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by jon warech | January 31, 2014 | Food & Drink
Myles Chefetz outside his top-grossing restaurant Prime 112.
Myles Chefetz, the man known for shaking hands and back slapping with celebs on a nightly basis at his world-renowned Prime 112 (112 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, 305-532-8112), just wanted to live the good life.
Burnt out on the Manhattan scene, the real estate attorney-turned-supper club connoisseur came to Miami in the mid-’90s with dreams of the year-round vacation. “I thought that I had created a resort lifestyle for myself, to be here in the winter and spending summers in the Hamptons,” says Chefetz, 55, who opened the South of Fifth modern American restaurant Nemo in 1995. “When we were doing 400 covers on a Saturday night in the summer, that’s when I decided to sell everything I had in New York. [But] my resort lifestyle went down the tubes, and moving to Miami Beach [to just chill] out ended.”
Built on a mere $300,000 (“Today a liquor license costs $200,000”), Nemo broke the South Beach mold from day one. “I noticed that the restaurants down here were geared more toward one-night wonders,” Chefetz says. “They were all promoter driven. I didn’t see any real good, solid food-based restaurants that could drive a crowd seven days a week. If people have to ask you what’s a good night to go to your restaurant, then you’re in trouble.”
Despite the fact that it was located in what was then a fairly barren neighborhood, people had no trouble finding Nemo on a nightly basis. With its eclectic menu packed with both Asian and Indian influences, and hip décor, Nemo shifted the balance of power away from the promoter.
Chefetz stayed on the block and opened retro diner Big Pink (157 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-532-4700) in December of ’96 and sushi spot Shoji Sushi in March 2001, dominating the neighborhood. But by 2004, he was again looking for a way out. He wanted to enjoy the tropical weather and sandy beaches that had lured him to Miami in the first place, so he shifted his entrepreneurial mind to real estate and struck a deal at 112 Ocean Drive to roll the dice on a modern steakhouse concept in exchange for ownership in the historic building.
“Believe it or not, it was more of a real estate play for me,” he says.
A perfect blend of timing, location, and ambience, paired with Cheftez’s reputation and a steakhouse concept that no one had seen before—chef driven, with menu items like truffle mac and cheese and draws like applewood-smoked bacon at the bar—turned Prime 112 into an instant success.
“Within a year, the restaurant was probably worth six times what the real estate was worth,” says Chefetz. “That never happens.”
His day job of running Myles Restaurant Group—number crunching, overseeing staff, haggling over the cost of product—keeps him at his office above Big Pink. But it’s just an appetizer to the evening gig, which finds Chefetz micro-managing his multimillion-dollar baby until the early morning hours. If he sees a hand, he shakes it. If he sees a light bulb dimming, he changes it.
He could have expanded and opened in New York and Las Vegas and built a billion-dollar empire.
“My entrepreneurial side is the voice in my ear that says, ‘You could do this so easily in New York and Las Vegas and be a huge success,’” he says. “But then in my other ear is the voice that says, ‘You know what, Magic Johnson is coming to Prime 112 tonight and he wants to see you….’ I start thinking about how perception equals reality, and someone’s perception may be that if Myles isn’t there, then maybe it’s not as good as it used to be.”
For that same reason Chefetz rarely takes vacations. He was in Aspen once when he received the call that Bill Clinton and Tom Brady were both dining in the restaurant. “I’m literally having heart palpitations that I’m not going to be there to orchestrate the evening,” he recalls. “I was actually able to get Tom Brady to go meet President Clinton, but I did it through a manager.”
So instead of expanding outward, Chefetz manifested his destiny on one corner of South Beach, building Prime Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel, and Prime Italian (101 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, 305-695-8484), a restaurant that adds items like a one-pound Kobe meatball to the popular Prime menu. Both are within steps of Prime 112 and Big Pink, allowing Chefetz to be everywhere at once.
His concepts have gone global, with his versions of mac and cheese, creamed spinach, tuna tartare, and other menu items popping up in steakhouses worldwide.
You’d think that now would be the time for Chefetz to finally enjoy that rest and relaxation he so desperately desired 20 years ago. After all, he has a perennially top-10-earning restaurant in the country (“We do north of $23 million a year”) and an almost four-year-old daughter running around the house keeping him busy during every last free second on his schedule. But instead he’s added to the empire with Prime Fish in the old Nemo location.
At Prime Fish (100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach), Chefetz is bringing back some old Nemo favorites like the wok-charred wild king salmon and fun dishes from his youth—“I loved the fried clams at Howard Johnson’s as a kid,” he says—but the main Prime Fish hook is the à la carte fish sautéed, blackened, grilled, or steamed to the customer’s preference.
“I’m looking at more of a healthier component,” says Chefetz. It also means more tasting, because while Chefetz is not a chef, his refined palate (developed as a teen from his mother’s cooking) helps to make sure the food is consistently perfect. “The food has got to be a slam-dunk, home-run winner every night,” he says. “You can have a hundred Ferraris lined up out front, but if your food is off, you’re done.”
So that month-long trip to Italy or summer in Napa that he fantasizes about will have to wait. “I don’t know what the end of the story is for Prime 112. I believe you’re really only as good as your last meal. So, am I going to be with a walker walking around that place 20 or 30 years from now? I don’t know. I wish my daughter were old enough; she’d be working in there right now, probably begrudgingly. She’s only three and a half, so maybe two more years.”
photography by gary james