Interview

Chef Michael Schwartz owns Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, a Miami Design District dining sensation that has been the subject of much local and national acclaim since opening in 2007. Among the recognition Schwartz has garnered, Michael’s Genuine was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country by The New York Times; was included in Food & Wine’s 2008 Go List; and named to Condé Nast’s 2008 Hot List. He plans to release his first cookbook in early 2011. Schwartz’s championing of local farmers and organic products, has placed him at the forefront of a grassroots movement that has helped focus attention on South Florida and its agricultural bounty nationwide.

On the heels of taking home the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2010, Schwartz recently opened his first outpost of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman. His first cookbook, Michael’s Genuine Food: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat (Clarkson Potter in 2011,) is now available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. For more information, visit http://www.michaelsgenuine.com, the restaurant’s blog at http://www.thegenuinekitchen.com, or follow the chef at http://twitter.com/chefmschwartz.

He spoke about his food preparation philosophies and working in a storm zone.

What is your general philosophy about food and food preparation?
It’s pretty obvious – it’s all about the food. We spend a tremendous amount of time researching local food, spending time with the people who grow and catch it. … Supporting them is our [main focus].

How is that affected or how is it different operating and opening restaurants in storm-affected areas in Florida and the Cayman Islands?
You have to go about business as usual. If you planned around every storm and around all the storm damage, you wouldn’t be doing very much. You have to have that in mind, keep in mind during storm season, ‘How would this affect us?’. You keep it under consideration, but it shouldn’t rule our lives.
[The Cayman Islands] are pretty prone to storms. But we haven’t opened yet, so it remains to be seen. It’s the same outlook. As you rebuild [from storms], buildings are built better, safer. … You’re learning from past experiences – but it’s susceptible to the same things as in South Florida.

Have you been personally affected by any storms in Florida or elsewhere? How does that affect your approach to your restaurants?
I’ve lived in south Florida for 16 years. I’ve been lucky; we’ve had some close storms, and some pretty hefty ones. I had a restaurant on South Beach, in an area where the power would go out with 15 mile-per-hour winds. But you make sure to store food.
I do remember the race to get open first; whoever opens first had the most business. You stay open as long as you can and re-open the first after [the storm]. People defy those things … we’d be there until we thought it wasn’t safe.
Certain seasons in the past have been more tiresome than others. Now with technology, they can track storms six, seven days out, and it plays head games with you. The news keeps people informed but there are also, I think, some scare tactics. … By November, you need a vacation from hurricane preparedness messages.

How do you think the local population’s approach toward cooking and food is affected by the probability of major storms?
It’s probably subliminal, that you’d want comfort food. I’m sure it influences people’s decisions about what they buy. But comfort food is heavier, and it’s 90 degrees outside.

Are there any special preparations that go into opening and operating restaurants in storm zones? Do you have to change your approach or philosophy during annual storm seasons?
During storm season, there’s a certain amount of hand-holding, mostly with staff, as a storm approaches. You have to be sensitive to people’s needs – if they need to go be with their family. We have to make sure if somebody comes to work, it’s comfortable and if they want to prepare with their family. You keep an open dialogue.

To go with our recipe suggestions, which include using items found at home for emergency situations, are there any suggestions you have for people to keep around? Are there items you make sure to have on hand at your businesses?
We have a generator, so people have the comfort that they need. We don’t really have [power outage] concerns. The restaurant is like a bunker – concrete building, all-impact glass. We’re three years old and haven’t used it as a storm shelter, but we could if we needed to.
As the season approaches, unless you live in a cave, at some point you’ll go buy canned food, batteries, first aid kits. My outlook has changed, because I have the restaurant – there will always be food.

What is your view of the programs at Wholesome Wave, which has a goal of nourishing neighborhoods by supporting increased production and access to healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food for the well-being of all? Why the focus on providing local, sustainable ingredients?
I met Michel [Nischan of Wholesome Wave] a year ago. He’s a chef, and we had a fun dinner [at the restaurant]. I learned about the Double Value Food Stamps program … and as we got to connect a little bit, we agreed it was needed here. I think it’s needed in most major cities.
We set up a market in Overtown, an under-served community. We worked with Roots in the City and the market supplies fresh foods. The market sells to everybody, but food stamps are worth double. …We love that program.
It’s hugely important to me – before this program, I was the guy trying to bridge the gap between growers and [sellers or consumers]. … This is just a way to bridge that gap. It should be affordable to everybody and accessible to everybody. … It keeps people in low-income communities from eating [junk]. You get more bang for your buck from processed foods and things like potato chips, but that’s not sustainable.

Fresh food without power

Mediterranean chicken pita sandwich with hummus and roasted bell peppers

Serves 4

1 can (1 cup) of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1/3 cup of tahini

Juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly-cracked pepper

4 frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts, defrosted

Kosher salt and freshly-cracked pepper (for seasoning the chicken)

4 frozen pita breads, defrosted

1 jar (1 cup) of roasted red peppers, liquid drained

1 can (1 cup) of marinated, baby artichokes, sliced in half length-wise

1/2 can (1/2 cup) of black olives, seeded and sliced lengthwise

Handful of torn herbs, such as parsley or basil

Extra virgin olive oil (for drizzling to finish)

In a medium bowl, smash the garbanzo beans with the back of a fork until a grainy paste forms

Add the tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil, beating with the fork until fully combined

The hummus won’t be completely smooth but will have some texture to it

Season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside

Place a large nonstick sauté pan over a butane burner on high heat

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper on both sides

When the pan begins to smoke, add each breast

Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the meat turns opaque half way up the side of each breast

Turn each breast over with tongs

The meat should be have a nice sear, and be brown and crisp on top

Cook the breasts for another 5 minutes, until firm but slightly resilient to the touch, or a thermometer inserted into the center reads 165 °F

Remove the chicken from the pan onto a plate to cool

Slice each breast into 1 inch strips.

Wipe the pan clean

Lower the heat to medium and the warm the pitas for 2 minutes on each side, until pliable

Remove the pitas from the pan and slice each in half

To serve, everyone gets two half pita pockets

Open each gently with tongs; spread with hummus and layer with equal portions of sliced chicken breast, roasted red peppers, baby artichokes, olives, and herbs

Drizzle the contents with extra virgin olive oil to finish

Interview

Michel Nischan, President/CEO of Wholesome Wave, is the son the son of displaced farmers and grew up with great appreciation for sustainable agriculture. He is the founder and owner of Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant in Westport, Conn.

He has won a 2008 James Beard Foundation award for Best TV Segments for his work on PBS’ “Victory Garden” and author of two best-selling cookbooks – 2004 James Beard Award-winning “Taste Pure and Simple” (Chronicle Books, 2003) and “Homegrown, Pure and Simple” (Chronicle Books, 2005). Nischan’s third cookbook – “Sustainably Delicious: Making the World a Better Place, One Recipe at a Time” – was released this spring.

He spoke about Wholesome Wave’s programs and how they work to bring fresh food resources to all communities.

What is your philosophy about food and food preparation? How might those who share that philosophy be affected by living in storm-affected areas like Florida?
I believe that when food – the growing, the preparing, the accessibility – can be kept as close to home as possible, it creates true food security, which comes when there’s commercial farms, there’s urban farms; there’s food nearby, close to the land. My belief is that when food comes from multiple sources, no matter what happens; if a system fails in one place, it will work in another.
I don’t really have a philosophy of food, but it should come from within 150 miles of where’s someone is, in-season. That way, you get the freshest food and keep dollars within the local community. It’s not in a distribution system taking 80 cents out of every dollar. Culturally speaking, when it happens closer to home, food is richer, fresher. It creates a kind of community that’s rare.
It’s not just because I’m a chef; I come from a farming background, and that’s how the communities were – they backed each other up. It was based around the food. … I believe food is an important part of vibrant neighborhoods and communities. Storms are so random. … One of the first things to happen is infrastructure can be so damaged, you can’t get trucks [with supplies] in fast enough. Florida is set up as an export agricultural state; we helped open the first local produce-only markets in Miami. Most produce leaves – if people are growing a greater percentage of locally-sold crops -when disaster strikes on that basis, you have food before it’s clear and trucks can come through.
I’m a huge proponent of box gardens, personal gardening. Someone’s food is going to survive. In hurricane regions, food production contingencies … are very important.

Can you tell me about bringing the Double Value Coupon Program to a Miami farmers’ market – what drew Wholesome Wave to partner with that community?
Michael [Schwartz] did, actually. We’re now this year in 18 states, with more than 60 organizations, operating at 150-175 farmers’ markets in a variety of communities. The local people are the reason we’ve been able to grow – if we were going into Miami our own to set something up, we don’t know what community’s in the most need.
Human Services Coalition has dealt with issues in this community. When Michael introduced me to the community, I started visiting. Jackie Sayet helped identify it because of Overtown’s community. They now have four urban garden plots – it’s like a little Garden of Eden in one of Miami’s most underserved communities.

Are there unique barriers for residents in economically poor communities that lie in storm zones?
Florida is unique – it’s the only state in the country that we’ve worked in where the majority of farmers’ markets are selling from for-profit organizations. They’re reselling imported produce, some from California or Mexico. They offer a wide variety of things, including the food, but very little of the fruits and vegetables are from Florida. Most Californians have agreements with locally-owned farms. That was a head-scratcher for us because California works intra-state as well. From my perspective – and it’s theoretic because I don’t pretend to know how the state is set up for emergencies – it’s been very different to do things. It seems like common sense that if there was more local food, even if four hurricanes struck, it wouldn’t wipe out all the agriculture.
When you look at the immediate need of food relief, what you want to do is make food more available to the local community. Outside of the cities, there’s a decent amount of land that could be planned to serve people in need. I’m not sure anyone in the area is looking at the need in that way.

How can people incorporate green ingredients in cooking during emergencies?
They should absolutely try to grow their own garden. Things grow really fast there, and a hurricane will absolutely destroy any planted land. In the outskirts, if they’ve lost power and lost water, trees are down – if they have a garden, they have food.
When you look at the price of organic fruit – in-season, it’s cheaper than buying non-organic out of season. So buy it in season – four or five flats – and freeze it. Strawberries can become jams. If the food is planted locally, you can absolutely subsist – radishes, lettuce, beans.

Can you share any personal experiences you’ve had with major storms? How has the aftermath of the storm affected your or others’ access to green foods?
I grew up in the Midwest, and my mom would always have these things ready. She was always over-prepared. We’re lucky we didn’t have to deal with [tornadoes and other storms], but if we did, I’m sure people would be coming from all over the neighborhood to our house. If you are generally freezing food and want to be able to cook it, you have to have those means.
My family we would have been really good for four days to a week.

Interview

Michelle Bernstein, a Miami native, owns several Florida restaurants – Michy’s and Sra. Martinez in Miami and Michelle Bernstein Restaurant and MB Terrace at The Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Springs. A 2007 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef South, Bernstein is the author of 2008′s “Cuisine a Latina.” Her restaurants have garnered praise from around the culinary community, with Best New Restaurant prizes going to Michy’s (2006) and Sra. Martinez (2009). Her establishments were featured on the 2008 Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure Go List. She was the co-host of Melting Pot on Food Network and a victorius competitor on the network’s Iron Chef program.

Bernstein is also involved in Common Threads, an organization dedicated to educating children about the iportance of nutrition and physical well-being, which helps them gain an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. She spoke about operating restaurants in storm zones and the considerations that must be made when disasters are a regular concern.

What is your general philosophy about food and food preparation?
I always try to start with a protein and produce, grown in south Florida. … I always participate and keep up with what is sustainable and what best practices. What is more green – whether it is grass-fed beef or something else. I try to always buy food that’s good for our future children as well. Using foods that are not over-fished, which is hard around here. Through efforts of lots of local chefs, we back up our farmers. Many can’t get their food from farm to restaurant … we’re trying to help them get it to us.

How is that affected or how is it different operating and opening restaurants in storm-affected areas in Florida?
If we can’t get [local food] here, we go close by to get it. If we can’t get it from Homestead, we go [near there]. Then we’d go to the Carolinas. If we all get hit, I’m afraid it’s a lot of dried pasta.

Are there any special preparations that go into opening and operating restaurants in storm zones? Do you have to change your approach or philosophy during annual storm seasons?
We try to talk about [storms] and keep people aware. Those of us from here try to remain optimistic; always be prepared. … I try to board up the windows as quickly as possible – [and think], do employees need to stay with us because their place isn’t as safe.
I don’t like to think about that too much, because if you worry about it I feel like it’s more likely to happen. … You can’t make yourself crazy because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.

How do you think the local population’s approach toward cooking and food is affected by the probability of major storms?
Florida residents – I think [their approach to food is affected by the weather]. ‘Locavore’ is a big word here in the last year. It’s a big chef initiative. Farmers’ markets are popping up within the last year, literally. The want and need for it – it had to happen. … Transplants, especially from California and elsewhere, they want it, they need it. Sometimes we’re slower here in Miami to embrace things. But if we do it slower, we hopefully do it better.

Have you been personally affected by any storms in Florida or elsewhere? How does that affect your approach to your restaurants?
When [Hurricane] Andrew hit, I was very young. My dad was sick and my mom was with him in the hospital, so it was just my sister and me at home; we had no power for, like, a month. We had gas burners, liquids and canned foods. … [Times like that], we eat more black beans than you can shake a stick at.
Things change a lot [during storms], especially when you’re desperate. You do what you’ve got to do – you get creative. It’s a more primitive way of thinking and cooking. … There was an event a few years for a big organization – the power went out, not because of storms but because a truck ran into a pole. We were cooking for families with children with disabilities. We just pulled out the trusty flashlights and candles … and cooked with gas and just went for it. … People remember not to freak out and do what they have to do – it keeps you sane.
I’ve [had to operate without power] four times at the restaurant. You have to have light – flashlights and candles. You go with your nose and mouth, trusting those senses. It’s not going to be the prettiest thing, but if it tastes good in your mouth, it feels good, then it’s fine.

For emergency situations, are there any suggestions you have for food for people to keep around? Are there items you make sure to have on hand at your businesses?
When it’s storm season, everybody thinks barbecue – things that can be done outdoors. … Lots of non-perishable foods. …Keep the bathtubs full of fresh, clean water – those are things a lot of people don’t think about. Also, mosquito repellent – that’s huge. Have lots of ice on hand; there’s no real way of washing things off. Use lots of [Wipees]. You have to keep things as clean as possible, as hygienic as possible for people.

Fresh food without power

Roast Chicken by the fire

This is one of my favorite things to do! I actually was raised in a house with a fireplace, so when hurricane Andrew hit, we had to get creative. Years later, in Provence, I learned the proper technique to this type of cooking and I truly believe it’s one of the most delicious ways to cook.

Roast Chicken by the fire:

1 (2-3 lb.) Free Range All Natural fed Chicken

Marinade:

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons extra virgin oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme

Sea Salt and Black Pepper

Place a long piece of Kitchen string in water.

Mix all ingredients for the Marinade. Coat the chicken in the marinade for about 2 hours. Reserve the marinade for later.

Start you fire in the fireplace, You need to allow the fire to burn until the embers are glowing; Keep adding fresh wood to the fire, as it really needs to burn hot!

Truss the chicken with the kitchen string, wrapping it a few times over, push the string through the bird so it comes out the bottom side, leaving at least 12 inches for it to hang off a hook or a screw in front of the fire. Hang the bird securing the string tightly on the hook or screw. Place an aluminum or metal pan under the chicken to catch the drippings.

As often as you can, spin the chicken so that it rotates around and gets heat on all sides. Meanwhile, baste the bird with leftover marinade. Cook the chicken for about 1 to 1.5 hours or until cooked. I love to make a vinaigrette using the drippings and serve the chicken with a salad tossed in the drippings or warm vegetables heated in the drippings.

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