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Grilled In a Minute: Michael Schwartz

Julie Mautner / May 22nd, 2013

Michael Schwartz is having a particularly exciting spring.

Already the chef/owner of three successful restaurants—two in Miami and one in the Caribbean—Schwartz opened The Cypress Room, an elegant “nod to the spirit of classic 1920s fine dining” in Miami’s Design District in March. Then, just a month later, he unveiled Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. It opened officially on April 22.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Michael began his culinary career at Ristorante DiLullo. He then criss-crossed the country, working in Los Angeles (at Chinois) and in New York City (at Crispo), before settling in Miami in the early 1990s. He opened Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District in 2007 and followed with an outpost on Grand Cayman in 2010. The following year, Schwartz opened his third restaurant, Harry’s Pizzeria. Also located in Miami’s Design District, Harry’s serves seasonally inspired pizzas from a wood-burning oven and Florida beers on tap.

Modestly, Schwartz will tell people that his winning formula is fresh, simple, and pure food served in a laid-back neighborhood atmosphere. The truth, however, is that his reputation extends far beyond the neighborhood. Thanks to Miami’s cosmopolitan population, tons of great press, a recent cookbook, and more, Schwartz is now known internationally as a highly creative chef, and one who is positively infatuated with local, seasonal and farm-fresh ingredients. Schwartz appears to be as devoted to his farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and other purveyors as he is to his customers. And his commitment to responsible food sourcing, the urban food community, and the community at large is a natural extension of that.

“It’s about letting the ingredients speak for themselves when they hit the table, from house-cured heritage meats and homemade seasonal fruit jams to wood-fired whole local fish and colorful salads,” Schwartz says. “Good food is about good food.”

Michael was honored with the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, in 2010.

The newest restaurant, Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh, is a joint venture with the sbe Restaurant Group and occupies the upper deck overlooking the hotelʼs iconic pool. The menu includes signatures such as crispy hominy with chile and lime and Harvey Cedar’s fish stew, along with new dishes such as grilled octopus with crushed hazelnuts, green olives, kumquats, preserved lemons and parsley, and a steak tartare with fresh herbs, crispy shallots, quail egg yolk, and grilled bread. This month, they’ll launch “Family Meals” on Monday nights and a weekly changing, reasonably priced, three-course prix-fixe served family-style with wine options. The restaurant offers lunch and dinner, poolside and bar service, boxed beach lunches, and a selection of items for in-room dining.

The Raleigh Hotel is considered one of the grand dames of the old Deco hotels. It changed hands in December 2012, and the new restaurant replaces The Royal.

Schwartz’s second new restaurant, the elegant Cypress Room, centers around a wood-burning grill and rotisserie in an open kitchen, his hallmark high-quality ingredients, a comprehensive cocktail program, and a wine list emphasizing Old World varietals. Cypress Room serves dinner only.

In addition to his two new spots, Schwartz’s recent projects include creating dishes for the 150 Central Park restaurants on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, and Michael’s Genuine Home Brew, an American ale brewed in Gadsden, Alabama, with Florida sem-chi (Seminole Chief) rice and sugarcane.

With five restaurants now up and running, Schwartz’s company, The Genuine Hospitality Group, now has roughly 200 employees.

Schwartz heavily supports the arts and gives back through initiatives that nurture sustainable food systems, underprivileged neighborhoods, and schools. He’s involved with Michel Nischan’s Wholesome Wave Foundation; Roots in the City Farmers’ Market; The White House’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative; and the Miami-Dade Public School System’s Chefs Partnership program, among others.

Schwartz’s first cookbook, Michael’s Genuine Food: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat, was published by Clarkson Potter in early 2011.

Schwartz lives in Miami Beach with his wife, Tamara, and their three kids Ella, Lulu, and Harry. For more info, visit michaelsgenuine.com or follow Schwartz on Twitter: @chefmschwartz

So! Two new restaurants…very exciting!
The Cypress Room is a throwback. It feels like a little 1920s or ’30s-era place, with lots of pecky cypress wood, crystal chandeliers, bone china, fine silver. We’re going back to all the things we went away from in the restaurant world, such as synchonized service, white tablecloths, flowers on the table. The food is very ingredient focused—local and seasonal—with a very simple, small menu and apps and entrée format. We’ll have a couple of bigger specialties each night, like a great côte de boeuf or a whole fish, and every night we’ll do an item on the wood-burning rotisserie that’s meant to be shared.

And at Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, well…I started out on South Beach, at Nemo Restaurant in 1995, so it’s really fun to be returning to SoBe.

Are you from a foodie family? Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
I’d love to say it was my mother’s cooking, but it wasn’t. It was probably my first restaurant job, at DiLullo in Philly. That opened my eyes to the world of cooking and cuisine.

What’s the very best thing about your job today?
Two things. The instant gratification and the great feedback. Although it wasn’t instant, of course—it was years in the making. Also, that I’m still able to learn and be inspired every day by the people I work with.

And the very worst thing, the aspect you like the least?
The babysitting. While it’s really important to entertain everyones’ personal neuroses—I mean mostly the staff but also the customers—I do feel that shouldn’t be part of my job.

What’s one thing that’s absolutely forbidden in your kitchen?
Jeans and sneakers. We wear kitchen pants or khakis or some other traditional work pants and black nonskid shoes.

In the kitchen during prep: is there music or no music?
Sometimes. It could be…whatever. If I’m in the kitchen, I dictate the music. Usually jazz.

And what about music in the kitchen during or after service?
No. It’s an open kitchen.

What’s the one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?
Some piece of equipment that requires wood, not gas. Meaning, a wood-burning oven or grill. I need fire. From wood.

Three adjectives to describe honestly the kind of boss you think you are?
Demanding, fair, neurotic.

And three adjectives that your staff would use to describe you as a boss?
The same three, totally.

What recent culinary discovery (a new flavor, new ingredient, new dish, etc.) really intrigued you…and why?
It’s always whatever’s coming from the farm right now. We’re in the height of our growing season now. We have an on-staff forager who goes down to the farm twice a week. When he returns on Mondays and Thursdays with a van full of produce, that to me is the new best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Right now there are so many great things coming in, but I’m loving the squash in particular: these beautiful gold bars (they’re long and dark yellow), the patty pans, the eight balls…

What was the best meal you’ve had recently, in a restaurant not your own?
Son of a Gun in L.A. For me, everything was perfect. It was casual, elegant, sort of simple food that was just refined enough and perfectly executed.

And the next restaurant you’re excited to try?
Beast in Portland, Oregon—Naomi Pomeroy’s place.

Where would/will your next foodie trip be…and why?
I’m going to Southern Italy this year. I was invited to do some cooking classes.

Tell us about a restaurant concept you’d love to open: what you’d serve, what the vibe would be, where it would be, etc.
I just did that, with The Cypress Room, so I have no idea what the next one would be. And by the way, I think the word “concept” is all wrong for a restaurant. Ok, if you have a pizzeria, the concept is pizzeria. But to me the word evokes a sense of gimmickry.

Looking back, what was the worst day of your culinary career?
Very early on, like my first night on the line at DiLullo, the maître d’ kicked me off the line. It really stuck with me. He was like, “What is this kid doing on the line? Get off the line!” It made me want to prove myself, and I quickly became one of the best line cooks in that restaurant.

And what about the best day of your culinary career so far?
Winning the James Beard Award in 2010, for Best Chef in the South.

What’s the next award or accolade you’d really love to win?
The Beard Award for Restaurant Design, because I pretty much designed Cypress Room myself.

What’s the one cookbook (other than your own) you use most often and why?
The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. It sort of has crossover appeal, meaning it’s simple but also intellectual. There’s lots to read and absorb from Judy’s approach…it’s a great book.

Were you ever fired?
Nope.

What’s one thing your customers do that makes you nuts?
There are a lot of things…and that’s why I’m not a front-of-the-house guy! More and more, people expect free stuff. What’s up with that? They don’t even hint…they come right out and say it! You send out a little something special as a nice gesture and it backfires. If you do it once, they expect you’ll do it all the time.

And one thing your staff does that makes you nuts?
Again, so many things! I’m crazy about keeping a clean floor…it’s never clean enough for me. There’s always stuff on the floor.

What one character trait is most responsible for your success?
Probably my neurotic personality, which has definitely gotten worse over the years. It translates to attention to detail—but I’m sure it drives people crazy.

Who would you most like to go up against on Iron Chef ?
I hate those shows. They go against everything I feel cooking is about. What’s great about cooking is teamwork, and the whole notion of competition makes me angry.

What’s your very best advice for a young chef who would like a career like yours?
Just work! Turn the Food Network off and work! Food Network has been a real double-edge sword in our industry. It’s brought a lot of awareness to chefs and food, which is great. But it’s totally screwed up the minds of young people, who now think that being a chef is being on TV. They think they’ll go to school for a few years and then have this title bestowed on them.

OK, so now that The Cypress Room is open, tell us what’s next. What are you working on?
I have a relationship with Royal Caribbean to do fine dining menus on the Oasis of the Seas, which has been fantastic. It’s a farm-to-ship approach, and we bring all of our favorite farmers’ products on board. Now we’re expanding and taking on the same role on the sister ship, Allure of the Seas. The restaurants are called 150 Central Park—beautifully appointed, fine dining, 55 seat restaurants. It’s lots of fun, and I’m very excited about it.

We’re also getting ready to launch Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. I started out on South Beach, at Nemo Restaurant in 1995, so it’s fun to be returning to SoBe.

Career-wise, what’s one thing you should have done differently?
I would have liked to have learned more about pastry. But I’ve been so spoiled for the last 15 years, with Hedy Goldmsith as my pastry chef. I’ve never had to worry about it or learn it.

If not this, then what? Meaning what would you be doing if not cooking and restauranting?
Maybe an artist or musician…something like that.