[Video] Gone Fishing for Florida Stone Crab Season

It all began with a hunt for a frog leg source in 2006 when Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink was a set of plans and dreams. Some 12 years later, fisherman George Figueroa of Trigger Seafood is Michael’s source for everything under the South Florida sun including these Everglades treats, from local spiny lobster to his company’s namesake triggerfish when we’re lucky.  Like most long lasting relationships, things grow and evolve.  You see each other when you can — sometimes more often than others, but it’s always like yesterday and there’s always an opportunity for a spontaneous adventure.  When George happened to be by the office last week to pick up a check, he asked if I wanted to join on the boat Sunday for the 2018 Florida Stone Crab season harvest.  Frog gigging?  Sure, Michael has donned the headlamp under full moonlight.  Wild boar hunting? He and culinary director Bradley Herron joined George on the swamp buggy.  But after all this time, it would be our first time pulling traps — and certainly not the last!

Unlike recreational opportunities, our fisherman has a commercially-regulated (for sustainability) license where he may legally harvest both claws — if they are legal in size and the crab continues to feed (as many frisky ones we encountered today without claws were doing in the traps.) The crabs’ natural predators in the bay including triggerfish, dolphin, turtles, and octopus actively prey on both clawed and clawless specimens. The reality is we encountered pilfered and stolen traps all day long, which is bad for everyone, especially the health of our fishery.

Stone Crab season is one of those give-ins. Not taken for granted but to a certain degree expected.  Nothing should ever be that way, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to realize it through this past weekend’s experience.  George’s office is like that.  It appears to be a constant — the crystalline water of Biscayne Bay, the blue sky embracing its National Park, the delicious seafood.

Scratch the shimmer though, and the squalls, the tropical changes, the pirate’s-life-for-me blood coursing thick and hungry in all of us down in these wild parts rise to the surface.  That’s the thing about buried treasure.  It makes us all go a little crazy. Go rogue in the rush of discovery and payday in glorious sweet meat.  But what will you pull up?  Has someone gotten there, to your licensed traps, first? The unpredictability of it all runs deep, and that’s the object lesson we took away with our 65-pound claw haul. Protection and regulation can only do so much for our natural resources.  It takes a little more work than that.  It takes respect, and education even when it’s not always easy on the eyes is a fine place to start.

Thank you @jorge_trigger_seafood for showing us the #stonecrab ropes, sharing insight into the challenges of managing this fishery, and always telling it like it is. Keep it real and come along for the ride with us on the video above. When you enjoy some claws at MGFD or Amara at Paraiso there will be new meaning and respect to contemplate — how they got to the table and in some cases why they’re absent from it.

 

Bowled Over By Inspiration? For Chef Bradley Herron, It’s Right Under Your Nose.

Tuna Bowl, constructed.

Ever made a “garbage salad”?  The Genuine Hospitality Group’s Culinary Director Bradley Herron has.  Head scratch?  It’s not what you’re thinking.  Or maybe it is?

Perhaps you’ve had this moment, too, standing in front of a refrigerator looking for something good to eat and the landscape is bleak — a few lonely remains, a couple of scallions here and a half a lemon there, the bundle of parsley looking more like a bushel, and mismatched jars with innards haggard like the end of the DMV line.  It’s the look of resignation.  But this is not what everyone sees in what’s left on shelves or hidden in the pantry. If you’re Brad, you just need a stainless mixing bowl and boom! You are the envy of the office with special requests for lunch.

“Cleaning house.  It’s how we like to do things here over the course of a week, and it’s how the tuna bowl happened.” Brad explains to me on the line at Michael’s Genuine last Friday. “I saw this bag of wild rice sitting around waiting to die and thought about what we could make with it.  It starts with what you have, not always what you can order, and goes from there.  We can supplement with a few special things and make something really delicious. Cooking creatively is usually always about cooking smart.”

Vegetarian’s delight — Grain Bowl with sprouts, calabaza, radish, avocado, sambal

Lunch’s Tuna Bowl, and its Grain Bowl counterpart at dinner, snuck up on the menu over the past couple of weeks and have been a big hit at the office and in the dining room.  On Friday, fresh yellowfin came very finely chopped with seasonings including sambal, an Indonesian chile sauce we love for its intensity of flavor (mostly due to fish sauce).  The bowl is then constructed with a foundation of mixed grains including wild rice, red quinoa and farro onto which sliced cucumbers and radishes, nice looking hydroponic arugula, shaved white onions, bean sprouts and alfalfa, butter lettuce and a hulking half scoop of cubed avocado are packed. A favorite Vietnamese dressing, also fish sauce based, nuoc cham, is drizzled liberally.  Last week, the Tuna Bowl popped on Instagram with tail feathers of green and purple on display in baby fire sorrel.

“Yea, and it’ll have different things next week, too,” Brad continues.  “It’s a different way of looking at the recipe development process — maybe even backwards from the perspective of someone who is used to looking up recipes in a book and shopping for ingredients to conceive a menu.  But it makes for an efficient and creative kitchen, and there’s no reason why cross utilization shouldn’t apply to the home cook looking to eliminate waste and maximize flavor. Lots of cost savings, too.”

Teach a man to load the ingredient wall — left to right — from ripe, to ripening. This process brings back of house and front of house together to make the dining room stand for something (beautiful) and function properly for cooks in need of ingredients as the tickets come in.

What initially piqued my interested in Brad’s bowls was the idea of what makes for a good one. There is a formula, and it’s not how your corner “poke” shop does it DIY, a recipe for over doing it. Simplicity and restraint, sure, but really it’s about one thing — balance. At Michael’s Genuine it produces successful menus from the practicality and practice of cross utilization and is the essential notion all of our Genuine kitchens are built on. This is why the bowl canvas is so apt.  For our cooks, this idea informs the roadmap for every single dish.  It’s about the interplay of texture, color, flavor and temperature to create contrast and, if not thoughtfully considered, is what can make or break even a technically perfect one.

Look for more bowl variations to come, as well as what’s new for Miami Spice beginning August 1, posted daily @michaelsgenuine and where we now have a video of the tuna bowl assembly.

Bowls on fire at MGFD. What combo is up next?

An All American Summer at Michael’s Genuine® Begins with Burgers & Brats for Fourth of July Week & Miami Spice

Lychees arrived and mangos are beginning to hit now, but the true sign of summer is when monster calabaza of all shapes, sizes and coats of paint roll in, a jaunty color guard roll for Michael’s Genuine ingredient wall.  Well, they’re here, and so are two opportunities to take advantage of the season at our flagship: Fourth of July Week specials and Miami Spice.

Jaunty alright.

Burgers & Brats for Fourth of July Week — From Monday, July 2 to Sunday, July 8 for lunch and dinner only, Chef de Cuisine Tim Piazza is bringing back his cheeseburger of 2017 National Burger Month fame and adding a dog companion.  The All American Double Cheeseburger includes 2, 4oz patties, American cheese, bacon, shredded lettuce, sliced tomato and pickles on a Martin’s potato roll for $22.  In the dog department we have Bratwurst with sauerkraut and mustard on a Martin’s potato bun for $16 with choice or fries or greens.  At dinner, it’s plated with grilled sourdough.  We fancy.

Miami Spice — From August 1 to September 30, enjoy weekly-changing 3-course prix fixe menus. MGFD will offer lunch for $23 Monday through Thursday and dinner for $39 Sunday through Thursday, including supplements from our regular menu at special prices for those who partake in this annual city-driven restaurant promotion. Highlights include Crispy Okra with pimento cheese, Steak Salad with kimchi, butter lettuce and peanuts, and Marinated Cherry Tartine with roasted shallot, fresh ricotta and thyme. For lunch, it’s really just about the return of the Falafel Wrap. Having gone down the Instagram rabbit hole to no avail, we take solace in beholding her soon once again for all the world to see and enjoy.

 

Fairytale Eggplant & the Novel of South Florida’s Growing Season Charms

Beautiful Fairytale Eggplant from Mother Earth Miami

Michael’s Genuine® chef de cuisine Tim Piazza has his hands in a box of artichokes.  Peeling them, especially baby ones, is not exactly a stimulating activity, but Tim is wearing one of his wide-eyed smiles, the one that makes him look a little crazy.  Spring is here, and he is clearly in the zone.

“Last night Mother Earth harvested like 50 pounds of greens in the dark with little headlights, because that’s the best time to harvest greens — at night when the temperature cools down,” Tim explains.  “Katia just grows like the nicest, coolest stuff.”

Mother Earth Miami, sprouting from Litter River Cooperative’s Farmer Incubator Program, is a new source for us this season, with Tim bringing in vegetables and greens like turnip, carrot, spigariello kale and fairytale eggplant. This kind of organic growth in the local farming community is a definite reason to get excited. And to make Eggplant Tomato Curry.

IMG_4475

Eggplant Tomato Curry

The combination of Indian spices and local ingredients has proven to be a hit, maximizing the flavor potential of a curry.  Roasted eggplant is sautéed with cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, coriander, cumin, black pepper, lemon pepper, fenugreek, and fennel seed, served at room temperature with lightly-marinated chickpeas, some cilantro and a freshly-made cucumber raita served with a side of fresh pita.

“It’s cool to work with people who care about what they’re doing and are trying new things,” Tim continues. “Getting good ingredients helps us elevate the simplicity of what we do and these relationships are essential to the process.”

Katia last year at a pre-opening wine tasting for staff at Amara.

Ms. Bechara, a wine rep by trade raised in Colombia found she had a green thumb and founded Mother Earth Miami in November 2015.  The move began in her backyard after participating in various small farmer workshops with experienced leaders like Margie Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead and John Gentzel of J&P Apiary.

“It was the best canvas for my budding farming career,” says Bechara of her impromptu home project.

She volunteered for urban farmer Muriel Olivares in 2013, to learn the ropes from one of the best who started small.  Olivares chose her last spring to participate in the incubator. Designed to educate and give urban farmers starting out that extra boost for success, it provides them with a plot of land and shared farm tools, as well as classes.  It’s the ultimate small business resource when you deal in seeds and soil.

“I consider Muriel, and Tiffany Noe, my mentors,” says Bechara.

image5-1

Gabi (left) and Katia working together

Her current business partner and friend, Gabi Serra, was a plot neighbor in the program.  Born and raised in Venezuela, Serra’s focus on the herbalism side of farming brings great balance to Mother Earth’s proposition. They also grow edible flowers, herbs, and medicinals like calendula, nasturtiums, and moringa.

“Gabi and I love working together and we have so many aspirations to help the Miami community,” say Berchara.

At its peak, South Florida’s growing season always brings fresh, local ingredients to our doorstep thanks to new farms like Mother Earth.  Their passion is contagious and brings new ideas to the kitchen.   But it’s the mainstays that keep the flagship humming.  With its 11th anniversary this week, Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink continues to be the nucleus of activity for seasonal change, a north star for our restaurant group, setting the tone and the bar for our chefs. If you want to get a taste of what’s happening now in the fields and who is growing what you’re eating, you need look no further that Tim’s menu.

“So it’s really coming in now from everywhere… the tomatoes from Borek are obviously a big thing for us. The run is pretty long from the end of last year but they’re peaking right now, along with the kale and eggplant,” he says. “With a restaurant that moves so much, we have to stay on our toes and utilize the farm products we order in many different ways you know; in a pasta, on a pizza, with a salad, maybe showcase it in a dish of its own like we are doing with the eggplant.”

There’s always a method to the madness. But that madness is familiar to those in our line of work.

IMG_4483

Tomatoes from Teena’s Pride

Working with farmers is an ever-changing, ongoing process that he’s constantly adapting to. He’s currently working with 5 or 6 farms, with familiar names such as Michael Borek’s Teena’s Pride, who we receive beautiful heirloom tomatoes from, amongst other things, every season.

When asked what he was most excited to work with ingredient-wise this season, he simply shrugged with a baffled look on his face.  Always working with what he receives and changing things up, or using standard products in new ways — it is hard for him to narrow it down.

“As a chef, you are excited about everything.”

For This Pastry Team, Working Smart Means Cross Training with Donuts

IMG_3692

The 9 a.m. donut handoff! Ella GM Sandra Pepin receives the goodies from MGFD’s pastry chef MJ Garcia.

Every morning Pastry Chef MJ Garcia gets into Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink around 5:45 a.m. and takes survey of her stock.  Then it’s time to cross train.

“If I ran a special that had pastry cream the day before, I’ll use it for a donut at Ella,” she explains.  “The other day we did butterscotch pudding here, so that became the filling for a chocolate glazed there.”

Restaurants like Michael’s flagship with its vast menu and myriad meal periods require a lot of rotation of product. MJ’s cross training routine makes for a fit operation, one with limited waste not at the expense of creativity. It’s a canvas that offers an outlet for new ideas to develop with discipline and structure because they are built on making something special from what’s around. “If you think about it from the culinary side, donuts are like the soup,” she points out.

Since our light and airy café first opened in late spring last year, the “Ella Daily Donut” (#elladailydonut on Instagram) has become a fixture in the display case, coveted for its surprising array of flavors and formats.  It was around the time MJ rejoined The Genuine Hospitality Group after a four year hiatus from Miami in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with husband (and now Cypress Tavern Chef de Cuisine) Max Makowski.  Her first placement was at ella, where she learned a tremendous deal about desserts in a retail environment, not to mention the benefit of direct customer feedback at the counter.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 1.32.19 PM

Rainbow of Flavors: Here, lemon and coconut ensconced on their perch in the morning light.

“I noticed things… saw the pastries and how they were behaving.  Fresh fruit like strawberries will look fantastic in the morning but they wilt and go pale by the evening,” she recalls observing.  “You have to think how many hours a particular donut is going to stand up.  At 7 p.m. closing it has to look as good at as it did at opening. So you have boundaries.”

IMG_3693

Sometimes the donuts would be too big or too little.  MJ made note of all these things at ella, and translated them to improvements on that offering, not to mention best practices for her department at large at Michael’s Genuine.

“You have to keep a lot of factors in mind while you do these seemingly simple things,” she continues. “Yeasted donuts are more irregular in the way the dough behaves and there is more room for error.  It can overproof which creates big air pockets which can explode in the frier!  You also have to be careful not to overwork the dough which will develop gluten and produce a tough, dense result.”

IMG_2656

Lemon Meringue donut in all her oozy glory; the perfect ratio of filling to fried dough dusted in sugar and laden with sticky, caramelized meringue topping.

The preparation of the yeasted dough is a one day process with bulk cold fermentation in large tubs to develop flavor, refrigerating overnight. Then she rolls it out and punches it, and waits an hour before frying. But as important as the foundation may be, the ultimate test is in the merchandising… read: decoration.

“Decoration is everything,” MJ agrees.  “We eat with our eyes, so when building the donut we play with color, texture and form, from punched or filled, to toppings like chocolate crunch balls and Oreo cookie crumbles.  If I made lemon lavender syrup and I have lemon juice, I’ll make a Lemon glaze and add coconut flakes. People love cookies and cream, and chocolate always makes sense on weekends!”

MJ says her team, helmed by pastry assistants Alexandra Sarria (lead) and Chelsea Hillier, “harass the Instagram” for feedback from customers, as well as those who post their own photos of the donuts. This feedback mechanism is invaluable, since they aren’t at the café to interact when people are eating them.

“Cypress sometimes gets leftovers, so my husband will let me know how they are and what his team thinks. It’s hard sometimes, so we take what we can.  Of course there’s the morning crew at Genuine. Those guys are a great source of feedback, especially when you catch them sneaking the scraps!”