2016 South Florida Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2016 South Florida Rising Stars: Why They Shine

South Florida. It’s not just for tourists anymore. In Miami, Wynwood and the Biscayne corridor have supplanted South Beach as food destinations, and across the region, talented chefs are planting themselves in shopping centers and cooking with heart and finesse. It’s a sure sign that locals are driving restaurant business, and they’re making it possible for young chefs to build successful, community-oriented businesses. 

South Florida is having a moment: money is pouring in from South America, artisans are establishing a foothold, and the craft cocktail scene is making headway in the land of clubs. There’s still a Latin influence in the market, but the handcuffs are off in terms of creativity and cuisine type. Whether it’s traditional Vietnamese or high-end and conceptual, the best food in South Florida is personal. It’s not trendy or derivative—and it has attitude. 

Since last August, the StarChefs team met with more than 100 chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans in search of the industry leaders with the most compelling philosophies—and delicious food and drinks. Here are the professionals who are remaking South Florida in their own young, brilliant image. 

Chef: Alex Chang, Vagabond Restaurant & Bar

Alex Chang’s cuisine is what happens when a chef has clarity of vision, creative moxie, and the finesse to make them materialize ... flawlessly. At Vagabond, Chang explores flavor through dishes that reflect a Miami sensibility and his multicultural background. Half Mexican, half Chinese, and with a father based in Japan, Chang sees South Florida through his own kaleidoscopic lens. Vagabond is the only place in South Florida, or the country, that’s serving green mango umeboshi and deconstructed medianoche. Chang’s menu is personal, weaving a story only he can tell. And he’s driven by a hunger to turn his adopted city into a culinary destination. Chang’s succeeding, starting with Vagabond.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Sweet Bread Milanese, Country Ham Vinaigrette, Gruyère Foam, and Burnt Onion Mustard
  • Seared Beef Heart, Egg Yolk, and Shiitake Mushrooms
Chef: Jimmy Everett, Valentino Cucina Italiana

Jimmy Everett is a South Florida kid who grew up and got a New York City pedigree. Eleven Madison Park, wd~50, and Marea are all on his résumé. Now, he’s back and cooking at Fort Lauderdale’s Valentino Cuciana Italiana, where he’s making elegant, ambitious dishes and plating some of the most beautiful food in South Florida. A silken amuse-bouche of cauliflower panna cotta, caviar, and white chocolate convinces and thrills, bite after bite. A reverse-engineered clam chowder is a frothy seascape of ash, monkfish, clams, nasturtium, and espuma. Everett’s technical prowess and imagination are pushing boundaries in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a culinary homecoming with potential to transform dining for an entire city. 

Dishes that clinched it:  

  • Cauliflower Panna Cotta, Shaved White Chocolate, Paddlefish Caviar, and Micro Chives
  • Octopus Anticucho, Cranberry beans, Pinto Beans, Brined Fennel, Oven-dried Tomatoes, and Herb Emulsion
Chef: Brad Kilgore, Alter

Brad Kilgore sensed opportunity when he moved from the Midwest to Miami, and he has seized it at Alter—one of the most exciting, progressive restaurants in the country. Kilgore builds dishes conceptually with layer upon layer of flavor, weaving in a riot of South Florida influences that give the food a powerful sense of place. His plating is arresting. Crab shumai could be a Wynwood sculpture; a barbecue-inspired dish of carrots and smoked eggplant takes the form of stained glass. More than a chef, Kilgore is a young, blazing restaurant owner with plans to share his talent far beyond the exclusive 65 seats at Alter. Get ready.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Blue Crab Shumai: Thai Green Curry, Culantro Relish, Kumquat, and Rice Crisps
  • Heirloom Carrots, Smoked Eggplant Pastrami, Grapefruit, and Grilled Pistachio
Chef: Diego Oka, La Mar by Gaston Acurio

Unlike most U.S. cities, Miami knows its Peruvian food. Arguably, its citizens haven’t experienced the cuisine’s full, enthralling potential unless they’ve dined at La Mar in the hands of Chef Diego Oka. Oka cooks with the soul and joy of a grandma, all the while applying obsessive Japanese technique to the traditional foods of Peru. Rustic veal heart anticucho is at once addicting and comforting. He transforms humble causa into a work of visual art without forsaking low-brow huancaina. The Lima native has opened La Mar properties across the globe for celebrated Chef Gaston Acurio, but he wants to take his collective knowledge and skills and establish roots in Miami—and ultimately a name for himself as an American forerunner of Peruvian cuisine. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Beet-Potato Causa, King Crab, Huancaina, Salmon Roe, and Tobiko
  • Veal Heart Anticucho, Tacu Tacu Beans, Aji Amarillo, Red Onions, Garlic, Quail Egg, Aji Panca, Cumin, Garlic, and Oregano
Chef: Niven Patel, Ghee Indian Kitchen

On Niven Patel’s “day off”—when he’s not getting crushed by a 400-cover lunch on a random Monday at Michael’s Genuine—he’s most likely digging up 100 pounds of carrots from his yard in Homestead. Those carrots will be shaved into a fresh, simple salad laced with the subtle intrigue of house preserved lemons. The salad, and any host of stripped down dishes at Michael’s, represent a minimalistic ethos and style that stands out in Miami, a city in love with flash. Of any chef in South Florida, Patel arguably has the closest relationship with the products he’s serving. His cuisine has a refreshing ease to it, like a squeeze of lime on a pig ear. His dishes are intimate, personal, and honest, even more so when he slips in flavors from his Indian heritage.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Little Tunny Tartare, Curry Leaf Aïoli, Green Heirloom Tomatoes, and Fingerling Chips
  • Shaved Vegetable Salad: Watermelon Radish, Baby Carrots, Beets, Fennel, Broccoli, Torn Herbs, Quinoa, and Preserved Meyer Lemon-Tahini Dressing
Chef: Phuket Thongsodchareondee, Cake Thai Kitchen

Phuket “Cake” Thongsodchareondee is teaching Miami how to eat Thai food. And we’re not talking sticky sweet pad Thai. At his current hole-in-wall, Cake Thai Kitchen, he’s serving fried rice with fermented salami, rustic red shoo shee curry, and funky, spicy duck salad with roasted rice powder. Thongsodchareondee pulls from a broad scope of experiences—cooking with his parents in Thailand, working with chef and mentor Makoto Okuwa in Miami. The result is rustic, bold, cravable Thai cuisine that has long drawn his culinary peers to CTK's counter, and now investors are taking note as well. Cake Thai Kitchen 2.0 is scheduled to open in Wynwood in late spring, giving Thongsodchareondee a bigger platform to share a singular vision of his native cuisine. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Whole Yellowtail,  Shoo Shee Curry, Lemongrass, Galangal, Peppercorns, and Fingerroot
  • Tom Zabb Nueh: Ribeye, Beef Broth, Lemongrass, Scallion, and Cilantro
Chef: Cesar Zapata, The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions

Cesar Zapata embodies the homegrown, chef-driven shift in the Miami restaurant landscape. He came to town to work in hotels, and instead of going the corporate route, he and his wife, Aniece Meinhold, took a risky leap and self-funded their own restaurant. It has paid off. At The Federal, Zapata serves imaginative American comfort food that takes a few risks of its own. There are collards and smoked grapes nestled up to pork shank, and a pineapple “steak” that comes with lardons, black mole, and jalapeño jam. Now, with the imminent opening of Vietnamese Phuc Yea!, Zapata and Meinhold are doubling down on the Biscayne corridor. Zapata’s community investment, cuisine, and passion serve as a model for chefs who want to make a lasting impact on Miami.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Pineapple Steak: Bacon Lardon, Black Mole, Jalapeño Jam, Garden Basil, and Cilantro 
  • Bánh Canh: Rice Noodles, Shrimp, Chives, Ground Pork, Dried Shrimp, Chinese Sausage, Bean Sprouts, Thai Chiles, and Nuoc Mam
Community: William Crandall, Izzy's Fish & Oyster

For years, Miami was a city of culinary transplants, with chefs dropping into South Beach for a few wild years and then departing for a plum gig in another state. That’s changing now—due in no small part to chefs like William Crandall. Crandall’s day job is making fresh, New England-inspired cuisine at Izzy’s Fish and Oyster, as well as working with Chef Jamie DeRosa to expand the Izzy’s brand. But Crandall’s contributions to Miami go beyond his work on the line. He co-founded a club for Miami chefs so they could gather once a month and share a family meal, a simple concept that has deepened ties within the professional community. With Crandall’s talent and leadership, Miami is becoming a more sustainable, welcoming place for cooks to live, stay, and, grow. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Sugar Snap Pea Salad, Champagne Vinaigrette, Mint, Salted Almonds, Wisconsin Grana Padano, Pickled Shallots, and Pea Tendrils
  • Hot Lobster Roll with Lobster Butter Bernaise
Hotel Chef: Rick Mace, Cafe Boulud Palm Beach

Rick Mace is in firm command of his future, and whether he would admit it or not, the future of dining in Palm Beach. Mace has the Herculean task of leading a staff through a Palm Beach season and making food that is as precise and delicious as the Boulud brand demands. He’s in charge of all dining and catering at the historic Brazilian Court Hotel, and within the wealthy, old school bubble that is Palm Beach, he makes food that’s unexpected and exciting. Mace pairs luxurious stone crab with okra and tomatillo salsa. Lobes of sweetbreads come from the kitchen assertively pierced by licorice roots. Through these twists and turns and unimpeachable technique, Mace is pushing diners and teaching the next generation of chefs what is means to be exceptional and original.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Charcuterie: Fromage de Tête, Pâté de Forestiere, Coppa, Lomo, Chicken Liver Mousse, Bresaola, Saussion Sec, Sopressata, and House Pickles
  • Venison Tartare, Fermented Ramps, Walnuts, and Cured Egg Yolk 
Pastry Chef: Sylvain Bortolini, Faena

Sylvain Bortolini explores simple, familiar flavors through texture and rigorous technique. If that doesn’t sound romantic or profound to you, just take one bite of his Key lime crisp, built with hazelnut praline, crispy crêpes, Key lime curd and sorbet, meringue, and citrus. It may be heresy, but it’s the best Key lime pie in South Florida. Bortolini is an outlier in the anything-goes world of American pastry. He’s a French purist with M.O.F. ambitions. Chocolate courses through his veins. At Faena, on the sands of Miami Beach, Bortolini serves the truest version of sablé you may ever eat. His polish is unparalleled in Miami, and his perspective is a refreshing and powerful statement about the relevance (dare we say preeminence) of French pastry. Miami, you have a master in your midst.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Chambord-soaked Almond Jocund, Raspberry Mousse, Raspberries, and Sablé
  • Key Lime Crisp: Hazelnut Praline, Crispy Crêpes, Key Lime Curd, Key Lime Sorbet, Meringue, and Citrus
Pastry Chef: Megan Pidgeon, Glazed Donuts

Megan Pidgeon fills her doughnuts with ingenuity. When she moved to the Florida Keys to work as a pastry chef, Pidgeon realized there were no doughnut shops. Enter Glazed Donuts, the chef-driven doughnut shop she opened with her husband, Jonathan. Glazed features a minimum of 12 doughnut styles, made from at least four doughs types. Keeping her customers on their toes, Pidgeon adds to and updates the shapes, colors, and flavors every day. Her approach is classically grounded, and although she prepares a stellar glazed doughnut, her heart is in the laminated dough doughnut, gingerbread snowflake, and tangerine cream. In a place known for good living, Pidgeon serves an accessible piece of pastry paradise—one Key lime pie doughnut at a time.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Key Lime Pie Donut: Key Lime Custard, Toasted Meringue, and Graham Cracker Streusel
  • Gingerbread Snowflake: Gingerbread Dough, Gingerbread Glaze, and Sprinkles
Artisan: Rauf Khoffner, Khoffner Brewery USA

Rauf Khoffner has a lot to teach us about beer. He’s a third-generation German brewer who left Turkey amid political turmoil. Lucky for the United States and South Florida, he chose Fort Lauderdale as the new home for Khoffner Brewery. As exciting and progressive as the American brewing movement has become, it’s a revelation to drink an unapologetic Old World lager—or pilsner or Russian Imperial stout for that matter—that’s been made with the highest quality equipment, a precise water composition, and a recipe formulated on tradition rather than blind experimentation. With the South Florida brewing scene still in its infancy, Khoffner will be an important part of its growth as he introduces Bud drinkers to cream ale and helles bock, and sets standards for balance, restraint, and excellence within the U.S. brewing community.

Beers that clinched it: 

  • Irish Blood Irish Red Lager
  • Cream Head American Cream Ale
Artisan: Steve Santana, Taquiza

Opportunities for the modern artisan are endless, and Steve Santana is proof. Improbably, this coder-turned-culinarian of Puerto Rican decent has opened a booming tortillaria in the bottom of a hostel in South Beach. Santana sources flavor-packed heirloom corn from Mexico, transforms it into masa through the traditional nixtamalization process, and makes heaps of tortillas each day to serve in his restaurant, Taquiza. He also sends his tortillas to the city’s best restaurants—a strategy that’s spreading the gospel of fresh masa and enabling Santana to expand his business through a soon-to-launch commissary (that’s not to mention a recently opened house-made hotdog joint). Santana is a leader in Miami’s fledgling artisan community, adding depth to the market and influencing tastes through time-honored techniques. 

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Totopos Estilo and Guacamole
  • Tacos: Al Pastor, Lengua, Rajas, and Huitlacoche
Artisan: Zak Stern, Zak the Baker

It’s 10am on Sunday, and there’s a 30-person line outside Zak the Baker. There are hipsters, families with strollers, well heeled Cubans, and Orthodox Jews—all waiting for bread and breakfast from Miami’s village baker, Zak Stern. From his humble farmers market beginnings, Stern based his business on integrity and trust, making only naturally leavened, hand-shaped loaves. For Stern, the purest bread is the simplest, and he extracts the maximum flavor from a minimal number of ingredients: salt, flour, water. Thanks to the seriousness with which he approaches his craft and the loyal community he’s built, his production is at capacity (800 to 1,200 loaves a day), there’s a wholesale waiting list, and his business is on the verge of expansion. As long as there are people to feed and a culture to build in Miami, and Stern will answer the calling.  

Breads that clinched it: 

  • Country Sourdough
  • Jewish Deli Rye 
Artisan: Brandon Wells, Wells Coffee Co.

There are special coffee beans coming from a six-pound roaster planted in a nondescript shopping center in Boca Raton. Manning that roaster, most days of the week, is Brandon Wells. Wells discovered his coffee calling late, well into his career as a musician, but his obsession and drive (and a push from an angel investor) helped launched Wells Coffee Co. Wells, the man, is curious and open, constantly tinkering to improve his third wave roasts. He believes that coffee—with its rituals and enjoyment—adds value to life, whether through a drip cup of his BB blend or a V60 of his Rwanda Misozi Kopakaki. Wells has big plans for his beans: coffee shops, regional distribution, competitions. You name it. He’ll need more than an SF-6 roaster to get there, but his talent is too big to be contained in Boca. 

Coffees that clinched it: 

  • Brazil Cerrado Mineiro
  • Colombian Cafe Granja La Esperanza Geisha
Sommelier: Jeremy Broto-mur, Cafe Boulud Palm Beach

South Florida, meet Jeremy Broto-mur. He’s the new somm in town, fresh from San Francisco and in charge of wine list at Cafe Boulud Palm Beach. Befitting his post, Broto-mur was trained in France and has an encyclopedic knowledge of his home country’s regions, varietals, and juices. But his work on the West Coast opened his mind and palate to another world of possibilities. Now, he’s just as excited to share a mineral-forward Rioja or Willamette Pinot Noir as he is a spicy Syrah blend from Languedoc. It’s a perspective that matches the style of Rick Mace’s French-rooted, globally influenced cuisine, with which Broto-mur pairs with aplomb. He’s adaptable, adventurous, and more than up to the challenge of running one of the region’s most serious wine programs.  

Pairings that clinched it: 

  • Pinot Noir, Montinore, Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2014 paired with Venison Tartare, Fermented Ramps, Walnuts, and Cured Egg Yolk 
  • Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine Roger Neveu, Sancerre, Loire Valley, France, 2014 paired with Stone Crab, Tomatillo Salsa, and Okra
Sommelier: Daniel Toral, 50 Eggs Inc.

A sip of Riesling changed his life. One step on the floor during service at Per Se and he never looked back. Daniel Toral lives and breathes wine and has worked his way from culinary school to food runner to beverage director of Miami-based restaurant group 50 Eggs. Toral builds complex and esoteric lists—unexpected, to say the least, for the company’s casual, fried chicken concepts. He trains his staff and battles Miami’s transient tourist New-World-Cabernet rut with passion, knowledge, and eagerness to sell fringe wines. With ambition and a spot-on palate, Toral’s excellence extends beyond his ability to pair: he is making an impact on a small wine community and bringing a whole new Old-World-inclusive wine list to South Florida.

Pairings that clinched it: 

  • Rosé Blend, Matthiasson, Napa, California, 2014 paired with Blistered Heirloom Tomatoes, Ricotta Cheese, Sea Salt, Mint, and Chile Oil
  • Cabernet, Dunn Vineyards, Howell Mountain, Napa, California, 2000 paired with Bone-in Short Rib, Charred Corn, Sweet Garlic Bordelaise, Green Beans, and Cauliflower Mash
Bartender: Christian Rolon, The Regent Cocktail Club

Christian Rolon has had a rather meteoric rise on the Miami bartending scene. After a short four years working on the craft side of cocktails, he is now head bartender at the classics-driven Regent Cocktail Club, where he’s pouring Seelbachs and Ramos Gin Fizzes for a city still enchanted by vodka sodas. The classics have seeped into Rolon’s bones, and the drinks he develops are elegant, structured, and impeccably balanced. They also have a story to tell, an immediate sense of history and place—as with his Il Viaggiatore that imagines a bartender stopping in different countries to pick up Fernet, Cognac, vermouth, curacao, and mole bitters to make the ideal drink. Rolon has style and substance, and his cocktails have the gravity to become modern classics in their own right. 

Drinks that clinched it: 

  • Il Viaggiatore: Fernet Branca, Rémy Martin VS Cognac, Carpano Antica, Dry Curaçao, Bittermen's Mole Bitters, and Orange Swath
  • Le Moulin: Martin VS Cognac, Grand Marnier, Passion Fruit, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Orange Blossom Water, Champagne, and Orange Swath
Bartender: Gui Jaroschy, The Broken Shaker

Gui Jaroschy’s drinks are meant to be sipped poolside, in warm weather in the glow of South Beach. Refreshment is his M.O. Fun is his flavor. But, at Broken Shaker, neither of those attributes precludes creativity or substance. Much of Jaroschy’s cocktail inspiration comes from the bar’s garden that yields, among other products, shishitos for vinegar, Mexican tarragon for syrups, and ginger leaves for aromatic garnishes. Aside from his gardening duties, Jaroschy has a serious job, overseeing Broken Shaker operations in Miami and Chicago, consulting on restaurant bar menus, and helping to launch Bar Lab’s newest project, The Anderson. But there’s a real sense of joy in his work, a healthy dose of play, and a profound proclivity toward hospitality. 

Drinks that clinched it: 

  • Thai Tea Sazerac: Thai Tea-infused Wild Turkey 101 Rye, and Peychaud's Bitters
  • Siete Leguas Silver Tequila, Pierde Almas Mezcal, Shishito Pepper Vinegar, Lime, Morita Chile Syrup, and Cucumber
Concept: Jeff Latulippe, DIRT

Healthy fast-casual restaurants are having a moment in South Florida and across the country as diners demand more than empty calories from their meals. Miami’s DIRT stands out for a few reasons. For one, it’s personal. Jeff Latulippe built a business around the kind of food that helped him transform his health. That food also happens to be delicious thanks to the inspired hiring of Chef Nicole Votano (who once ran Michelle Bernstein’s catering arm, as well as her own healthy meal delivery company). DIRT sources a growing number of products from Florida, divides its menus into of-the-moment diet categories, and believes that fat (in moderation, of course) makes for a much more pleasurable, nourishing dining experience. With new locations in the works, lots more South Floridians will be able to eat well and clean as DIRT.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Beet and Goat Cheese Toast: Swank Farms Beets, Whipped Vermont Creamery Goat Cheese, Olive Oil, Sea Salt, and Zak the Baker Bread
  • Nourish Salad: Sprouted Chickpeas and Lentils, Roasted Red Pepper, Caramelized Onions, Golden Raisins, Shaved Carrots, Mint, Curried Caulifloewr, Cucumber-Mint Yogurt, and Mole Vinaigrette
Restaurateurs: José Mendín, Andreas Schreiner and Sergio Navarro, Pubbelly

The Pubbelly Boys—José Mendín, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner—founded their restaurant group at a critical inflection point in the Miami restaurant scene. That was in 2010, and six years later, the Pubbelly brand has come to represent the most dynamic changes that the market has undergone. Pubbelly restaurants are chef-driven, personality-driven, and serve the kind of food you want to eat every day. It’s also responsible, self-funded, and debt-free—meaning that its owners, instead of investors, are in full control of the group’s future and growth. Mendín leads the culinary side; Schreiner tackles finance, marketing, and FOH; and Navarro helms pastry, design, and operations. It’s a killer combination that has lead to their rapid (but studied) expansion and made Pubbelly the city’s preeminent restaurant group.

Dishes that clinched it: 

  • Conchinillo: Suckling Pig, Fennel-Apple Salad, and Green Apple Purée
  • Japanese Amberjack, Lemongrass Romesco, Morrones, Hazelnuts, and Garlic Chips