Beausoleil oyster with fresh wasabi, radish, Asian pear and hibiscus mignonette
Joel Huff has been a chef his entire adult life. Longer, really—he landed his first gig rolling sushi at age 15 in his native Santa Barbara. A global food education, including stints with heavy hitters in LA, Sydney, New York and San Francisco, has given him a rare breadth of culinary influences that he now brings to bear as the new chef de cuisine at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami. He’s filling large shoes: Previous chef Clay Conley now has his own Palm Beach restaurant, Buccan, and Michelle Bernstein—who first put Azul on the map—is now, well, Michelle Bernstein. But Huff’s ready to step up. “Azul should be like Disneyland for foodies,” he says of his vision. “That’s what I’m driving for. I want this to be the best restaurant in town.”
What can we expect from your menu at Azul? JOEL HUFF: I’m not going to put a radish on your plate with a little salt and olive oil and say, “Here’s your first course.” There are a lot of people doing that, and I have no problem with it—I do that at home—but Azul is a great restaurant in a great hotel, and when people come here, they should be wowed. Farm-to-table is really big right now, and while I wouldn’t consider myself a slow-food chef, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t be a farm-to-table restaurant. In just the short time I’ve been here, I’ve been making connections, finding the best local places for my vegetables and fish.
What do people need to try if they want to know your cooking?
My blini with caviar—very simple, very elegant. In the past, I’ve had a suckling pig dish that everybody seems to love—it will probably make the menu here. It’s cooked for 12 hours and served with a tempura duck egg, truffles, red wine jus and bread. It’s my take on breakfast. And who doesn’t love breakfast?
Who are some of the chefs who have inspired your style?
When I went to Australia, I worked with Tetsuya Wakuda, one of the premier French-Japanese fusion chefs in the world. And I worked with Nori Sugie; I followed him to the Mandarin Oriental in New York City, and he really showed me how to have my own style. Also José [Andrés] at The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills—not only is he a great chef, but he’s a face and personality. You have to be back in the kitchen, sweating, cooking and cursing, but you also have to be smart upfront, with menu design and preparation. After a while, I wanted my own kitchen again, so I went to the Four Seasons at Santa Barbara [in 2009], and then Mandarin Oriental called earlier this year and said they were looking for a chef in Miami.
Bayside dining at Azul
Silver & Gold Egg, made with Italian caviar, a 63-degree quail egg, caramelized onions and potato espuma
Has it always been your intention to travel a lot?
I’m a surfer, so I thought, How can I travel and surf and see the world? Nine times out of ten, I’m thinking about work or food. Surfing is my escape. I truly love being a chef, but I take it very seriously, so it helps to have something else in your life to provide that break.
How do your travels manifest at Azul?
The cuisine is modern American with European techniques and—this being the Mandarin Oriental—a few Asian influences. I was a sushi chef and worked with Japanese chefs for most of my career, so I’ve been influenced by that. I like the simplicity of Japanese food. But I don’t really have a lot of boundaries. If I want to put wasabi in a dish, I will, but I wouldn’t call this a Japanese restaurant.
Who is your competition in this town?
We have a lot of competition. I just spent the last two weeks eating at all these great restaurants, and I was totally wowed. Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink is unbelievable. I also went to DB Bistro Moderne and had a great time there. Michael Schwartz and Daniel Boulud are amazing chefs.