In the Lychee Loop: Miami’s Summer Season Grows into the Genuine Menu

MJ shows off .005% of our 600 pound haul, as culinary assistant Dillon Wolff (left) learns the ropes with chef Max Makowski (right) on inventory, forecasting and other important matters in the growth and support of The Genuine Hospitality Group and Michael Schwartz Events.

We’ve been waiting on these for a while now, so we are really excited to get them in today,” MJ Garcia explains.  MGFD’s Pastry Chef and I are having a handoff of sorts at the Genuine Commissary, our company’s prep kitchen facility off Miami’s bridge-stitched intracoastal waterway at 79th Street. The afternoon boasts clear blue skies and the occasional white puff, with evidence of the morning’s monsoon in glints and mirrors in the pavement.  Seemingly sprung from nowhere in a hurry, complete with umbrella-flailing sideways rain, last Monday, June 19 exhibited typical wet season behavior, weather that grower Roland Samimy picked and plodded through on his family’s Homestead groves before making it rain 600 pounds of lychee at the commissary. We can take a hint, anticipate the cue. Summer has arrived in South Florida in its moody torrent of active skies and colorful ingredients.  

I’m here collecting “seconds” Roland left to indulge my affinity for the alien fruit’s annual arrival, and MJ is humoring the ensuing curiosity, offering a peek into the process of how we systematically shed fuschia reptilian skins to reveal sweet-tart flesh at the table in recognizable, but not necessarily transformative, ways. So you can see and therefore know what you’re eating and discover where it comes from.  The objective of the exchange? To better understand the magic that happens when buying power and supply collide to drive creativity and create demand. Maybe change minds. Even behaviors. Because Roland knows all too well that there’s something to parse here, in the why of “seconds,” panicles with maybe a couple perfect specimens amidst a cluster of immature fruit.

“It was a very very dry, warm winter. The flower came out strong and then dried up or blew off before pollination,” he explained over the phone earlier on his way up Florida’s Turnpike.  “Lychee are special, and they’re fickle. They like tropical, and in a sub-tropical climate with more and more variability each year, crops can’t adapt on a dime. It’s become difficult for local farmers. Projections from year to year are hard.  It’s too hard for them to make the numbers, especially with competition from Mexico and Thailand undercutting prices. Put it all together and you have more trouble growing this fruit and making a living.”

Perry Samimy in the family grove at peak of harvest on June 11, 2011.

So a dry spell and wind at the wrong time can kill a season, even a crop for good.  Take the Samimy operation — a labor of love, really, not the family’s livelihood.  They now have one of largest groves in South Florida at 20 acres, and Michael’s been buying from them since before MGFD existed.  We experienced one of our best seasons in 2015, a dramatic bumper crop that yielded 100,000 pounds from the grove’s 1,100 trees.  The Samimy’s 2017 season will produce 1,000 pounds if they’re lucky, with 1/3 of trees actually fruiting, and only the heartier Brewster variety not the usual first-of-the-season plumper, smoother Mauritius.  That’s a decrease of 99% — erratic to say the least. We call it like we see it: lychee is the canary in the coal mine for climate change.

Dr. Jonathan Crane at University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead explains that lychee was introduced into Florida before 1880 and by the ’50s there was a lot of interest and promotion of planting. With support from the USDA, Florida Department of Agriculture and interest groups like the 130-year old Florida State Horticultural Society comprised of fruit, vegetable and ornamental farmers, groves sprung up across the state, from Winter Haven in Polk County in the north to all the way down to Miami-Dade. The Florida Lychee Growers Association formed in 1952 even touted “You can plant lychee wherever you can plant citrus!” The thinking back then was the crop had a lot of “cold tolerance” but after four freeze events back to back in December ’57 and January ’58 killed most everything north, the crop dwindled to small plantings here and there in center of state mostly adjacent to lakes and about 100 acres or so in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. Our neck of the woods is currently home to about 1,000 acres.

Making lychee history, a dip into the archives (courtesy Dr. Crane)

“To be politically incorrect, lychee is a great example of global warming,” says Dr. Crane.  “In order to flower reliably, dormant trees have to be exposed to temperatures below 60°F for anywhere from 300 to 600 hours, depending on how cold it gets.  What has been happening in the past 7-8 years is we are getting less and less cool temperatures in Miami-Dade. They aren’t getting sufficient what we call ‘chilling hours’ to induce them to bloom. There is a macro trend at play here.”

What can we do?  What we do best. Feature and get excited about lychee.  And let you know when something’s up with our sources.

“We save the prettiest ones to serve from pastry, simply over ice,” MJ continues.  “What we try to do and can do now thanks to the commissary and specifically our new big walk-in freezer is extend the season by buying in bulk and time releasing the reserves.  Lychee is such a short season, especially this year, and the best way to store them is shell-on frozen.”

Pastry is already highlighting the fresh product turning out the smooth-as-can-be lychee-coconut-vodka sorbet popular from last year. It debuted at brunch last Sunday in a refreshing sundae with its delicate melt meeting hibiscus syrup and a double whammy of fresh lychee on top. MJ describes it as the perfect canvas for lychee, “subtle, fragrant and fresh.”  They loaded ella with a batch of popsicles yesterday.

Chef de Cuisine Tim Piazza has plenty cooking beginning this week. On Friday we tasted Yellowfin Tuna Crudo with lychee, serrano, pink peppercorn, basil, and lime from the MGFD raw bar and then followed along as he put together Crispy Pork Belly & Lychee with coconut milk, herbs, chile, and cashews.  Both super delicious and such different yet compelling expressions of the same ingredient!  A lightly cured shrimp and lychee dish was a hit last year at dinner, so we’re hoping it will be back or perhaps a variation.

Phoenix: Bacardi Superior, St. Germain, lychee, grenadine, lemon, cranberry

The MGFD bar always does a great job of maximizing yield, capturing luscious juice for cocktails like Phoenix with Bacardi Superior, St. Germain, grenadine, lemon and cranberry.  TGHG Beverage Manager Amanda Fraga loves lychee for its unique flavor. There’s always a Lychee Martini available, special because it’s made with fresh lychee juice, not the typical canned variety you might be used to, and the guest’s choice of vodka. The sky’s the limit from there since it plays so well with other fruit flavors, as well as a wide range of spirits.

Stay in the lychee loop on our restaurant menus throughout the summer with the hashtag #genuinelychee.  Keep your eyes peeled for other tree fruits, like nectarines, mangos and cherries cropping up everywhere.  It’s going to be a fruitful summer no matter what!

The Genuine Kitchen’s backstory on the Samimy family groves, the local lychee crop, and its embrace in our restaurants can be found here.  I also interviewed Chef for the first time for a piece on the Miami New Times food blog here, as the first lychee harvest of 2009 rolled in.

Spring Field Report in Pictures | Little Haiti Community Garden, Teena’s Pride Farm & Bee Heaven Farm

Chef in the heirloom tomato (and squash, celery, beets, carrots, onions, broccoli rabe, salad mix) fields with Teena’s Pride owner/farmer Michael Borek.

Friday was a great day, one of those that begin with a specific goal in mind and end netting so many more valuable takeaways.  In anticipation of Fi’lia’s LA opening, we’re producing a video to capture Genuine Culture as a tool to educate our teams at The Genuine Hospitality Group on who we are, what we do and the reasons why.  Michael and I visited three farms as they began to wrap South Florida’s main growing season to document how we source product, an important component of the genuine way.  While footage of strolls through Homestead tomato field tractor lanes and Little Haiti urban farm footpaths materialized in the lens, ideas were generated between Chef and a handful of our farmers as they discovered new opportunities for collaboration and tasted ingredients in the field.

Curiosity scared the crows.  We also found a small prop airplane in Borek’s new warehouse facility.

Enjoy the day in photos laced with informative captions below as we digest new opportunities through the genuine chef network.  Will Michael Borek identify a great Roma tomato to cultivate at Teena’s Pride for Harry’s Pizzeria®?  What about the Upland cress Little Haiti Community Garden’s Gary Feinberg is growing?  How could it be expressed on the menu at Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink?  Margie Pikarsky’s heirloom peppers are beautiful to behold, as Chef recalls the “seasoning pepper” related to the Scotch Bonnet — all the flavor without the punishing heat — from our days in Grand Cayman.  Is she growing something similar, and should we shave it raw on the daily focaccia at Ella?  Let us know what you would like to see in our restaurants!

The Peak of Seasoned: Commissary Goals

There’re a lot to be said for writing things down. Releasing your desired reality out into the universe, having them in type — or in my case script — there to remind you.  To look at every so often, sometimes more than others.  And to be astonished one day that it’s time to make new ones because what you’ve set out to accomplish is now, seemingly suddenly, real.  Growth is a thing you commit to and when you do, something magical happens where what was so unknown becomes the most familiar thing in the world.

img_8973We set goals here at The Genuine Hospitality Group.  Our people do and so does our company.  It’s hard to imagine that the idea seemed foreign just a year and a half ago.  Now at the start of the year, it’s not just goals for our business, I set personal ones, too.  Even hashtag them.

“It’s unfolding like an onion,” says Michael.  He’s speaking about our new commissary kitchen, but I know it’s a metaphor for what’s happening now writ large.  What unfurls when something is set into motion.  “So many exciting opportunities will come from this project.”

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Strawberries in the fields at Knaus Berry Farms. We want them all.

We got into the large space a month ago, and executive chef Bradley Herron will tell you we’ve already grown out of it.  It’s not hard to imagine, I found visiting last Wednesday with MJ Garcia who is exploring “the savory side of life”, captaining the project at ground zero.  But for Bradley, our MGFD pastry chef was just the right person for the job.

“Brad stitched me for the part,” MJ explains.  “I’m learning how to administer and organize my time, figuring out how the proteins work, how to utilize the space properly.”

The journey began around summer’s end, and the understanding that there was opportunity to build out Michael Schwartz Events and our catering capability quickly became the realization that we could centralize production for our restaurants, capitalize on product at the peak of season and get as much of it and out of it as possible.  For Brad and Michael this has opened up the potential to rethink how we do things, the possibilities for ingredients and sourcing, the development of people at this facility and at the restaurants that comes with increased efficiency.  Imagine the doors this opens for creativity.

“Michael connected with Margie from Bee Heaven Farm and hashed a plan with the chefs,” MJ explains.  “We bring in whatever she has leftover from the weekend market and in abundance.  We take as much as we can and get to work preserving, dehydrating, processing things fresh, incorporating it into sauces, veal stock.”

After a space was identified and lease signed, Brad along with culinary assistant Megan Hess just started showing MJ the savory ropes. Recipes were dialed in, and once the space was delivered and equipment online thanks to heavy lifting from TGHG VP of Development Patrick Brown, programmed into a combioven which MJ swears could basically take care of her child.

“I put the eggs for the mayo in there, right in the crate. There is no movement, no breakage.  And the time it saves!  Brad built this operation for efficiency. Everything is big enough to climb into.”

Coffee is the first item on the check list in any kitchen Brad and Michael are running.

Good coffee is the first item on the check list in any kitchen Brad and Michael are running.

“You don’t have service so you have time to pay attention to details and make sure product comes out the same way every time,” MJ continues.  “We have a unique opportunity to basically work without the million variables at odds in a busy restaurant. The time pressure now is different. It’s scheduling and planning, forecasting the needs of the restaurants.”

She’ll say she’s slowly taking on more production, that she was terrified the first week getting into the space.  But as an outsider to this process observing it for the first time, the progress they’ve made since the fear of January 2 is nothing short of astounding.  In one month MJ has gone from fish out of water to conservatively comfortable, owning the first (and longest) cooking stages of the prep for proteins and so much more that she’s already hiring more staff to handle it all.

Combimagic: 3 cases of octopus -- a week's worth of octopus in one day that MGFD will then take an wood oven roast or add to its daily pasta set up. We control temperature, humidity and pressure -- basically every element of the cooking process.

Combioven magic, no joke.  This rig has been programmed to cook 3 cases of octopus in one day — that’s a week’s worth for MGFD which it will wood oven roast or add to the daily pasta set up. We can control temperature, humidity and pressure — basically every element of the cooking process.

“When they order I have to be ready,” MJ says of the constant communication with the restaurants as the process synchronizes. “Most of this is lead time stuff so by nature it requires forecasting. 8-10 hours of cooking overnight for most of the proteins like the pork belly, pastrami, short rib, pig ears… The bacon is just rubbed but I’m smoking it here so again, that’s a process that takes time.  I’m still building up a base pantry and learning our pars but then again they’re going to change as we continue to develop new catering offerings.  We are creating a pattern of what we need, don’t need, one thing at a time as I get my feet on the ground and understand the rhythm of things.  We want to train and do things in the right way.”

Brad is guiding MJ through planning based on restaurant sales and previous orders, as well as weekly forecasts of covers.  Then there’s the innovation that happens when the tail can wag the dog, maybe anticipate what the restaurants might not even know they need.  Sometimes she’ll work special projects for Cypress Tavern if Max requests, like duck confit. She’s caramelizing the onions and slicing the chips for MGFD’s dip, cutting and crisping potatoes for fries and cabbage for the pastrami, building ella’s grilled cheese sandwiches for the griddle.  The list goes on and will continue to grow when she takes on something familiar next month — pastry production with assistant Alex Sarria.

“I go every morning to check on the girls,” MJ says. “And then I surprise drop in and taste twice a week with the night crew.”

 

For Michael it’s not just about capitalizing on bumper crops for pricing and quality, it’s about investing in our people.  That’s the thing about goals.  By design they need to be measurable and achievable and to make them so, you time stamp and list who’s on the journey with you.  Because you can’t do it alone, ever.  We like to say we know more what we don’t want than what we do.  And that’s perfectly fine too.   Many thanks to TGHG Managing Partner and Harry’s Holdings CEO Sunil Bhatt for teaching us about goals.  Onward and upward.

Rancho Patel Pizzeria | Indian Night Pops at Harry’s with Chef Niven Patel


Finally, a delicious Indian dinner is coming to Harry’s Pizzeria.  We are excited to announce that chef de cuisine Niven Patel of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink is taking over Michael’s neighborhood American pizzeria in the Design District on Tuesday, December 15 at 7pm for Rancho Patel Pizzeria.  TICKETS ARE NOW LIVE HERE!

Niven manning his post at Michael's Genuine.

Niven manning his post at Michael’s Genuine.

Responsible for the kitchen at Michael’s flagship restaurant going on 3 years, Niven is a genuine chef at heart.  His approach to Rancho Patel Pizzeria is to share his uniquely fresh take on authentic Indian cuisine from his home in Homestead and family traditions. The menu will be released closer to the event.  Trust that each dish will pack that special pop with exotic spices and preparations!  A tour through his Instagram only scratches the surface, but will certainly whet your palate, like this homemade roti factory with wife Shivani that happened last night.  As the chef says… it never gets old.

Welcome cocktail, passed snacks, four courses including dessert, beverage pairings and tax and gratuity, and that special brand of Niven hospitality are included for $110.  What a pre-holiday treat!!!

A pursuit for knowledge was the stimulus and continues to be the driving force behind Chef Niven’s career. Patel’s first glimpse into the restaurant world was during culinary school, and he was hooked. “I was cooking and working in restaurants the whole time during college”. But his passion for cooking came much earlier on, he says, “I have been cooking all my life. I used to make my menus as a child and let my family order, and then I went into the kitchen to cook whatever they wanted.”

From Miami to Cayman and back again, now deepening his connection with the land and its bounty at Rancho Patel and in Homestead at large foraging its small farms, it’s time to celebrate what we crave most about Niven’s kitchen.  His passion and curiosity is infectious, with the whole restaurant lighting up when his own harvest turns up on the menu.  For young cooks dreaming of one day becoming a chef, Patel offers some words of wisdom, cultivated over his many years of due diligence, “Be inquisitive. Every time there is something you don’t know, research it, look it up”. Clearly the success of the highly disciplined Niven proves that the chef is guided by his own advice.

Homestead Field Report: Growing Season is Verde

Head south on Florida’s Turnpike to Homestead at Exit 5 and you’re in the heart of The Redland, South Florida’s agricultural sweet spot.  As you cross US-1 west, farms, original clapboard homes of early settlers,  u-pick fields and coral rock walls whiz by.  The Redland was named for pockets of red clay in the limestone terrain, which is fed by pure water from the Biscayne Aquifer and has been a natural laboratory for agriculturalists, botanists, and naturalists around the world, including John James Audubon and David Fairchild.  It’s a place locals rush to re-familiarize themselves with this time of year, enduring the tourist-stacked lines for Knaus Berry Farm sticky buns and strawberry shakes, while small white flowers dance on baby plants in the fields behind beckoning a winter harvest that can’t come soon enough.

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Imagine before Verde had its tractor… Here Chuck sets the sun hemp, aka ‘green manure’, a few weeks before planting in late summer of 2014, its second season.

But this heartland is more like hardland and no one is more familiar with that than farmer Chuck Lyons.  Like Henry Flagler’s railroad pioneers before him, Lyons had to work hard to coax fertility out of the 5-acre plot now known as Verde Farm.  Not only is its weed pressure serious, but this meticulously laid out field and greenhouse operation was pre-Hurricane Andrew Homestead Air Force Base. That means concrete.

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Niven expands his role as chef de cuisine, now not only overseeing his own backyard garden but stewarding our foraging program at Michael’s Genuine. He’s looking forward to spending more time at Verde and learning more skills he can incorporate into Rancho Patel.

“We spent a lot of time and money getting stuff out.  It wasn’t easy, and we weren’t the first to try,” Lyons explains of the land owners before he came in three years ago.  “First off, this is old rockland, not that ideal, receded-Everglades Redland soil. We’ve got grasses, and grasses produce lots of seeds.”

And by grasses, we’re not talking about what’s in your backyard at home. They are sky-high, more like a grass forest.  It took Lyons two weeks with a brush mower to clear the field himself.  He had little equipment or help — a back hoe and concrete saw to  cut through slabs of concrete from the old military base and a skid steer to tear through it.  There were foundation footers with metal beams, and a pile of discarded palates and tires, left from the previous owner.

The operation is a beneficiary of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust and collaborates with Carrfour Supportive Housing, a community comprised of 145 formerly homeless families living in LEED-certified townhouses.  Fresh produce also reaches Camillus House Properties and the Chapman Partnership for the Homeless.  The first main harvests began in October, with fast growing sprouts of greens – and continue into February and March with field harvests.

Today Verde Farms is thriving as a community system, a working organic farm that teaches valuable job skills to the homeless it employs and sells product both wholesale (with outlets like Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink and Coconut Grove’s Glaser Farms Saturday Market) and direct to consumer through its uniquely single farm CSA program.  They grow microgreens, sunflower and pea shoots in their state-of-the-art greenhouse, tender baby greens such as kale, arugula, and a variety of lettuces in raised garden beds in the shade-house, and in the fields, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and a variety of eggplants including Chef Michael’s favorite — Sicilian.

Behind the marigolds is the kids garden, part of Verde's educational outreach programming.

Behind the marigolds is the kids garden, an outdoor science classroom for Verde’s growing educational outreach programming, both after school and integrated into curriculum at neighboring Mandarin Lakes K-8 Academy.

“My whole season is on paper in July,” Lyon continues. “Cucumbers and squash go in first week of September.  We get a second planting of those, with 55 days to fruit.  To come up with the mix, I think more about what my end customer is going to want and be able to cook with from their farm share.  It’s like I’m planning their menus at home.  We do 100 total different crops, a quarter specifically for wholesale but 75 are for the CSA. Very proud of that. It’s a very important part of the business, and we want to grow it.”

Verde’s CSA is distributed through the Urban Oasis Project‘s network including Upper East Side (6599 Biscayne Blvd, Saturdays 9am-2pm,) Adrienne Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Mondays 4-8pm), and of course at its own location a block or so from the farm (12690 SW 280th Street, Tuesday-Saturday 10-3PM,) which is run by Bill Squire.  They accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and double their value up to $20 when spent on Florida fruits and vegetables. This is made possible through Fresh Access Bucks provided by our partners at Florida Organic Growers.  You can sign up here on the CSA page of its website, where you can also donate to the farm program.

“I’m really pleased with where we are now, but we’ve definitely hit a ceiling,” Lyons reflects.  “Currently we’re operating without electricity.  We need cooler space and packing house to really ramp up production, like I know we are capable of.”