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Michael Schwartz on Miami's Maturation and Keeping it Simple

Michael Schwartz in his office
Michael Schwartz in his office
Photo: Gabe Ulla /

The first thing Michael Schwartz does when I walk in the door of his Miami office is hand me three lychees. "You've got to try these, we just got 'em." The goateed chef looks like one of those Northeasterners who decided to come down south, let loose, and enjoy the weather, all of which pretty much applies in this case.

His adopted city has been good to him: nearly four years ago, after having spent time running several successful restaurants on South Beach, he opened Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in the then up-and-coming Design District. In the time since, he has become a James Beard Award-winner and one of the city's most renowned chefs.

We met a few blocks from his flagship to discuss locavorism, his cooking style, and how Miami stands as a dining destination.

What's up?
Lychee season is up.

You're just coming back from Grand Cayman?
Yeah, Grand Cayman is there, slowing down a bit right now in the summer season. It's super hot.

How often do you go?
I'm there every month. It's awesome. Nice place, nice people.

Both the restaurant you have here and the one in Grand Cayman are called Michael's. How do they differ?
I'll tell you first how they are similar. They are pretty much the same concept and share the same sort of features in terms of aesthetic. Same feeling, same sound.

But I think the Grand Cayman restaurant has taken on its own personality. Although a lot of the product comes from Miami, we do source a lot from that area. So it's a little bit more tropical, and I think that people's sensibilities down there are a bit different.

In what sense?
You know Miami is behind New York as far as what's trending in dining. And then this island is even more so, you could say. So I think they are just starting to learn about what's important and popular: sustainability, sourcing locally, the pork craze.

But there is a cooking community?
There is, and an agriculture community.

There's some people down there doing good work, like Dean Max. He has some restaurants here in South Florida and he's been consulting down there for many years. He was really ahead of the curve. His restaurant has a chef's garden and their own boats for fishing.

It seems that with locavorism or farm-to-table or whatever you want to call it, there are those that are genuinely committed to it, those that say they do it because they have to...
And then there's the guys that don't give a shit. Who flat out could care less about it. They might not say it to the press, but there's a lot of them, even in New York. I don't want to mention names, but good, worthy chefs.

I don't mean this in a bad way, it's just not their focus. I think that chefs have lazy habits. They aren't lazy people. The supply chain is part of your job as a chef, but when it's difficult or not consistent or changing or expensive or challenging to keep it moving, chefs don't like that. That's what using local product is all about: it's not convenient, it's expensive, it's changing.

There's a lot of people that are strong proponents of it that walk the walk. Then there's a lot of people that just say what they think is important to say to the media. Then, like I said, the people for which that's not a focus at all.

Where do you fall?
I'm pretty serious about it. We spend the money. We at least print the menu daily. We don't completely change it every day, which is something some restaurants do, because we have a big menu, we do lots of volume, and we have a small kitchen. It would be virtually impossible.

We're pretty much committed. You know, people will ask, "What percentage of your food is organic and local." No one really wants to know the answer to that, because it's not what everyone — well, at least me — would want it to be.

But for instance, fish. We have the best fish. I'm from the northeast, and sometimes I'll be thinking about monkfish or striped bass. But that's not what we do for the most part. Florida is pretty big. We can go up the coast, down the Atlantic, around the gulf — we're surrounded by fish. So we source from here, with the exception of wild salmon and some shellfish. Clams are local, mussels and oysters we bring in from other parts.

The harder stuff is produce. We had a long growing season which we are ending now. So we have somebody on staff that goes to all these farms, since those folks don't usually have the resources to make deliveries. We go 2-3 times a week. And nobody else in this city does that. We sometimes pick up stuff for other restaurants, as well.

Your emphasis on sourcing locally is an obvious focus of anything written about you, but could you explain your style more.
The style of the restaurant is to be inspired by the ingredients. These are simple preparations. Serving food in its form. Tomatoes here look like tomatoes: they're not broken down and pureed and so on. Really, it's about sourcing. I always joke around and say I'm just a really good shopper. We get the product, prepare it simply, and serve it in an unpretentious way.

I like temperature and texture contrasts. So a protein might be served with something that's prepared at room temperature or cold. A lot of times that's the only way we're able to get the food out in such volume in such a small space. But I love that style. It's bright and fresh.

Where does that love that come from? What's your background?
Well, I'm from Philly and have no formal training. I started 31 years ago, when I was sixteen. I worked for some great people, including Wolfgang Puck, and was often at the right place at the right time. And along the way, as I traveled and worked, I gathered these ideas of what I wanted my food to be.

And over the years I gained more confidence and started stripping things down and wasn't afraid to simplify things.

I'm not terribly familiar with your story, but having eaten your food a good bit, that mention of Wolfgang Puck totally makes sense.
He was a big influence on me. I only worked for him for a short while, but I've gotten to know him.

I always have loved the California sensibility, and the East Coast and West Coast styles are completely different. So which side do I lean towards? The West, just in terms of that emphasis on product and freshness and simple preparations.

How'd you end up in Miami and open Michael's?
Well, I had businesses down here with my ex-partner: Nemo, Big Pink were two of them. We split and he then opened Prime 112. We had a good run but grew apart.

A few years after separating, it was time to put this together. I didn't want to be on South Beach, since that area had changed a lot. I wanted a place where I could do exactly what I wanted to do.

It's funny because we're in the Design District and everything here is about super fancy showrooms. But I didn't want that. I wanted people to feel comfortable. This is not high design. I'm wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a dress shirt, which is about as dressed up as you'll ever see me. This is a place where you can come in and have a beer and chips and dip and leave, or spend $100 a person.

So we opened, and it turned out that the economy was tanking. I ended up looking like a genius, but that's what I wanted to be anyway. I got lucky.

You mentioned that Miami is behind New York. Let's talk about that.
Miami is starting to grow up a little bit. South Beach was a double edged sword for Miami. It created lots of attention nationally and internationally. But it created this notion of it being a ridiculously trendy, flashy, lack-of-substance kind of place, which it still is in a lot of ways. I'm not bashing Miami. It's my home and I've embraced it.

I feel like now the city is settling into itself and doesn't have as much to prove. There are smaller, chef-driven places with an appreciation for local agriculture.

What are some of those places?
Michy's is like that, Pubbelly, too. Places that maybe ten years ago wouldn't have had a chance. It's changing in that regard, but it's still "showtime" at a lot of these places. But it's going in a good direction.

One of the amazing things about this city is how fine dining places like La Broche have opened and died almost upon arrival.
It's a fickle place. A lot of good operators have come down here and been run out of town. It just depends how you approach Miami. How you embrace it and how they embrace you.

Is the city ready for something like that?
If you look at the upper echelon fine dining restaurants, there aren't any down here. But I think it's ready. It doesn't have to be pretentious. If some very important chef from another part of the country came here and tried to do it, I don't think it would work. In the case of the Fontainebleau, though, you have three high-end successful restaurants that are exports [Hakkasan, Scarpetta, and Gotham Steak].

That those are in a hotel might have something to do with it. Are you considering opening up any other places?
We're looking. What we didn't and don't want to do is expand too fast. We're turning four in Miami, one in Grand Cayman. We want to take our time and not strike when the iron is hot. When the iron is hot, you're busy keeping it hot. So you can't take your eye off of it.

There are some media things working. We've filmed a pilot that has a travel component and really speaks to the sourcing issue.

Your show?
Yeah, we're in the process of shopping it around right now. But I'm not interested in being a TV celebrity chef.

I can tell you that we are anxious to open something else in Miami, to fill certain niches.

Like what?
A higher end Michael's.

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Michael's Genuine Food And Drink

130 Northeast 40th Street Miami, FL 33137