Tropical Subtropical Floribbean Cuisine examined

What the Mango Gang joined together no one can really rend asunder.
By: Jen Karetnick
Published date:
Apr. 4, 2014

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Puzzled? That’s not surprising. A hybrid of the words Florida and Caribbean, “Floribbean” denotes the blending of these regions’ tropical ingredients – an abundance of fresh tree fruit, ground roots and seafood – with warm-weather-friendly cooking techniques like marinating and grilling. It was, and still is, a term widely accepted by well-educated diners, by those who live here as well as by those who visit. “Floribbean” even appears as a valid category in online dining directories such as Frommer’s.

But while it makes perfect sense for prospective diners to pigeonhole places with a cutesy portmanteau, many of the South Florida chefs preparing this type of fusion reject it. They feel the moniker lacks dignity, and neglects other elements of the cuisine as a whole – namely, its Deep South, Asian and Mediterranean influences.

Today, the debate continues, with some Fort Lauderdale chefs calmly acknowledging that their contemporary “farm-to-table cuisine” has Floribbean roots, and others flatly denying that Floribbean by any other name smells just as enticing, even when the evidence is on the plates in front of them.

Floribbean – The History

At the time the name was coined, back in the late 1980s, South Florida chefs – mainly those in Miami who were conducting this epicurean renaissance – were actively trademarking Floribbean cuisine a number of other ways. Norman Van Aken, at a Mano, and Allen Susser, at Chef Allen’s, both called it New World Cuisine, publishing cookbooks on the subject. At Mark’s Place, Mark Militello, who combined the goods from artisans from all over the country with local product, preferred New American. Cuban counterpart Douglas Rodriguez, approaching the dishes from a Hispanic sensibility at YUCA in Coral Gables, termed it, logically, Nuevo Latino.

Together, these four pioneers were labeled the “Mango Gang” for their collective and oft-experimental use of tropical fruit, local flora and fauna and borrowed modus operandi. (Mango Gang is another name, it should be noted, that was also roundly loathed.) Other Miami chefs were quickly added to their circle: Johnny Vinczencz, gaining fame at Astor Place as the “Caribbean Cowboy;” Robbin Haas at the Colony Bistro; Tony Sindaco at Langosta Beach; Michael Schwartz at Nemo; Cindy Hutson and Delius Shirley at Ortanique on the Mile.

No matter what it was called, and which cultural arm it pulled on most, the cuisine was met by critics with a mixture of love and hate, admiration and envy, clarity and confusion. Dishes were a riot of influences with titles as long as those of Fall Out Boy songs, such as Van Aken’s “Snapper Escabeche Ensalada with Salsa Romesco, Arbequine Olives, Avocado, Oranges, and Ribbons of Greens.” One plate could have as many as five or six different components on it – a protein, a starch, a sauce, a salsa, a garnish – built on top of each other architecturally. Successful dishes were just that; failures were like pileups on I-95, with each element spun around in a different direction.

Along with varying appellations, regional chefs had fluctuating definitions for Floribbean fare. Dean James Max, who launched 3030 Ocean at the Harbor Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale (then assisted by Hell’s Kitchen runner-up Paula DaSilva, who is now executive chef there) says, “This wave of cooking started as the first wave of farm-to-table. The chefs heavily involved in this were simply showcasing the mangos, guava and other fruits and vegetables like yucca and plantains that were being grown in South Florida. What’s special about it was that it was the first sign of what farm-to-table and local was all about in the region.”

Although Max missed the first flush of Floribbean cuisine in Miami, he was at the forefront of it in Broward County when Mango Gang-era chefs like Johnny Vinczencz, chef-owner of Johnny V. on Las Olas Boulevard, and Tony Sindaco, chef-owner of SEA in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, migrated north. They joined chef Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek, co-owners of the 30-year-old Café Maxx in Pompano Beach, where Saucy had always followed a fresh-and-local credo set forth by his father, who taught him to cook long before he attended the Culinary Institute of America.

“This was the evolution where the chefs said, in essence: ‘Let’s make the cultural food of the Caribbean flavors [into] fine dining.’ And they did,” Max says. “Some still wanted to use ingredients like foie gras, but they paired it with mango and citrus. Some took lobster and paired it with vanilla and avocado. There also was a lot of flavor blending of different food styles from Puerto Rico to Cuba, to Jamaica and [elsewhere]. Lots of cool things were happening that made the press take a look.”
One of those very cool things was the treatment of Indo-Asian flavors. They came into the mix by virtue of African, Indian and Chinese immigration to the islands and then, by extension, South Florida. These stewed, curried and wok-fried rudiments are an integral part of Floribbean cuisine, one of the reasons why chefs objected to its non-inclusive name in the first place.
Climate, however, plays the main role in introducing those now-familiar fundamentals to the cuisine, argues chef and cookbook author Michael Bennett, who most recently held the helm at Bimini Boatyard Bar & Grill on SE 17th Street.

“The cookery that was born here in South Florida was shaped with incalculable Asian culinary principles. Not only did they help shape methodologies, they espoused the use of locally harvested Asian ingredients that can only be nurtured here in this part of the United States. Luckily for Floridians, seafood especially loves being paired on the plate with Asian ingredients like a variety of citrus, coconuts and lychees.”

AJ Yaari, owner of the recently debuted, ultra-contemporary Tsukuro, where small plates such as oxtail spring rolls blend the best of the region with Asian authenticity, acknowledges the ease with which Asian influences have slipped into Florida. “Because of our proximity to the sea and year-round growing seasons, Floridians are accustomed to fresh foods year-round. It is very similar to the Asian culinary and street-food culture where fresh ingredients are sourced and cooked.”

But he is quick to note that the Fort Lauderdale Beach-situated Tsukuro, which means “where the moon arrives over the water,” is more difficult to classify. “We do not fit in the mold of Floribbean just because we are in Florida or have citrus and mango in some of our dishes, nor are we Asian-Fusion, which marries various Asian cuisines. While ‘Florasian’ has a nice ring, we wouldn’t classify ourselves as that either. We consider our food ‘Asian-Inspired’ because we marry global and Asian cuisines to add depth and flavor; dishes are curiously familiar but surprisingly different. It’s a style we felt strongly would appeal to South Florida’s growing landscape of sophisticated, adventurous diners, as well as visitors who travel to our resort destination from around the world.”

Floribbean – The Present

Given the disagreement over the Floribbean name and definition, it should come as no great shock that many of today’s chefs either refuse to admit that their cuisine is Floribbean, or don’t even know what that means in the first place.

For example, the chef team from the Seminole Hard Rock complex displayed their goods at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. The presentations consisted of dishes such as chicharrón bites, mango chimichurri, queso blanco, pickled onion and roasted tomato salsa; an arepa slider (braised carne asada, fresh mozzarella, cilantro garlic aioli, avocado, crispy corn arepa); and chocolate hazelnut panna cotta (Nutella, coffee gelée, toasted banana cake, chocolate cookie crumbs). Even the cocktails, including a caipirinha made with Leblon cachaça, simple syrup, pineapple, mint and lime juice, seemed like a Floribbean given.

But an inquiry to feature the chefs and their fare brought the following answer from their press representative: “The team will be passing on this opportunity. [They] said they don’t have any Floribbean cuisine to offer up at this time.”

Most likely, the reluctance to identify with Floribbean sprouts from the very same kind of thing that gave birth to the label in the first place: a trend. As much as critics were quick to define culinary paradigms in the 1990s, and chefs were quick to align themselves with one, this decade sees the same professionals trying to resist classifying and being classified.

To that end, some see Floribbean cuisine as dead in the warm, tropical water. “It’s a thing of the past. The product is not being used the way it was with the Mango Gang,” Sindaco says. “It had its run, and that’s not such a bad thing.”

Bennett disagrees. He still sees Floribbean alive and well in several establishments, including his alma mater Bimini Boatyard – which he says offers “Caribb-ican cuisine,” a subjective interpretation of Floribbean that he created – and 15th Street Fisheries, which he notes is “currently flaunting a Latino-Floribbean cuisine.”

As far as flaunting goes, Johnny V. continues to be crowded, and not much menu evolution has gone on there. Down the street, the very on-trend YOLO, run by the former Himmarshee folks, delivers some Floribbean dishes, although it leans more Mediterranean overall. At 3030 Ocean, the always in-demand Paula DaSilva has picked up where Dean Max left off, with plenty of sophisticated, far-from-overwrought Floribbean fare. And the much-beloved Café Maxx, unlike southern counterparts Norman’s, Chef Allen’s and Mark’s Place, appears to be like bamboo in a hurricane: unbreakable.
In addition, long-running Eduardo de San Angel can be interpreted as Floribbean-Mexican; Blue Fire Grille in the Fort Lauderdale Marriott North has a Floribbean-Mediterranean vibe; Salt Life Food Shack in Coral Springs has a good number of items that qualify; and Sugar Reef Grill, on Hollywood Beach, has had a long run with items that include tropical fish stew in green curry sauce and Jamaican pork loin. Farther west, you can also find Floribbean dishes at the Banyan Restaurant and Bar Zen at the Bonaventure Resort & Spa.

Floribbean – The Future

Is farm-to-table the culmination of Floribbean fare? Has it evolved to the point of disappearance? Or has Floribbean cuisine turned into Asian fusion, served at swank beach establishments such as Tsukuro?

Perhaps we should define Floribbean, and search for it, based on what it isn’t, as Bennett suggests.

“What Floribbean is not is a cuisine that is solely based on the ideals of a singular chef as it was in 1995. Now Floribbean cuisine is more an ideal rather than an unusual ingredient vat,” he emphasizes. “In Broward, one must look at the dining public to foresee if the Floribbean cuisine we once knew will continue to flourish. Our dining clientele has so drastically changed in the last decade there cannot be a discussion about its future without evaluating the clientele of Fort Lauderdale. Since Fort Lauderdale is a family-centric metropolis, so will be restaurant menus. Restaurants need to serve family-friendly food, so Floribbean cuisine is not seen as regularly as it once was.”

Or maybe we should acknowledge that it has simply been absorbed into the current food culture. In a way, it seems that Floribbean has become an influence all of its own. And for those willing to do a little research, that’s acceptable. As Max, who has himself gone on to other climes with his DJM restaurants in the Midwest and West, notes: “I think if you looked at a lot of the local chefs’ menus you could pull off one or two things that would classify as Floribbean, but I don’t see that many going fully in that style. It’s almost become a part of the menus like Italian tomato [and mozzarella] salad or Caesar salad.”

But in another light, it looks like Floribbean cuisine has been assimilated – which means its destiny as a regional cuisine lies in the hands of a new generation of chefs, much like the ones who created it in the first place.
– See more at: http://flmag.com/features/tropical-subtropical#sthash.lgHIEsHC.dpuf¬

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