Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jeff McInnis: I grew up on the panhandle of Florida, surfing, fishing and boating. At 14 I began cleaning fishing boats, baiting hooks, and working part time at a restaurant peeling shrimp and cutting fish – and I found myself falling in love with the fast pace of the kitchen and the outgoing lifestyles of the chefs. The chefs appeared almost pirate-like, with tattoos, baggy clothes, and sharp knives. [Soon after] I was cooking on the line…but it wasn’t until after I finished culinary school that I truly fell in love with food. Once I understood the power of food and how every culture in the world took pride in their cuisine, I began to really appreciate my profession.
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 with them.
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 of mine.
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.”