Kris Wessel on his boat near the Casablanca Fish Market on Northwest North River Drive
Kris Wessel has a deep-rooted affinity for local fruit—his grandmother would prepare mango pies and drop them off at construction sites where his grandad and crew were building now-iconic structures such as the Delano and St. Patrick Church, or when the Wessel clan would go to the beach and bring a wooden, hand-cranked contraption to whip up mango ice cream right there on the sand.
It was also his grandmother who introduced him to a 1948 cookbook titled Florida Cookery, which featured colorful recipes that were reflective both of the American South and the multicultural influx of settlers from the Caribbean and South America—dishes such as Cuban vaca frita, fish Creole, Jamaican jerk chicken, and Puerto Rican pineapple rum cake. That’s what initially spurred Wessel’s inspiration for his new restaurant, also called Florida Cookery, at The James Royal Palm.
But this latest venture is the result of a much longer culinary journey. Wessel’s first big restaurant experience came in 1992, when he began working at North Miami’s hugely successful Mark’s Place, under Mark Militello, one of the original Mango Gang chefs—a group of local toques who earned the moniker because of their emphasis on regional items (i.e., tropical produce and Florida seafood). “Besides them, no major chefs were using mangos, jackfruit, or triggerfish back then,” Wessel says. “They pioneered this regional approach, and that also influenced me.”
Wessel would go on to forge a reputation as an expressive, ingredient-driven chef at Paninoteca and Liaison (which he also owned) on South Beach and at Elia at Bal Harbour Shops, but really made his mark as a refreshing maverick with Red Light, his unpretentious, off-the-beaten-path eatery on Miami’s Little River and Biscayne Boulevard. After clearing overgrown trees, warding off ladies of the evening, and renovating, Wessel had himself a postmodern diner (replete with manatees paddling by) where guests were treated to tasty oyster pies, plum-roasted quail, and sous-vide Florida spiny lobster. He eventually snagged a coveted rave review from former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni and a prestigious James Beard nomination for Best Chef: South. He even won an episode of Chopped, Food Network’s highly competitive contest show.
Last year, with the lease up and the rent spiking, Wessel shuttered Red Light and seized the opportunity to focus his regional culinary interests by launching Florida Cookery at the newly opened James Royal Palm. Here, the chef reaches for the bounty of product available throughout the state. He’ll pull in wild boar from north of Lake Okeechobee, frog legs from Fellsmere, and clams from Sebastian Inlet. And, of course, this self-sufficient spirit ultimately goes back to his autarkic bloodline. “I came from a working-class family that had to find food where it was available, whether it was directly from the sea or from a tree across the street,” he says. “We had mango pies every Friday in the summer because that’s when the mangos were on the trees. So you definitely won’t see mango pie at Florida Cookery until after Mother’s Day.”