Area 31’s Executive Chef E. Michael Reidt, Eater Miami's recently crowned Chef of the Year, and one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs (2001), took a little respite from Miami, where he served as EC of Wish. First, he moved to California where he opened Sevilla, a Latin fusion spot and one of Esquire Magazine's Best New Restaurants of 2005, then he traveled through Asia and South America before landing the executive chef title at Baltimore's B&O American Brasserie. Now he's back and at the helm of one of downtown's--and the city's-- best eats. We asked Reidt to reflect on his first year back and here's what he had to say.
What were your initial thoughts on returning to Miami? How has the dining scene here changed since you were at Wish?
What I have returned to is a thriving business environment with incredible entrepreneurial opportunities in great neighborhoods with certainly much more potential than a decade ago. What I love is all the smaller places like Michy’s, Red Light, Timo, The River, Pubbelly. Places that help build community as well as putting out great food with integrity. I was so sick of the fly by night out of town rent a chefs. All the flash without any substance. You know, here 1 week a quarter, don’t contribute to the community and 6 months later they’re gone. At least now there are local Miami guys coming up through the ranks that will be opening their own places in the coming years. That’s really exciting and wonderful for the dining scene of Miami.
What made you return to Miami?
Man! So many different little things. I guess most importantly was who I was as a chef and as a person. Married with a clue is I guess what I would call it now. I remember seeing downtown on my initial visit and looking off the deck of Area 31 into this Manhattanesque scene thinking none of these buildings even existed when I was last here. I remember dining out at Gigi, Michael’s and Mandolin thinking how great is was that these passionate places were packed on a rainy Tuesday night. I remember thinking this is a city that is on the cusp of becoming something very special and I have the opportunity to be part of that while raising my family in a culture rich environment. Add in the agricultural aspect of South Florida products becoming more readily available to chefs and it was a win-win.
How was your first week at Area 31?
It was tough, I’ll be honest. It was Christmas week and I got my ass kicked. I had second thoughts for a little while, but as with most things, you look back and can’t imagine it being any different. I always joked it was Miami’s way of getting back at me for leaving in the first place.
Six months into your stint there, what, if anything, changed?
Wow! A lot changed. At 2-3 months we were still struggling with consistency with our product and with execution. I have to give a lot of credit to Megan (GM) and Geno (AGM) for sticking to the direction. They were tireless with their training and I am to this day amazed with their patience. They stuck to it and at 6 months things turned around. Business picked up in May, the staff bought into the vision and we rocked right through the summer.
What has been your biggest success this past year?
I can’t call it “MY” success because too many people made some very unselfish sacrifices, but I think the biggest success this year has been in building the culture that we have today in the restaurant. The energy is transformed. The pace of the kitchen has become one of composure and the food is executed with greater consistency, as no one allowed a point of struggle to linger. The staff jumps on issues before a guest would ever realize it was an issue. And I think our guests were the ones that benefit the most. We started what we called “field trips”. Whether it is a trip to Homestead and the Fruit and Spice Park, or to stop in to see Gabrielle at Paradise; to having a breakfast at Buena Vista Deli, before heading over to ABC to buy a new cryovac machine. It would be midnight on a Wednesday and I would ask the staff to meet me back at work at 9 a.m., and they would all be here at 8:45. Simple things we do together. Sounds silly, but that is how we built comraderie and I see that as the biggest success so far. We dug up a vacant lot on a hot Sunday morning to support Roots in the City. We do things together as a team, and no one asked why. I don’t think everyone realized what was happening, but it was incredibly gratifying for me to watch. In the end, I think that is what is now reflected in the food. A group of passionate people trying to produce great food with integrity and to make our guests happy. It’s contagious. It has followed through to the front of the house as well and I think the guests feel it.
Your biggest failure or disappointment?
Man! So many. I wanted a roof garden started at this point. I had wanted to be more involved with the kids in the community and making sure they are eating better. I wanted to get the red tape out of the Roots in the City program and let them help the community. I had wanted a cross training program with my buddies outside Miami to cross train our cooks. I had wanted to get more involved with the wine list????wow. That question is stressing me out!
What are your priorities at the restaurant right now?
Just keep pushing. The neighborhood is only growing in popularity. I need to focus on getting guests upstairs and making sure they are happy. I have a restaurant space in the back of a skyscraper on the 16th floor with no significant street signage, that can be a pain in the ass to get to and with a world class Gorilla doing business in the lobby. Yet, I still feel like the luckiest chef in town. I feel confident if I can get people up there and let my staff do their thing, they’re hooked.
Would you ever open another restaurant in Miami?
Maybe some day, who knows. I certainly wasn’t sitting in Santa Barbara 6 years ago thinking I would be back here. But I do think Miami is one of the hottest markets in the country with an ever changing landscape of opportunities, particularly with the possibilities of the Genting Project and other entities that are betting on Miami’s growth in the future. But my focus is on Area 31, I trust that the future will do the right thing as it brought me back to Miami and I never thought that would happen either.
Any predictions for the restaurant one year from now?
It’s a great time to be in Miami, and to be in downtown Miami. As far as a prediction? Not really good at that. It’s ironic to be back in Miami, and you never know where the road will take you.