Chef Michael Bennett interviewed by Nations Restaurant Review magazine

Restaurant operators on the year ahead

January 13, 2011

Nation’s Restaurant News asked restaurant operators across the country to share expectations for their businesses in 2011. Most are optimistic that the new year will bring renewed consumer spending and opportunities for expansion. Still, a few remain cautious that the economic uncertainty of the past few years will continue into 2011.

Read what they had to say:

“We’re anticipating a slow start to the New Year, but by late fall I think we’ll see business picking up. I judge it by advance booking for our catering business, and we already are seeing more activity in the first quarter [of 2011]. I think people are still looking for price-value and comfort food — everything fresh from farm to table. I think that people who stick with good quality will survive.”

— Walter Staib, chef-proprietor of City Tavern in Philadelphia

“We have been up all throughout the recession. Even when it looked bad everywhere else around town, we were up. We kept prices low, our volume rose. Bar prices stayed low, happy hours filled two bars and overflowed into the third one outside. We improved the menus, eliminating all the stagnant items and only the best-selling ones stayed. We completely went to a seafood-based menu, left the prime rib, New York strip steaks, pork and chicken [off the menu]. Now we specialize in over 10 varieties of finfish, shellfish, lobster, etc. In 2009 we were up 40 percent over 2008. We were up another 30 percent in 2010, and in 2011 we are looking for no less than 30 percent.”

— Michael Bennett, chef of Bimini in Miami


Chef Michael Bennett, author of In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks
Chef Michael Bennett prepares Salmon fillet

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Best Chefs of South Florida

With South Beach’s annual 2011 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival starting up next week in Miami, South Florida is proving itself to be a global culinary destination. Distinctively, each of these chefs have been devoted Social Media Mavens.

First, Jeff McInnis hailing from Miami’s new Gigi in the retro-chic metro Miami mid-town location. McInnis a original Florida boy who was raised in a small town on Florida’s panhandle. He studied at Johnston and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina but has returned to Florida to claim his spot as one of Miami’s best chefs.

Before venturing back to Florida chef Mcinnis worked his way around the world including gigs in Charleston, in the Caribbean on St. Johns (the U.S. Virgin Island), San Francisco and in Virginia. Then getting his footing back into a Florida goove he became the chef de cuisine of South Beach’s DeLido Beach Club in the new Ritz Carlton-on South Beach. After spending countless hours stationed on the New American Riviera honing his craft he moved to his new post at Gigi. Gigi features a menu that “offers a cutting-edge, high-performance, communal comfort foods for the discerning South Floridian palate.”

The next South Florida chef on our list to watch out for is Miami’s Timon Balloo of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill,which is also located in Miami’s Mid-town. Balloo was born in New York and raised in the culinary diverse San Francisco. Timon’s heritage is Trinidadian and being a child raised with Chinese and East Idian parents has loaned him the cookery inheritance that is distinctively Caribbean. This exotic and unique upbringing is reflected in Balloo’s food–he is widely known for his ability to ”juxtapose unlikely ingredients in interesting ways.” Chef Balloo also attended Johnston & Wales and through their international program worked at the Hotel Metropole in Belgium under French Master Chef Dominic Michou.

Our next Miami culinary honoree is Marco Ferraro of Wish at the Tiffany hotel located in the Art Deco District of Miami Beach. Born in Calabria, Italy, Ferraro has been described as “a rising star whose unpretentious, Mediterranean-inspired cuisine perfectly blends comfort and a Miami sophistication.” Boasting an impressive resume that includes being a graduate of the famed French Culinary Institute and Italcook in France, mastering classic French cooking at Le Mantel in Cannes and Le Muscandin in Mougins before coming to the United States to train and work with culinary superstar Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean-Georges in New York City. He then helmed Jack’s La Jolla in California for several years as the chef de cuisine before accepting his current position at Wish.

Next chef to be included into this Florida mix is Michael Beloise of Miami’s newest Biscanye Corridor row of restaurants the Great American Noodle Bar. Michael another chef hailing from a small town on Florida’s west coast. With a distinctively worldly-wise culinary roots Michael was the previous chef at Wish in the Art Deco District on South Beach. Before opening his latest great culinary adventure in Miami’s northern metro corridor, he was a private estate chef in old monied city of Palm Beach. His new address is slightly removed from the mid-town hustle and yet its positioning is prized by local business. Close enough to the business center of midtown Miami but, distinctively placed in a location that screams “locals-only”.

Like many South Florida chefs, Michael’s cookery heritage is based upon a family pedigree. Born to a family of Asian and Italian parents, his cookery-style has been composed to mimic the best of both family traits. His Asian side brings out Michael’s creative use of exotic ingredients and culinary frugality. His Italian heritage brings to bare the use of freshly harvested ingredients served in a family style. Both pedigreed traditions are the origins and composition of this new eatery.

Further to the north in Fort Lauderdale, where Miami’s Biscayne Corridor turns into U.S. Highway 1 is another archetypal South Florida chef Michael Bennett. As the executive chef of Fort Lauderdale’s heralded – 26 year culinary landmark – the Left Bank restaurant, Michael built a “Zagat Survey” and “Michelin” rated reputation for creative seafood compositions. His current post as Executive chef at the Caribbean seafood grounded Bimini Boatyard, chef Michael has grown into a local Social Media culinary personality.

Born and raised just city blocks away from Bimini Boatyard, chef and author Michael Bennett is a winsome South Floridian. Chef Bennett’s latest Caribbean themed restaurant conception follows working for a protracted four year juncture in the Caribbean. He has composed two cookbooks stemming from and detailing these Caribbean and Miami culinary adventures; “In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks” (based on a “Caribb-ican” cookery style) and “Underneath a Cloudless Sky” (an exotic (Miami) tropical cookery manuscript).

South Florida’s bedroom community – Fort Lauderdale, has produced many fine eateries including; Chef Dean Maxx’s3030. 3030 is your classic chef-driven restaurant placed in a tourist destination hotel that now features locally grown foods as its eponym. Quite the work-a-holic, Chef Dean has another place that recently opened on the British Caribbean island of Grand Cayman. Locally sourced tropical provisions and seafood abound across his new menu. Chef Maxx takes great pride in advising all who follow him on the Social Media savanna about the fresh picked foods that come straight out of their own nearby gardens.

Chef Dean has brought fame to the restaurants in which he works with his endevors into the Social Media vessel. He too has two cookbooks that he has written about Florida’s unique cookery heritage. The First delves into “Life by the Sea” and the second continues on where the first one stopped. Both are based upon his one true love – Food and Cooking.

These two Fort Lauderdale chefs and distinctly known culinary names like; Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, Michelle Bernstein and new to the chef – author roster, Michael Schwartz have all found out how important being able to deploy information on various Social Media outlets like; Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and writing/producing their own cookbooks has been to boost their élan and craft. Most of these South Florida chefs have their books available at Amazon dot com.

Interview with Bimini Boatyard Chef Michael Bennett

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with

Chef Michael Bennett

This week’s Chef in the Spotlight is Michael Bennett, Executive Chef at Bimini Boatyard in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve known Michael for some time now; we traveled the food show circuit together for more years than I care to admit and I’ll tell you from day one I was drawn to him; his enthusiasm, his passion and his deep entrepreneurial drive is second to none. I have absolutely no idea where this man gets his tireless energy but he moves through his days effortlessly. As the Executive Chef at one of the busiest and long standing iconic waterfront restaurants in Fort Lauderdale Michael executes between 700-1000 meals daily and then goes home to pen more ideas and recipes for yet another cookbook (because as the author of two, it’s just not enough!) or is off to a culinary demonstration to inspire and teach others about his unique Caribb-ican way of cooking. You might be exhausted after reading this interview but the indefatigable Chef Bennett has already been at Bimini Boatyard since 6am preparing Sunday Brunch for close to 400 people today. Readers, I present Michael Bennett as this week’s Chef in the Spotlight.

Chef Michael Bennett

South Florida Food and Wine: Where do you get your culinary inspiration?
Michael Bennett: Life around me. Remembering the times when I was fortunate enough to live and work in the Caribbean. Always looking for some new twist on reliable favorites is my passion. Especially when we are talking about seafood, it is so clean tasting, healthy and everyone loves it cooked in a Caribb-ican way. Caribb-ican is developing a new twist on recipes that have a basis of ingredients that are common in the United States and I tweak it with that certain “tropically-inspired” taste to give the dish that Caribbean flair.

South Florida Food and Wine: When did you realize that cooking was your passion?
Michael Bennett: I was nine years old. I got my brothers together on a Sunday and decided to cook my parents a breakfast. Never picking up a pot or pan before in my life, I just decided it was time that my 5 and 7 year old brothers and I do something nice for our parents. It was like a little kitchen brigade. I had my 5 year old brother responsible for the toast and the seven year old brother responsible for the coffee. Of course I cooked the eggs. I learned an important thing about clarified butter over the next couple Sundays of breakfast making, always low heat! It wasn’t until later that the addiction of a kitchen lifestyle brought me to realize I could never be a 9 to 5’er and sit behind a desk or work in a office….BORING! I needed the rush of that crazy dinner hour pace in my life. I lived for and looked forward to the stress and the action on a fast paced line where we are doing 700-1000 meals a day. Call me crazy!

South Florida Food and Wine: What is your favorite item on your menu?
Michael Bennett: Dominican Grouper with my most versatile sauce – Mango “Coulis-grette”. This hearty grouper is shielded from the heat of the oven with the moisture of the mango sauce and then add the “crunch” of deep fried plantains and roasted almonds, a natural Caribbean combination; the kicker is that on top that I place lump blue crab. The entire presentation is set atop a Paella flavored saffron risotto and surrounded with a beurre blanc that is flavored with passionfruit and studded with Brie cheese. It is a taste like no other dish.

South Florida Food and Wine: You’ve published two cookbooks to date, where did your inspiration come from to write them.
Michael Bennett: My life in the Caribbean and as a chef in South Florida for two decades. I love my experiences of life – in both parts – of this sentence. One of almost glamour and fame inducing gratuitous posturing and the other of minimalistic exoticness – yet laid back simplicity. I think my time in the Caribbean rounded me as to what and why simplicity is so important in cuisine. It taught me that by nature foods should and do occur in the right portions to each other. Like Mangos. Mangos are meant to be sweet and sassy. They need to be paired with foods that are a little dull. They counter balance one another to build symmetric harmony. It is the Yin and Yang cooking effect that I try to teach all the people I work with. Simplicity doesn’t mean boring, it means balance to me. What would sweet and sometimes sassy flavor of ripe tomatoes be without the zip of garlic and the floral nature of basil?

South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your last day on earth, what would your final meal be?
Michael Bennett: Death by Chocolate! I learned early on, desserts are meant to be a little naughty. I make a Death by Chocolate cake that is covered in layers of bad-for-you stuff. It starts with butter, than heavy cream then five different liquors, then add condensed milk and a ton of French chocolate that is poured over the cake in three dense layers. Of course this is poured atop on a deeply satisfying chocolate cake that has been moisturized by more melted butter and the five liquors once again.

South Florida Food and Wine: Who is the one person you would love to cook with and why?
Michael Bennett: Julia Child. Respect! You truly have to respect the life she led and the amount of people she affected. When I was just five, my Mom and I would sit in front of the black and white TV and watch her show. Mom was a fan and so I became one as well. I had a chance to meet Julia at a celebration for her 80th birthday at Norman Van Aken’s restaurant. And I will tell you, I was not as nervous proposing to my wife as I was going to Julia’s table and getting a chance to talk to such a honorable legend. I met her husband outside, having a smoke which led into a long discussion about her recent travels as he told me all about her. I felt a little more at ease, but to this day I still think about how nervous I was.

South Florida Food and Wine: What is your one guilty pleasure food?
Michael Bennett: Hamburgers

South Florida Food and Wine: What was the last restaurant you ate at?
Michael Bennett: Well that’s funny. I usually don’t go out to eat anymore. When my kids were young and at home we went out three or four times a week. Now it is more satisfying having dinner at home prepared by my wife.

South Florida Food and Wine: Who would you most like to cook for? And why?
Michael Bennett: I love cooking for everyone. It is the feeling you get when someone tries your food, tastes the art that you have prepared and says that they enjoy it. That is why I do so many cooking demonstrations. I love to please people. It is really satisfying to me.

South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your day off, what do you do for fun?
Michael Bennett: I work on the computer, social networking or finishing my third book. I am addicted to the computer and the ease of gaining more knowledge about the world around me. I am an information junkie. I don’t think I could go more then three days without my laptop or iPhone. I had a problem last year where I had to return my computer to get another. I waited three days for the next to be shipped to me and I was in agony the whole time.

Click here to visit Chef Michael Bennett’s website
Click here for more information on Michael’s cookbooks

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