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Carla Pellegrino on Her New Restaurant, Touche

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Photo Credit: Silvia Ros

Vegas starlet Carla Pellegrino is hard at work on her newest restaurant, Touche Restaurant & Lounge. It's the very first time she's serving dinner past midnight, she has a teeny kitchen and staffing is proving difficult, but overall, the Top Chef alum seems wildly excited about everything that's coming together at Touche. We spoke to Pellegrino about food (spoiler: among the Italian, there will be sushi), opening a spot in Miami, offering food 24/7, challenges and the most exciting parts of it all.

What made you choose Miami for your next restaurant?
I didn't choose Miami, Miami chose me. Everybody used to ask me what made me choose Vegas, too. You can't really choose Vegas because it's by invitation only. You only can get to the strip if someone wants to open your restaurant. Here, I was lucky and that happened the same way. The E11EVEN team came to Las Vegas to talk to me and they made me the offer to come stop by here and see the place, see the project, take a look and I like what I saw and I decided to do it. It was a big decision because I had to move … by contract, I'm here for the whole year. Hopefully next year, I'll be able to share my time between here and Las Vegas. At some point, I will be going back and forth… two weeks there, two weeks here. They [E11even team] are the ones that actually chose me.

Tell me a little bit about the concept behind Touche and how it came to be.
The concept basically was in place because when I got here the only thing I had to do … they decided to do this club, they decided to do a second company because Touche is actually it's own animal… here in Miami, we have Juvia that's basically the same thing. So, they decided that they wanted to do something on the rooftop. We didn't have a name, we didn't have anything–we knew it would be a restaurant- the only thing that they had to decide whether the space for the kitchen. I got here early enough to design the kitchen, I helped the little bit with the dining room, with the main dining room because the lounge and everything else was kind of all ready. I liked what I saw, I had no problem.

The food… that's what I do, I do Italian. The fact that I'm in Miami–I'm going to keep it more Northern Italy, keep it lighter because the Italian that I used to do at Rao's, it's more on the heavy side, it's southern Italian, we use a lot of butter, marinara sauce, lots of meatballs… I will have some of those things featured for the owners request but we will keep it light. There'll be smaller portions, beautiful Northern Italian food–more vegetable risottos- we're going to just try to keep it lighter. And, the news is, we're doing a sushi bar. It's not really big, the sushi bar has one page of my menu where I'm going to have sushi, sashimi–this because it's on top of a club. This is more as a courtesy especially for the lounge because we're going to be closing the kitchen around 2 a.m. And I know people will still be out and dancing… I don't want to give an unlimited menu so we're just going to use the club menu, it's still full but it's smaller, it's lighter, people will be able to have sushi, sashimi and things like that if you have intentions to dance all night long- you might not want to sit down to have a four or five course meal. So we have to cater to the true side of our clientele. Some people want to go out, sit down and have a great dinner other people, you know, want to eat good food and stretch out the night and then dance. So I think that's the big news for me. I eat sushi–it's funny because in all of my interviews they say what's your favorite thing to eat and I always say Japanese because if I'm eating my own food I'm at a Japanese restaurant. I just got used to it, it's a light food, I like Japanese. I'm very happy to be able to bring into my work Japanese and sushi. It's not easy for me and I will need somebody to help me out. I want to make sure that we do it right even if it's going to be very limited. We're going to have a few things and we want to make sure they're right. I think it will be nice for the girls who want to keep the belly flat (laughs)… you don't want to have a big bowl of pasta and then go dance with your potbelly! This is a first time for me, I am known for being a traditionalist chef, I do traditional Italian. But I'm known for being a party girl, I'm always at the party afterwards, but I never really catered for the people that I partied with. It's weird, to me it's a new thing, a new track - to work in the environment that I am usually in after work. I think this is what the market is going toward, especially in South Beach, Miami, Downtown. It's a party town and I think if that's what the market requires, we need to go with it. You need to be a survivor… you give what your customers want. And that was the big deal for me to say yes because I had to think a little bit because it's totally different. All my places are open 5 to 10:30 p.m.… this is a nightclub, it's the first time I'm on top of a nightclub and I'm having a DJ spinning out there in my own lounge. It's going to be good. If I get bored in the kitchen, I can just go outside and dance a little bit and then come back (laughs). It's going to be fun.

Back to the sushi, are you bringing a sushi chef on board?
I want to bring some sushi kids. But what I really want is a sushi sous chef to help me out. Being a chef you can always make a roll, and I love that and I can do it, but I'm sure that there is a culture behind that and I respect very much the ethnicity of the food. I'm pretty sure the Japanese eat my roll, they will know that it wasn't an Asian person that did it. I want to keep it real to the taste, but at the same time I don't want anything fancy–I will try to keep it more modern but still classic rolls. I'm looking for a sushi chef that's going to be working under my supervision. We're going to do tastings and we'll figure out how we're going to do it. The kitchen is very limited, too, the space… I was able to design kitchen but I didn't get into the project early enough to be able to decide the size of the kitchen. And going through the permitting to get that kitchen bigger Will be a nightmare, so I need to jiggle a little bit with that. We need to do things that are right, but not too much because we have limited space. Just a one page sushi menu, we aren't a Japanese restaurant, I'm not trying to be competition in anyway– It is just a courtesy for the clubbers.

What are you most excited about at Touche?
I think everything is very exciting for me right now. Right now we've been doing such long hours that sometimes I'm not sure if I am tired or if I am sleeping or dreaming (laughs). But everything is very exciting. Right now, we're going to have this party to meet the media. And I'm very excited to meet the food media people in Miami because I don't know anybody. And I think right now, this party is my biggest excitement. I want to know people here, I like to be in Miami and I want to know what it's like… it's so Latin, It's so sexy… there is something in the air in Miami–it's so humid oh my god- there's just something about it that reminds me of home, That reminds me of Brazil. I didn't grow up there, but still somehow it makes me feel like a child again. Even the island time, the no sense of urgency, even that reminds me of home and I kind of like it. All of this creates a big excitement. And more than excitement, I'm curious to know how that's going to go because it's my first time doing dinner in the late hours. I've been trying to go to places late to know what kind of people I'm going to be catering to after 11 p.m. Because I'm not used to having a kitchen open at that time. And it's crazy in Miami how everybody goes to eat so late. So I guess it's a culture. I'm excited about everything, there is no one thing that makes me more excited.

What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
The kitchen is small, but I was very lucky, my chef de cuisine is a real Italian. He's from the same region that I am from, that I grew up in. So we recognize food in the same way. And that I am very lucky for. The kitchen being small and having this guy with me (Diego) is helping a lot. You find one good person or you bring that good person with you that can share your chores in the kitchen so you're not overwhelmed, and everything will be alright. Right now my biggest challenge in Miami is finding a staff. I still don't have my staff complete. It isn't easy to find a good staff. Hopefully we get there, we still have a few weeks, but I probably will open a little bit understaffed. I will keep building up as we go. Hopefully, after this media party people will come by themselves. Everything else is going how we planned - we have still two weeks of construction, so we're doing all the details and cosmetics right now and it should be okay. I think it will be fine.

What are a couple of the dishes you're most excited about?
It's like you are asking a mother, "who is your favorite child?" You can't do that to a mother. I love all my dishes the same. My excitement is to make sure that we execute each and every one of them perfectly. I want people to have the opportunity to try all of them, which is good because that's going to make me help every customer that crosses my door to come back at least another four times (laughs) to try the rest of the menu.

When should we expect Touche to be up and running?
We really haven't decided an opening date, but I know for a fact it's going to sometime during the first two weeks of March. We definitely want to be open for the Winter Music Festival. But again it depends on if we get the right amount of staff and getting E11EVEN to its goal, which is 24 hour food - for now we've been doing 17 hours because I wanted to watch and train everybody. I wanted to make sure that I train people for the 24 hour food before I get my attention to Touche. I want to have my full attention toward the place. Right now, we're getting the club food right. There's no way I can work 24 hours, so I need to shrink those hours, train everybody and start to move them to another chef, so that I can give the owners what they asked for. So, I'm trying to finish this and staffing for Touche. Hopefully, by the 26th we should have an opening date, but definitely shouldn't go past the second week of March. I always try to keep my word, so I think we should be okay. We want to have a date before we cater to the media.
· All Coverage of Carla Pellegrino [EMIA]
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Touche Restaurant & Lounge

29 N.E. 11th Street, Miami, Florida 33132