach baking and pastry at TGHG. When the Amara opportunity came up, it was very easy to explain the new role, and apply the simplicity of technique and beautiful pastries to the new concept.
“It was really nice that she had the French pastry background, which isn’t a typical find here in Miami, ” MJ recalls. “Myrtille comes from a country where learning the basic skills to properly execute traditional techniques is important. She’s a natural — it’s ingrained. So she had a lot of experience. Her vibe and energy also felt so good. I had Brad [Herron] interview her right away. I thought she had potential toward something else.”
Chef Paley explains that Amara’s approach to pastry began with building a great dessert menu that hits all the notes: The flan is the foundation, it was important for us at the outset we have the best flan in Miami. Beyond that, a great chocolate dessert, a great fruit dessert, and well executed ice creams and sorbets. Nothing overly technical, just delicious and simple.
The young family arrived in Miami in 1999, her husband and their first 6-month-old baby, Valentine, it tow. Myrtille was an art teacher back in France so that’s what she did here until 2004 when she got hooked on pastry in Chef Kris Wessel’s kitchen one summer. She followed him everywhere until 2010 when the French government suddenly cut the couple’s work visas. Back in France, she pursued a year of formal training in pastry in 2011 to get her diploma and spent time with Pierre Hermé for cake and macarons at Ferandis School in Paris. Her sister owned a small restaurant back home at the time. Myrtille worked there and knew she wouldn’t find a better job, so when it was about to close, she applied for a Green Card. It was 2017, they were approved and now with an 18-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, the family had to make a call.
“Europe is small so you can travel with your car. It is important for kids to see things and to travel, and we’d take one big trip every summer,” she explains. “But we were living in a small town, and we didn’t want them to grow up like that. With my husband and kids we sat down, and we asked ourselves what do we do? Do we stay in France or go back? We said, ok, let’s change.”
With Chef Paley driving the concept of the menu both savory and sweet, Myrtille’s role requires equal parts artist’s touch and technical skills — someone who can precisely develop ideas into executable desserts and baked goods suitable for production. The approach is working together and inclusive for a cohesive outcome on the menu, and all the chefs get to be included in the process of developing pastry. Myrtille works smart and tests in small batches as she goes. The new Sunday Brunch is an area she can bring new ideas to the table, since dishes change weekly, like last Sunday’s guava pastelito. She took the paste and thinned it out just a bit on the stove top, adding ginger and lime zest to bring out the guava flavor but not upstage it.
“Myrtille is dedicated, skilled, and up for challenges,” Paley says. “She is always down to figure things out, do the research, and make things as good as they can be.”
Much like its savory companions, Brunch’s sweet cart is the chefs’ chance to be spontaneous and creative. The balance between hyper-traditional items, like the concha — a sweet Mexican-style brioche — or the flan, to more out of the box twists, like kaffir lime churros. Paley swears by her Arroz con Leche which he says is “out of this world.” They say at the commissary that Myrtille is made out of rainbows. I think we now know why.
“She’s special in the sense that her energy is driven by the passion, and what she genuinely likes,” MJ adds. “She takes pride and loves it — you can see in every movement in her hands, her care and attention. It made everyone around her feed off that energy, and the effect it had on our team was very nice.”
Taste the rainbow for yourself — for dessert and brunch menus, as well as reservations, visit our website. Many brunch items aren’t shared (or created!) until the weekend, but you may get a preview or glance by following our Instagram @amaraatparaiso. It’s also where you can tap into Instagram Story highlights of our mornings with Myrtille.