Chef Jeff McInnis
The DiLido Beach Club | Miami
29-year old Jeff McInnis grew up in a beachside town in the Florida
Panhandle, and by age 14 was working on local boats and cleaning
the catches of the day. By 16, McInnis was peeling shrimp, cleaning
squid and cutting fish for The Marina Café, where
he got his start cooking on the line – and where he fell for
the “pirate-like” chefs and their fast-paced culture
of knives, tattoos, and Kitchen Confidential-style adventures.
After graduating from Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina,
McInnis worked at Atlanticville Restaurant outside of Charleston,
at Asolare in St. John in the Virgin Islands, at Azie
in San Francisco, and at the Five Star Orient Express resort
in Virginia. Next stop was a job with Norman Van Aken, and finally
The Ritz-Carlton South Beach. In 2006 he became chef de cuisine
of The DiLido Beach Club at the Ritz South Beach, where
he uses local ingredients to create Southern Mediterranean and North
African-inspired cuisine that’s served right on the beach.
McInnis’ dishes are light and fun: melon-cucumber salad is topped with heirloom tomato gelee and a yogurt sorbet that slowly melts into a dressing, and a lemon and apricot roast chicken with Sardinian couscous has bright flavors and lively spice. McInnis says his favorite tools are the Pacojet and liquid nitrogen – perfect for making cool elements to finish the dishes served in his beachside dining room.
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AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
JM: My first few jobs were
in Florida. At 18, I began culinary school in Charleston, South
Carolina and took a job at a small beachside restaurant. After several
years in Charleston, I moved to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. There
I worked as a Sous Chef at Asolare, a Caribbean-Asian restaurant.
In San Francisco I worked at the fine dining Asian-French restaurant,
Azie, where I was promoted to sous chef and was able to
learn Japanese cuisine from the sushi chefs while polishing my French
techniques. I moved to a rural area in Virginia to work at Keswick
Hall, a 5-star hotel owned by The Orient Express, and finally took
a job with The Ritz-Carlton at DiLido Beach Club in Miami.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JM: Only if they can afford
the price of a culinary education. The majority of culinary colleges
and universities today will accept anyone who is willing to write
the check. A lot of young cooks don’t realize that a two year
program can cost $30,000 or more. I’ve been out of school
working everyday for nine years now and I’m still paying off
educational loans. There is nothing wrong with the school of hard
knocks; it pays you in currency and wisdom. College pays you in
knowledge. We hire both formally and informally educated chefs.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JM: Chef Jody Denton, Chef
Phil Corr, Chef Thomas Connell, my father, and my grandfather. I’ve
learned everything from these [people], and they are my roots. From
my grandfather I learned that being humble is a powerful and admirable
trait. From my father I discovered that luck only comes to the deserving.
Chef Phil taught me to live life to the fullest and realize what’s
most important in yours and then cherish it. Thomas Connell taught
me that good cooking is a mix of passion and dedication, and that
you should cook healthy for the ones you love and keep them around
longer. I learned from Chef Jody Denton that cooking is simply taking
techniques and ingredients that are harmonious together and letting
the food take action. Never try to force together something that
isn’t meant to be. Let the food speak for itself.
AB: Have you done any influential stages? Do you accept stagiers?
JM: The most influential experiences
were the stages where I was out of my element. The stages I’ve
done in North Africa and Europe were definitely the most memorable
because I learned about food and techniques, as well as history,
family values, culture, and religion. Sometimes when staging in
kitchens, the majority of the cooks have egos and are closed off
to letting you in on the recipes and techniques. In this case it’s
usually a lost cause and little is learned. We trial a few cooks
every month and are open to sharing recipes, ideas, and techniques
AB: What qualities do you look for in a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
JM: I’m looking for someone
who stays level-headed, is organized, and can work a knife.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under-utilized?
JM: Edible flowers –
they give color, appearance, flavor, and a sensation on the plate
that works with my surroundings. I also like verjus a lot. It’s
not as sharp of a flavor as vinegar and gives a soft acid flavor
that works better with wine. I love cooking with vinegar, but the
over-use of vinegar can make wine pairing difficult.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JM: I love sweet and spicy. Chinese char siu pork. Umami and sour is another one. Also, I like using texture combinations that are not flavors but still excite everyone - crispy and soft, hot and cold.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JM: I like my Pacojet –
it allows me to make quick small batches of sorbets. We also keep
a tank of liquid nitrogen on hand in the kitchen. Between these
two pieces of equipment we are able to make some interesting and
original items like parmesan ice cream, goat cheese sorbet, and
cucumber sorbet. Because my dining room is outdoors in the hot Miami
weather I like to serve dishes topped with a cold, crisp, flavorful
accompaniment. When the bar is busy I like to take the liquid nitrogen
to the bar and make nitrogen cocktails.
AB: At StarChefs we publish technique features for chefs to learn. Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
JM: I enjoy using the liquid nitrogen and the Pacojet to make savory sorbets and ice creams.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JM: Of course the el Bulli
books are blowing everyone’s mind right now. I still pick
up the French Laundry Cookbook for French inspiration, and
the Joy of Cooking is great for a solid, tested recipe that
you can depend on, and recently I was given Ana Sortun’s book
Spice, which has made a difference in the way I think and
cook. Arabesque by Lucy Malouf has also been a favorite
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JM: I’d really like to visit Lebanon. My favorite places to eat are in Spain, especially Madrid, Malaga, and Mallorca, and I really enjoy Istanbul, Turkey. These places are saturated in history and culture, and it shows in their food. Also most of these places design their menus around seafood.
AB:What are your favorite
restaurants off the beaten path in your city? What is your
favorite dish there?
JM: Liberty Grill
serves great blood sausage. The Abbey is a total dive bar
that is open 365 days a year and is a local spot; they make their
own brews, which are great.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JM: I think organics will continue
to show up on more and more menus. Chemicals and new equipment will
continue to make the fine dining kitchens a different place from
the past. It seems that the Middle Eastern and North African flavors
are becoming more and more familiar here in the US.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JM: Let the food speak for itself. Cook with the freshest ingredients and don’t mask the flavor of the main ingredient. Overall my food is healthy, but you’ve got to please all of your customers, so I always have red meat and a few fried items available.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
JM: I’d like to cook for Ferdinand Point and Chef Paul Prudhomme, two of the world’s best, that ate too heavy, too often. I’d show some modern techniques and introduce some ideas and ingredients that could make them look at food in a different light. I would probably do a nice ceviche to start, a healthy salad with a savory sorbet, and something hearty – maybe a local fish with bulgur or lentils – any ingredients that these gentlemen didn’t use too often. It would be nice to pick Augustus Escoffier’s brain to determine what drove him to succeed. But later this month I’ve got a reservation at The French Laundry, so Corey Lee and Thomas will do just fine for now.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JM: We sponsor culinary fundraising events for The March of Dimes, Children’s Homes Society, and Taste of the Nation. We also support FIU, a local university, every year at the Grand Tasting, which is part of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JM: Fishing, surfing, and driving a boat.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JM: To me success is measured in happiness – so I’d say I’m a very successful person already. However, I would like to keep pushing to make a name for myself. I’d eventually like to open my own restaurant with the help from those who know the business and what it takes to be “successful.”
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