Sunday, February 6, 2011
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.
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