Kneading Lessons & a Learning Legacy on the Road with the Vetri Family

Growth happens when we are exposed to new things — or sometimes, the same things but new ways of doing them.  When we have those with the experience, passion and patience to teach us, something beautiful happens in the exchange.  An invitation to cook at the annual Great Chefs Event for Alex’s Lemonade Stand in Philadelphia last week presented such an opportunity for The Genuine Hospitality Group culinary assistant Dillion Wolff — to stage at Vetri Cucina, thanks to Michael and friend Marc Vetri.  A chef respected by his peers for his talent and heart, Marc has cultivated a stable of acclaimed chefs and restaurants since his flagship Vetri Cucina opened in Philly in 1998. It’s hard enough to be a for-profit business in this business, so 20 years is many lifetimes in the restaurant world, especially when you are also running a foundation in tandem.  Vetri Cucina set the tone and proved a solid foundation from which to build, recognized for the level of care taken in honoring and elevating the traditional Italian kitchen.  Its special tasting menu has minted this gem in the canon of American dining and won multiple James Beard Awards for its offspring, Jeff Michaud and Mike Solomonov to name a few.  If Marc is the OG progenitor, Vetri Cucina is the primordial Italian wedding soup.

The dining experience at Vetri is an ode to the mother country and its love of food unlike any other. In addition to the dining room, guests can arrange for private dinners, as well as partake in cooking classes on site.  As Dillion found out, perhaps the education most important happens daily among its cooks in service — a recipe of teamwork and technique.  It’s a place where bread, pasta and even polenta made from scratch means milling the flour in house.

“Going into it there were a few things I was curious about, like making fresh pasta, for example,” Dillion reflected on the phone Monday.  “How they run service is so different than Harry’s or Genuine Pizza — even Michael’s Genuine or Amara.  We are talking a 30 seat restaurant where 40 covers is a crazy busy night.”

TGHG Culinary Director Bradley Herron snagged Dillion for his team in February 2017 from Michael’s Genuine, where he had been working the line for a year after interning there during culinary school.  The culinary assistant role is a unique one, providing support to all Genuine group entities — from Amara at Paraiso to Fi’lia in the Bahamas to our commissary kitchen — with ongoing training, their chefs with last minute help on the line, working Michael Schwartz Events including private parties from cocktail receptions to cooking classes and off-site catering, and handling special projects.  Really everything under the sun.  Most recently, Dillion worked with the Genuine Pizza cookbook team on a week-long photoshoot.  The 150 pictures of recipes and lifestyle shots due to publisher Abrams Books quickly became 180, including several step by step instructive images for which he and colleague Brandon Green served not only as prep cooks but subjects.

Some of the Genuine Pizza cookbook photo wall, most of Dillion’s hands!

“This job requires flexibility and versatility, but it demands a good attitude,” Bradley explained.  “You have to be able to jump in to help and get things done at a moment’s notice, and they need to be done right. Dillion is as fast as he is proficient, but these are strengths that as a cook you always want to be improving upon.  That comes with experience, time on the line and repeated exposure to new environments and things.”

Dinner at Vetri is conceived based on each table, and everything isn’t the same.  The on the fly structure is part of the challenge, the fun and the instruction.

“It was cool to see how dynamic the approach is with the tasting menu,” Dillion reflects.  “It’s not just what the chef wants to do, it’s trying to make the diner’s experience as custom and to their tastes and food preferences as possible.”

The first day, Dillion was a fly on the wall for service, and they would make him an extra of each dish to taste. Tuesday was spent with the baker, milling fresh flour and baking bread.  He worked service with “pasta guy” and also helped with private events upstairs.

“Matt, the executive chef… On Monday he was the dishwasher.  I mean, it really sets the tone when the first courses come in heavy and the pasta cook comes in to help put it out.  You could tell in the kitchen that it was a huge team effort,” he reflected. “Everyone will do whatever. The whole operation is impressive, the attention to detail and craft but also people being genuine with each other — and incredibly welcoming to me.  They didn’t want to ask me to do things, like the stuff that’s not glamorous, and I’m there to work and to do anything. I had so many questions and no one got annoyed with me!”

The City of Brotherly Love indeed. Something we can all benefit from emulating!  Follow Dillion on Instagram @dillion_wolff.

Stirring Things Up for Negroni Week at Michael’s Genuine® & Amara at Paraiso

If you’re a lover of a cocktail that leans a little bitter, you’ll want to visit the bars at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink and Amara at Paraiso ASAP.  It’s Negroni Week, the annual celebration of our favorite early evening Italian ritual that piques the appetite for all things nocturnal – especially poppable bar snacks like cheesy yuca puffs.

Amara at Paraiso’s trifecta of sultry red deliciousness.

Beginning today through Sunday, both restaurants have a list of special twists on this classic cocktail known for its amaro bite but celebrated for its exquisite balance.  We can and do conjure the classic at a moment’s notice — 1:1:1 of equal parts sweet vermouth preferably Carpano Antica, gin and Campari — but this week gives us a little license to get creative, and the juices have been flowing!  A portion of proceeds from each cocktail purchased will be donated to causes close to our hearts — at Amara assistant GM Maria Pottage offers 3 specials which support Outside In, helping homeless youth and marginalized people move towards improved health and self-sufficiency.  Michael’s Genuine’s bartender Jorge Hernandez offers a new negroni each day as its “Market Special” to benefit Wellness in the Schools, a national non-profit we work with in Miami that teaches kids healthy habits to learn and live better. Menus are listed below, so plan accordingly.

Below, pictured left to right.

Amara at Paraiso ~ Special Negroni List (13)
Negroni at Paraiso – Sotol por Siempre, Barsol Perfecto Amor pisco, Campari, orange peel
The Agroni – Campari, Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, lemon, aqua fava, bitters
Negroni Punch – Macchu pisco, Campari, Aperol, pineapple juice, rosé, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth

Today’s special at Michael’s Genuine.

Michael’s Genuine ~ Market Special Negroni (12)

Monday –
Botanist Gin
Lychee Infused Cocchi Americano
Campari
Rinomato
St Germain

Tuesday –
Gin Mare
Sage Lime Syrup
Campari
Massican Dry Vermouth

Wednesday –
St George Terroir
Peach Infused Campari
Combier
Antica Carpano

Thursday –
Ransom Old Tom Gin
4 Roses Small Batch
Campari
Antica CArpano

Friday –
Botanist Gin
Passion Fruit Syrup
Campari
Massican Dry Vermouth

Saturday –
Love Eden Gin
Campari
Averel Sloe Gin
Cocchi Americano

Sunday –
Classic Negroni

A Little Lechon & Wine Pairing Competition? Amara Sommelier Amanda Fraga is all Cheers

Fraga in her element at Amara!

Amanda Fraga is no stranger to competition.  For the third consecutive year, our now sommelier at Amara at Paraiso has been invited to participate in Cochon 555, the heritage hog, chef and wine professional bout of brains, brawn and creative brilliance.  This is great news of course, since we get to come along for the ride not only at the event, but for the training in preparation which we found is just as strategic and mind bending as it is for their culinary counterparts. Amanda’s mission: select any wine she’d like, unhindered by sponsorship obligations, that will pair best with the presentation plates of each of the 5 chef candidates.  Yes, here’s the catch. She won’t know the dishes her wine needs to work with until she’s vying for attention to pour it amidst her four peers.

“For me, my job lies in how I figure out where my wine can be highlighted on the playing field and how I can get these judges to try it with what I think on the fly it will work best with. Under the clock, of course,” she explains.  “You want to pick a pig-friendly wine that will play well with an array of dishes.  It has to be versatile, but to a large extent you are playing the odds.  What you can control, you try to.”

It’s all timed.  Every 10 minutes, the pack of judges descends on each station and systematically hears the chef’s point of view for their offering, tastes through the dishes and also is approached by the sommeliers, who are also judges of the competition.  Everyone has an agenda and everyone votes on everything.

“I try to not stand next to the same people the whole time, and it’s not easy because the focus is on the pig and the chef,” Fraga continues. “I haven’t won yet, but I do think it’s important to find something in your approach that’s memorable.”

Fraga decided to pick a Cava in méthode Champenoise — Juvé y Camps “Brut Nature” Reserva de la Familia. This is the real, old school deal, a grower Cava from a family-owned house making wine since the 1700s.  When a Juvé married a Camps in the early 20th century, this sparkling was born.  A 40th anniversary edition, the Reserva has two years age and is made from the Spanish grapes traditional to its sparkling wine. It is bright with a little green apple but with some gravitas and toastiness thanks to the time in the bottle.

“Even the label is super classic,” she notes.  “It is even rumored that Dom borrowed the shape. The family cares about tradition and have kept the label.  Chefs are so visual, and this is the OG. I also wanted to honor the heritage aspect of what Cochon is all about.”

Clearly Fraga’s not concerned about showing her hand which is one of the many reasons we love her.  To support our fearless super somm and to partake in the pigging, grab tickets to the main event in Miami on June 10, with winners advancing to Grand Conchon finale, here.

[RECIPE] Spring Cleaning the Grill & Your Plate — Lettuce!

Spring is clean up time. No matter where home is, we brush off something — dust from shelves or grimy remains of (so much) snowfall.  While wiping the shmutz from dark corners, we mind what’s inside by eating fresh and clean.  For starters, scrub down the grill and mark some lettuce — escarole to be exact.

“Try to buy lettuce in whole heads,” Michael says.  “The heartier the better, and make sure you cut thick enough on the vein so it holds together. It doesn’t take much time on the grill to get it where you want it — just wilted enough with some good marks, smokey flavor, and still with a nice firm texture.”

It’s always smart if you can to position your grill in a spot with great ventilation, and give yourself some good clearance on all sides. If you’re on wood, you want to light it at least an hour beforehand to get it up to temperature. Watch your fire and use a thermometer — add wood when necessary and have a spray bottle handy for flare ups.  Michael has both an indoor wood grill at home like many of our restaurants, as well as a Lynx gas grill outside — it requires less planning with great results.  Always clean your grill after you’re done eating, not cooking.  Elbow grease with a good brush will do and even a bowl of soapy water with a stainless steel scrubber.

When grilling with lettuce, drizzle liberally with olive oil and season, then use tongs to mark each side of your “steaks”.  Here’s how we serve escarole as a side at Amara at Paraiso, but this is more of a roadmap for running with it, than a recipe.  You can substitute radicchio, endive, romaine — whatever combination you like.  Same goes for the chile and hard to semi-hard cheese.  Just not the lemon, please!  It would make a great entrée salad with grilled shrimp.

Grilled Escarole with Idiazabal, chile, lemon

Serves 4

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Fresno chile, thinly sliced
2 heads escarole, cleaned and split
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 lemons, split in half
1/4 cup shaved Idiazabal cheese

Pre-heat the grill to high.  When hot, brush the grill grates with a wire brush, then rub with a paper towel blotted with vegetable oil.

Place small saucepan on the grill and add 1/2 cup of the oil and the chiles. Warm through until the oil begins to simmer.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Drizzle escarole heads with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Place on open grill, cut side down with the lemon halves. Grill escarole and lemon for 3-5 minutes, without turning.  Watch the lettuce in particular — you just want it wilted enough with some good marks for smokey flavor, but still with a nice firm texture.  Pull off onto a cutting board and cut each piece in half.  Dress on the board or platter you plan to serve on, spooning the chile oil and topping with shaved cheese. Enjoy with grilled lemon on the side to squeeze.

 

Myrtille’s Morning Baking Routine at Amara at Paraiso — Anything but Routine

Her “long coffee”

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.

Flatbread dough, flecked with scallion.

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.”

Chef Paley getting a look at the pastelitos.

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.