2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Cesar Zapata of The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions

2016 South Florida Rising Star Chef Cesar Zapata of The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions
April 2016

Born in MedellĂ­n, Colombia, Cesar Zapata moved to New Jersey when he was 9. His parents both worked, so he often found himself home alone cooking traditional Colombian dishes and experimenting with the Italian-American influences that surrounded him. The family eventually moved to Texas, where Zapata graduated from the Art Institute of Houston and started cooking at Four Seasons. When the opportunity arose to be a part of the opening crew at Four Seasons Miami, Zapata seized it. After two years, Zapata joined Shaun Hergatt’s team at The Setai. Next, he worked with Alberto Cabrera at Karu. It was a life altering experience. 

The unending hours took their toll on Zapata. He felt unhealthy and lost his initial passion for cooking. He took six months off to travel, regroup, and regain his vitality. Zapata returned to Miami reinvigorated, but the national economy and local culinary scene weren’t as spirited. Not interested in working at one of the many booming steakhouses, Zapata and his wife, Aniece Meinhold, found a partner and opened a small wine bar, The Blue Piano. It’s kitchen was miniscule, which forced Zapata to do all the prep at home, but the venture was a success. Unfortunately the business partnership was not, and Zapata left to start a pop-up all his own called Phuc Yea!, an ode to Meinhold’s Vietnamese heritage. It was an instant hit and propelled the couple to the open of The Federal, showcasing Zapata’s brand of imaginative American comfort food and Meinhold’s beverage program. With the build-out nearly complete, Zapata will soon have a brick-and-mortar home for Phuc Yea! and the beginnings of a homegrown Miami restaurant empire. 

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Chef Cesar Zapata of The Federal

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
Cesar Zapata:
We’ve been open for about four years. I came to Miami in 2003—from the Four Seasons in Houston to the Four Seasons Miami and opened that property. After two years, I went to work with Shaun Hergatt and spent a year with him. Then, I went to work with Alberto Cabrera for almost three years, and burned out. It was too crazy. I got sick working all that time, all those hours. I lost the passion a little, and needed a break. I took six months to travel and find inspiration. When I moved back to Miami, and Ani and I started working at the Blue Piano. It was the first wine bar here. My kitchen was tiny, and all of the equipment was from Target. I did all of my prep at home, and we’d serve like 70 people. One day the partners got greedy and closed the door on us, and we lost like 20 grand. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to work for someone else. So Ani and I looked into doing a pop up in Miami, and five tries later, a little old lady let us rent a space and we opened our first Phuc Yea! pop-up. On the first day, around 8:30pm, we sold out. The same thing the second day, and every day for the next three months. Ani and I wanted to do an American tavern, something true to us, and there’s not a whole lot of American regional cuisine in Miami, so that’s how The Federal came about.

LE: Who’s your mentor?
Tim Keating at the Four Seasons Houston. I spent two and a half years with him. In my first six months with him, I think he hated me. I was really clumsy: breaking everything, burning stuff. He used to make me feel like this wasn’t for me, and, sometimes, I wanted to walk into the cooler and cry. I wanted to give up, but I had to show not only him—but myself—that I really wanted this. And after about six months, I just kept going, and he kept testing me. He was like, “I can’t believe you lasted so long!” After that, he took me under his wing and taught me everything. Every time there was a tasting menu, I was there. He taught me how to appreciate ingredients for what they are, to leave them simple. I appreciate that from him.

LE: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
I wanted to create that “chef community” culture. I love the big cities. They have these chef communities; they all hang out with each other, share recipes, support restaurants, and when we opened the Federal, that’s what we wanted to do. The restaurant creates something for the neighborhood but also for chefs. So they come and hang out, but they also come for the food. We also like to work with charities supporting Parkinson’s research and Feeding South Florida, which focuses on the homeless. This neighborhood is up and coming, so there are a lot of homeless people, and we feed them and give them food. We found one guy a home. We want to work closely to create a program where they can come here when we’re closed and we can feed them. They’re just people; they just need some love. They’re lonely, they may have issues, but mostly, they just need food and company.

LE: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
Opening Phuc Yea!. The challenge is, once you have two restaurants, just maintaining them, staying consistent, jumping back and forth. It’s tough. A lot of times when the boss isn’t here, everyone wants to just play around, so that’s been a challenge.

LE: What’s your five-year plan?
We’d like to open two more restaurants, two different concepts. We’re very well known for our biscuits, so we’re gonna start distributing the biscuits with Williams-Sonoma on their website. That’s the next venture. For the holidays, we did 1,500 to 2,000 biscuits. We didn’t know they would be so successful. This past summer, we were trying to raise money. We had to hire someone to do the shipping and are working with a co-packer. After speaking to them, they wanted to mechanize. They’re to the gram; it’s the technique. You need hands. It’s $4 a biscuit; they make a 70 percent profit margin. I want to focus on that business and then open a nice breakfast spot, like Egg Slut in LA.