San Diego import Julie Frans has a passion for cooking food with integrity. She’s a pioneer in ingredient sourcing, carefully crafting each dish with über-sustainable produce and meats hailing from local and environmentally conscious purveyors. In the kitchen at Essensia at The Palms Hotel & Spa—where she holds the title of “signature chef”—Frans fuses her west coast roots with Miami’s tropical inspiration to create truly original flavors.
What culinary trends are you seeing in Miami right now?
JULIE FRANS: I think that the farm-to-table trend is really gaining momentum in Florida. Local, seasonal sourcing really makes so much sense on so many levels. As customers are becoming more knowledgeable about ingredients, chefs will have to focus on their sourcing and seasonality more than ever.
Coming from California, where farm-to-table was born, how does Miami stack up in terms of access to high quality ingredients?
JF: In San Diego I was spoiled. There are so many farms, and attaining farm-grown food is so easily accessible. I had no idea how hard it would be to source local food and organize product deliveries. I am always surprised that more farms don't deliver to the beach regularly, but I suppose they have never had enough demand. The difference in seasonality is always a learning process as well. It’s still hard for me to get used to the void of local farm products during the summer.
What do you miss most about cooking in San Diego?
SF: Something that I miss about the San Diego food scene is the camaraderie between chefs. I feel like the chefs collaborated on projects a lot more than they do here, but then again I am still pretty new to the area.
Which chefs do you see leading the farm-to-table trend in Miami?
JF: There are the more known names like Michelle Bernstein, Michael Schwartz, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten that are making a big impact. But there are a lot of passionate chefs making a difference in their restaurants just by bringing focus to where their food comes from. I am more likely to frequent a restaurant where the chef sources locally and provides that info in their menu. It makes me confident that the food is high quality.
The farm-to-table movement is rife with buzzwords: sustainable, local, organic, ethically sourced, free range, the list goes on. How do you distill it all down?
SF: I try to avoid making too many generalizations about my food. I never claim that we are ‘all organic’ or ‘all local.’ That would be unrealistic and also limit us from some really incredible products. My overall basis of selecting products is quality. It is more important to me that something is grown with care and integrity, and is good for my guest and on the global scale, than it is to have an organic stamp on it. We source some seafood locally, but support distant farms that are making a positive global impact. I use some products from Europe that are just really high quality and need to be shared. The ingredients are the focus first and foremost at Essensia; quality and integrity is what I am after.
What are your three favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
JF: Chili peppers, especially Serrano chilies. They add a nice heat and can round out a sweet flavor to make it work as a savory food. Fennel adds a complexity to food and can create more levels to flavor. Coconut milk can be sweet or savory, depending how it's seasoned. I love combining it with miso, saffron, curry, and ginger-lemongrass.
What is the one kitchen tool you can’t live without?
JF: Vitamix blender. It’s so versatile. I use it to make creamy soups and puréed sauces, breadcrumbs, pestos, dressings, and vinaigrettes.
For your “last meal,” what would be on the table?
JF: Thai food for sure. Something super spicy like green papaya salad, Penang curry, and drunken noodles, especially if they could make it with delicious local organic ingredients and serve it with red rice or quinoa. For dessert, sweet sticky rice and local mango.
Essensia, The Palms Hotel & Spa, 3025 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305-908-5458