By Lee Brian Schrager | January 30, 2018 | People
The term "foodie-in-chief" belongs to them: four icons who revolutionized the culinary scene in the 305 and transformed the city into an international dining destination. We gather at the Mondarin South Beach to chat about the past, the future and why iPhone don't belong at the dinner table.
From left: Shareef Malnik, Michael Schwartz, Lee Brian Schrager, Henry Delgado and Cindy Hutson at the Mondrian South Beach Hotel.
Without question, Miami’s dining scene is expanding at lightning speed and has transformed into a garden of culinary opportunities. But to truly appreciate the city’s rapid growth as a culinary destination, I rounded up a few of the original influencers of our beloved South Florida food culture for a special roundtable conversation—a walk down memory lane and look at just how far we’ve come in the past 25 years. Cindy Hutson represents the original Mango Gang, a group of chefs responsible for championing a dining revolution here in Miami in the 1980s, and Michael Schwartz is widely recognized for leading a culinary crusade in Miami’s Design District. Also joining us is longtime Smith & Wollensky’s general manager Henry Delgado, who just led the waterfront hot spot through its 40th-anniversary milestone and renovation, and Shareef Malnik, who grew up flipping hash browns in The Forge’s kitchen and eventually took over operations from his father in the 1990s.
What are your most vivid memories of your earliest days on the dining scene in Miami?
Henry Delgado: It was just the Clevelander in the early ’90s and the News Cafe. Then we came down for Smith & Wollensky’s, Nemo’s and Joe’s, of course, and that was it in my neck of the woods.
Shareef Malnik: There were these other great places on Ocean Drive, like Cafe Milano on Eighth, but my world revolved around The Forge. When I moved back in 1990, things were starting to percolate, and the city was becoming much more interesting. There were all these new people who had never even heard of The Forge, and I had to go out and get this new demographic.
Michael Schwartz: When I moved here, The Strand really illustrated to me that there was an opportunity to do something different, to build a more legitimate food scene.
Cindy Hutson: We opened Norma’s on the beach in November 1994. We took over a place called The Lazy Lizard, and we built it out ourselves. Every morning we had to wake up the homeless out of my doorway and spray the urine smell out from the front door.
What was your first favorite restaurant in Miami Beach?
CH: Amano—it was Norman’s (Van Aken) in the Betsy Ross Hotel. He was in the kitchen every night.
HD: Pacific Time.
MS: One early food memory for me was the tomatoes at News Cafe. It was always a thing. And I stole that from [restaurateur Mark Soyka]—now I have these big bowls of tomatoes everywhere.
SM: I lived around the corner from Nemo, and I used to go there for brunch every Sunday, often alone, and just sit there and have an amazing meal. But I have to tell you Cafe Milano was my night spot.
HD: Shareef, you had the absolute best Wednesday night at The Forge. It was the best place, the only place, to go on Wednesday night.
SM: That started in the early ’90s, when I was trying to put The Forge back on the map with this new demographic. I bumped into Mickey Rourke and said to come to dinner. And he said, ‘I’ll bring my mom on Mother’s Day.’ And I thought, Oh god, how am I going to get through this? So I said to myself, Why don’t I invite a lot of people on one night, and bring him that night, and he’ll think it’s like that every night? And everyone else will think it’s like that every night. I only intended to do it for a few weeks, but I ended up doing it for 16 years. I had the first infamous annual Ocean Drive party, and they did it on a Wednesday... and the cars were backed up from The Forge to the Julia Tuttle, and I said, ‘I think we have something here.’
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a chef/restaurateur here in Miami?
MS: Cannibalization of too many restaurants, keeping up with compliance and regulations, staffing and labor costs—there are many challenges. I think about how we used to just slap it together, write a menu and open. Knowing what I know now, I would never want to get into this business.
HD: For the newcomers, the costs. The rent. You’re almost set up to fail before you even get started.
CH: Staffing, for sure, is the biggest one. Like Michael said, I’ve always just thrown a restaurant together, and now all these people want marketing plans...
When you look at your career all these years later, what do you think has afforded you that staying power?
CH: My gift is getting to know the guests and putting out a consistent product. I can’t give it up, I’m there. And another thing I hear at Ortanique is that when guests come into town, they want the ‘Miami’ feel.
HD: We just celebrated 40 years at Smith & Wollensky’s. It’s about taking care of people, the quality of product, connecting with the guest. I think it’s about delivering on the promise.
SM: The Forge is sort of an interface between myself and my family and the community. I think about all the people that work for me, and all the people that have so many memories of The Forge—the quinces, and bar mitzvahs and weddings, first dates, blind dates, divorces, celebrating lawsuit wins and business closings. I am hell-bent on making sure that it survives and continues.
MS: Consistency for sure, but probably slow, calculated growth for me. There’s been a component of reinventing, but not at a pace that took the eye off of what made me successful from the beginning: offering an honest product and genuine hospitality.
Is there something you are doing today that you never thought you’d be doing 25 years ago?
CH: From day one, I never thought I’d be a chef. I’m still in the kitchen all the time—it doesn’t matter which restaurant I’m at, I’m still in the kitchen.
MS: Operating restaurants on cruise ships.
SM: The intimate relationship that I have with our guests; I didn’t think I would still be doing that 25 years later. I get a report every day about who is coming, and reach out to people and curate who comes.
How has social media changed the way you do business?
CH: You’d think with social media I’d start getting a younger crowd, a millennial crowd, but I don’t think millennials are going out and eating all that much at my kind of restaurant.
HD: These young kids, as soon as they sit at a table, if they love the meal, the world knows.
MS: We have people designated to do that, but I just don’t know that they’ve moved the needle in terms of the restaurant. It’s hard to quantify. I do think that it’s taken attention away from enjoying a meal.
Aside from pricing, how has your menu changed in 25 years?
CH: I’ve tried to take the classics off, but there were times I did that and people would be irate. But I do specials all the time. My menu has changed because in the beginning, it was all Caribbean, and then I started traveling a lot and reading about food culture, and now it’s very diverse.
HD: The traditional menu lasted probably about 10 years, and in 2007 we knew we couldn’t continue; we could see trends coming and changing. And we said we have to stay true to who we are, but we need to take things in and out. A couple of times a year, there’s a few items that we rotate around.
SM: There are certain things that customers are really upset when they come off the menu, and sometimes it’s kinda like—well, you’re one of five people that ate that dish. A lot of people like that continuity. When I took over The Forge in 1990, one of the things I wanted to do was focus on being a steakhouse.
MS: We made a conscious decision when we opened to change the menu every day, but some things just stuck. And what happened was the menu started getting bigger and bigger, and now the idea of the menu is the same—we try to source locally and buy abundance and change the menu, but now it changes less than it used to.
Was there a restaurant that you were surprised didn’t make it here?
HD: Van Dyke—that was a classic.
SM: China Grill and Pumperniks.
MS: Wolfie’s or Rascal House.
What is your local hidden gem?
SM: Alloy Bistro downtown. I just had my anniversary dinner there.
CH: NIU Kitchen. It’s delicious every time I’ve been.
HD: My Ceviche.
MS: I enjoy a nice Pita Hut experience. But you have to ask for the laffa, not the pita.
PHOTO BY GESI SCHILLING