Chef Michael Schwartz

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