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New Times Magazine interview with Miami Author Michael Bennett

First seen in New Times Broward palm Beach

Interview by:

Laine Doss


Chef Michael Bennett is a native Floridian and a passionate chef who truly believes in cooking creatively and making a meal memorable for his guests.
Chef Bennett loves his work, and it shows. Since 2008, he’s manned the helm of Bimini Boatyard, one of Fort Lauderdale’s most enduring and iconic restaurants. Bennett has brought the sheer joy of cooking to the restaurant’s menu. We spoke with Bennett about cooking and family.

Clean Plate Charlie: Fort Lauderdale, while having some very good restaurants, seems like a thousand miles away in attitude from Miami restaurants. Why do you think that is?

Chef Michael Bennett: It’s a business and a down-home attitude here in Fort Lauderdale. Here, it’s let’s do business and go home and have a family life. In Miami, it’s kind of like, “I need the P.R.; I need the publicity,” and I’ve never been that way.

Bimini Boatyard is a large restaurant. How many people can you seat?

We have like 460. We added another 80 to 100 seats on the small deck we built last year. You know, they renovated this entire place last year in like 24 hours. I went on vacation for a week, and when I came back, everything was brand new — the dining room, the bathrooms, everything. They worked nonstop.

What is the tourist-to-local ratio?

A lot, but at lunchtime, we get all locals. Everybody is slowing down after season; we’re getting crazed. We broke a record last year. I don’t know what everyone else is doing, but we’re doing very well. We’re doing phenomenal. Business is so busy, I need another kitchen. We’re getting ready to really bust it loose next year. We have the cruise ships and the conventions. The concierges from the hotels or the convention center will send us their big parties of 20-plus. You stay here until about 1:30 and I’ll swap you paychecks if I don’t get a party of at least 20 people here today. We may not have a private room for them, but we’ll accommodate them.

You worked at Solo on the Bay in Miami Beach — that must have been crazy.

I used to do the nightclub after the restaurant from midnight to 5 a.m. It was crazy. There were thousands of people there every weekend. You should have seen the sheer numbers of people we had. We packed them in. Memorial Day 2005, I had 2,500 people walk through that place in one night. That was the night Beyoncé walked in.

Lil Wayne was there one night, and there were 800 people waiting outside to get in.

Where are you from?

I was born at Broward General, and so was my oldest daughter. I was the first child born in Sunrise. My dad was in the marine business. My grandfather owned the marina next door to Bimini Boatyard. My father and uncle used to race boats by the old Marine stadium in Key Biscayne. My father owned a marina in Tampa, but I moved back to Fort Lauderdale because Tampa was too slow for me.

Before I moved back to Fort Lauderdale, I opened up a few restaurants and redid a Radisson in St. Petersburg, right next door to QVC. Susan Lucci and Lauren Hutton used to be my best customers. Lauren Hutton used to come in every day and ask why I can’t make anything healthier.

Jack LaLanne also used to come in all the time.

Please tell me he was a nice guy.

The guy was a pistol. It didn’t matter how old he was. His mind was as sharp as when he was doing acrobatics in Miami. He used to come in for only broccoli and egg whites every day. He did it the right way.

So do you eat healthy?

I’m a starch-aholic. Because I’m so busy, I only eat once a day, but starch gives me energy. I eat potatoes, pasta, and bread. I can’t live without it. I don’t eat meat that much because it isn’t important to me any more. Although I cheat. I eat a hamburger once a week. That’s my guilty pleasure. And it’s not because I’m getting old, although I am, but I’ve been getting heartburn all my life, and now because I don’t eat meat, I don’t.

What do you think about chefs who look down on vegetarians?

Why would they say that to a customer? We’re here to provide a service. If I don’t have it in the kitchen, I can’t give it to you, but if I have it — you got it. This business is hospitality. If you have a problem with that, you should be writing a cookbook or teaching a class. If you’re going to be a chef, you’ve got to be a host.

That’s why this place is so popular. Nobody cooks seafood at home. People rarely even cook. Including my daughters. They don’t cook, but they love to eat at my restaurant because nobody cooks what they like the way Dad does.

Did you cook for your daughters?

When they were young, I worked 70 to 80 hours a week. I wasn’t home a lot, but they called me up every night to bring something home for dinner. And it was never one dish; it was always something different for each girl. And now that they’re out of the house, it’s like, “What am I going to do? I hate everything because Dad’s not making it.”

I spoiled them so much with the food.

Are they in school?

One’s going to University of South Florida, and one’s going to Florida State. They’re great kids.

Do they want to go into the business?

I don’t think so. They’re too smart.
By Laine Doss, M

​Yesterday, we featured part 1 of our interview with Bimini Boatyard’s chef Michael Bennett. If you missed it, you can read it here. In part 2, chef Bennett talks about living in the Caribbean and what it’s like to serve a ton of seafood in one weekend.

Clean Plate Charlie: You’ve written two cookbooks. Have you ever taught cooking?

Chef Michael Bennett: Yeah, I’ve taught. I taught kids at my daughters’ school. It was a healthy-cooking class. I would show them that you can go to the store and buy a bag of chips that are healthy. We did healthy pastas. We did healthy techniques. This is before chefs were all over TV. But you could see that these kids really loved cooking. My class grew from 15 to 30 kids. Kids were sneaking into the class.

When was there a shift that made cooking cool?

I think it’s all Bravo Network’s fault. I hate Top Chef, but my wife loves it. That and that show where the guy yells a lot..

Hell’s Kitchen?

Yes. What an idiot. Nobody in this industry would treat their people that way. Nobody. But these shows did good things, because kids want to be in this industry now.

You lived in Tortola for a while. Tell us about it.

I’ll tell you why I dream about Tortola every night. (shows me a picture.) Look at the water. The water is crystal blue. I had to cross the channel to get to my restaurant every day. You could see sea turtles, whales, dolphins. The blue is an amazing blue.

What was everyday life like there?

It was the British Virgin Islands. I had a work permit, but my daughters had to go to school online through the Miami-Dade Public Schools system. It took three months to get electricity in my house. We take things for granted here — like groceries, internet service. It was eight months before we got telephone service. I had to take my daughters downtown every day to get internet service. It became a real hassle.

When you go to the Caribbean, there’s no Publix, no Kmart, no Burger King. It’s great for a week, but try to do it for a year. When I went to St. Thomas and ate a Big Mac, it was like heaven to me — because I couldn’t get one in Tortola. When you don’t have these little conveniences, you really miss it.

And my kids were so citified, the couldn’t stand it, because we lived next door to Aventura Mall before we moved, and suddenly there wasn’t a mall for hundreds of miles.

It must have been torture for two teenaged girls. Any good stories?

One time at my restaurant, we had a giant setup for the Super Bowl. We had 100 to 150 people at the bar. At 7:30, the game started [there’s an hour difference], and the entire island went black because everyone flipped on their TV at the same time. Luckily, someone had a laptop, and 150 people gathered around the laptop to watch the game.

So how did you get from Tortola to Bimini Boatyard?

My family and I decided to move back to Florida. I got back, I’m holed up in my hotel room waiting for my furniture to arrive. It takes about three weeks. I’m bored, so I walk into Bimini Boatyard. I figure Bimini Boatyard — Caribbean. Sounds good. I talk to the general manager, and I’m working there the next week. It was a natural fit.

I thought about doing dishes from the French Caribbean, the Spanish Caribbean. Like the Martinique grouper and the scallops.

You can’t get good scallops retail.

I know. I get them in specially. I have them specially dry-packed.

Bimini Boatyard is a big seafood house, obviously.

We do so much seafood. At the last Boat Show, we sold over a ton of seafood. We sold 2,600 pounds of seafood. Oysters, snapper, yellowtail, dolphin, lobster. I was buying and cooking five cases of Florida lobster tail a day. Over 100 pounds of dolphin a day. It was crazy. I didn’t cut less than 200 pounds of fish a day during that weekend.

What’s next for chef Michael Bennett?

I plan on writing more. I wrote my cookbooks on my deck in Tortola. It was a great experience. I’m also making cooking videos directly from the balcony of my home in Hollywood. It’s an amazing view. It’s a beautiful vista.

Recipe from chef Michael Bennett cookbook:

In the Land of Misfits, Pirates and Cooks.

Caribbean Kimchi:

A Recipe From Bimini Boatyard’s Chef Michael Bennett
By Laine Doss,

Chef Michael Bennett and wife serve up dishes at the Kampong in Coconut Grove
​Bimini Boatyard’s Chef Michael Bennett has a joy for both cooking and life.
In our recent interview with Chef Bennett, we learned about his passion for bringing the flavors of the Caribbean home to south Florida. If you missed the interview, you can read it here and here.
Clean Plate Charlie is happy to share Chef Michael’s Caribbean-inspired take on the classic Korean kimchi.

Caribbean Kimchi

Ingredients:

• 12 oz. Green mango

• 1 head napa cabbage, shredded

• 4 oz. Red onion, julienne

• 2 oz. Red bell pepper, julienne

• 1 oz. Garlic, sliced thinly

• 3 oz. Carrot, julienne

• 2 oz. Pineapple, julienne

• 3 tbs. Cilantro, chopped

• 1 oz. Sriracha sauce, or more if you like

• 1 oz. Sesame oil

• 2 oz. Salt

• 1 oz. Ginger, crushed finely

• 4 oz. Scallions, sliced thinly on a bias

Place all veggies in a large bowl and toss roughly.

Shake in the salt and drizzle with the sriracha sauce and oil.

Toss Roughly again.

Place in the refrigerator for three days, Tossing the ingredients once a day.

Remove the slaw/salad and drain well.

Use on plates as garnish or as a spicy Salad accompaniment.

Interview – Chef Michael Bennett

Interview with

Michael Bennett, Executive chef and author

What is your definition of creativity – what is it?

Taking the known and producing something totally different or umcommon. Being able to understand similar flavor profiles of different foods mix and match to create unusual or uncommon
new dishes.

But after 5000 years of cooking, it is going to be hard to do this compared to what the Chinese have done.

You need a base of culinary learning to formulate something new. You have to use what is known in techniques or ingredients and use this to go another step beyond the commonplace.

Using culinary ideals to formulate your creativity or style helps. Your ideals help you perform the next steps to innovation.

Is creativity the same as innovation?

Creative innovation is akin to being cutting edge.
Innovation is remolding or restructuring the plate or a recipe (the known) into a perceived (by the customer) better commodity. Creativity is a thought that can be perceived by the consumer or taught by enlightenment of the consumer…..by using a really good P. R. person!!!!!

Do you think it is something that people are born with (innate) or can it be learned?

Which creativity? Or talent of innovation?

Look at chef Chalie Trotter. He is perceived as a talent but if the people evaluating his food didn’t like his wild mushroom study because they don’t like mushrooms, doesn’t mean he isnt a talented cook. But the “study in mushrooms” was still innovative.

Chef Trotter was born this way. I believe creativity is something that you are born into, not with.

I think you can be taught creativity by mimicking. Other people will evaluate you from their own perspectives whether what you can create in food is creative.

Innovation comes from experimentation and having a good enough palate to judge if what you cook is good tasting. It will always be the combined that will judge you to be innovative by what is commonplace at the time.

Look at new world cuisine, circa 1992. Innovative because everyone said so. From reporters to consumers, it was judged to be an innovative. By using tropical fruits paired with common American foodstuffs.

The creativity of new world cuisine came about by finding how to pair the unknown with the known popular foods of the day. Then again if there weren’t so many Caribbean people in Miami, these chefs might not have discovered these foods to begin with. They were taught by the people who worked for them in the kitchen. So their ( perceived) creativity was taught them them by common peoples that knew how to use uncommon ( to American chefs) foods.

How important is creativity to you in your employees? How can they be creative – can you give me an example?

Very important to some of my people. The others just have to minick and produce what is needed for service that day.
My sous chef have to be able to create but they arent creative. Create for me is to do something with leftovers or extras not used from a party the day before or over purchasing.

In my previous position i had to three creativity chefs that knew how to get the most from the food available so you make better profits. Creating profits has been my requirements from my staffs
for the past decade of managing other chefs and f&b managers. Creativity in creating profits keeps all of us employed.

When you hire someone for a job, is creativity an important job requirement?

no
Creativity is honed by me. A new employee just has to have the skills to produce what I teach.

Later when they can prove their techniques – and the demand in creativity I’ll ask them for innovation.

Creativity in cooking meat dishes doesn’t work for me because we are a seafood- centric menu. So creative is cool, but great skills are more necessary.

What other things are important when you consider hiring someone (e.g., reliability, punctuality, teamwork, communication) ?

Yes, I am never late. Nor my staff. We are always under the gun so time is a commodity that can’t be wasted, so yes being on time is very important.

Skills – see above answers.

In your business, do employees work predominantly on their own, or do they work in teams?

On own after trained by co- workers. With a staff of over thrity, no one is trained by me except my second in charge.

After training we reevaluate to see if skills are proper and if any more are needed. They work together in the same areas but as individual fulfilling the needs required. Teamwork to produce plates on the line is necessary. Individual accomplishment and completion of assigned tasks is more individualistic in nature by the back of the house.

Have you ever had college students working for you? What was your experience?

yes.
One good, became my second. One not so good. Let him go because he didnt keep pace in skill development.

It is all up to the person that is hired. If they can keep up with what is demanded by me and improve to the next level they stay with me.

What do you consider important for the school to emphasize in students’ education in general (i.e., English, math, communication skills)?

for leaders very important.
For my hands on people not so much.

How important are your clients? Do they drive what you do creatively?

Of course, see my explaination about creativity and innovation above. If my menus weren’t perceieve as creative, they would not define me as a leader in South Florida cooking. I would be part of the crowd producing great food but never thought of as i creative person by most consumers.

Now if what i create is thought of as innovative then i will be set apart from the other chefs and held in high perceived esteem. So yes, my customers drive my innovation to be thought of as a creative.

How important are principles or process (skills/craft) in your profession – more important than creativity?

Principles are the culinary training or thoughts that puts us all in the same rankings as chefs. I choose to call them ideals. Skills, the amount of skills and how you can apply them to the cooking of food is what will define you as a chef and later separate you from others as those skills lead to innovation of new ideals and creative culinary works.

If you had a choice between hiring a super-talented prima donna, or a humble and reliable, but less creative, person, which one would you give preference to?

Depends on the position I hire for.

If I need an innovator, someone to bring the menu to the next level I’ll choose the primadona. His mindset will force himself to do more and better than everyone else in the kitchen. His need to succeed and be the best in the kitchen will drive him to do what I need from this position as a chef de cuisine or sous.

The lesser skilled dependable person fills almost all my other positions in the kitchen.

How can we specifically better prepare students for the work world, i.e., what would you emphasize for the employee of tomorrow to learn (math? English? Teamwork?)

Read my new book “Culture of Cuisine” (due out Summer 2011) and you will know exactly.

Ideals!