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Danny Serfer: Interview & Lunch

Oysters Bienville & Rockefeller @ Mignonette, photo by lee kleinOxtail-rock shrimp gumbo at Mignonette, photo by lee kleinConch po-boy at Mignonette, photo by lee kleinConch po boy closeup from Mignonette, photo by lee kleinMignonette oysters, photo by lee kleinMignonette lemon bar, photo by lee kleinChampagne aperitif at Mignonette, photo by lee klein

I am sitting on a stool at the oyster bar at Mignonette next to Danny Serfer, executive chef/partner of the place, peppering him with questions – many about the dishes being placed before me to sample, one course at a time.

Serfer is known for his terrific Blue Collar restaurant, a local favorite for American comfort food. And while he has a bachelor’s degree in political science and now operates two successful restaurants, the burly Miami native, in baseball cap and chef uniform, comes across as a very down-to-earth, um…blue collar guy. I can picture him pulling up a stool next to Norm at the old Cheers bar and fitting right in.

Chef Danny Serfer

His partner, local food blogger Ryan Roman (Miami Restaurant Power Rankings), isn’t in attendance; seems that he moonlights weekday afternoons as a lawyer.

I try a couple of raw oysters, a couple of baked oysters, gumbo, a conch po-boy, a lemon bar and an aperitif. This isn’t a review, but everything was right on point.

Oyster board at Mignonette, photo by lee klein

Have you always been into oysters?

I ate raw oysters here and there, but wasn’t serious about eating them until my friendship with Ryan developed. He and I would go out and pound oysters. At the time I was courting my wife too, so I would take her out and try to look like I knew what I was doing by ordering them. And you know, it was the aphrodisiac part I was banking on (laughs).

Well I guess it worked out.

Yeah, we were pregnant before the wedding, so it worked out real well.

Mignonette oysters, photo by lee klein

How did you come to do an oyster bar?

The conceit is really Ryan’s. He loves raw bars and wanted to do one. As we talked about it more and more I started liking it and agreeing more and more. He’s an attorney, so I hope these words don’t come back to bite me in the ass one day, but honestly, Mignonette is more his baby and Blue Collar is my baby.

What else does Ryan bring to the table?

Even though he never was in any official capacity at Blue Collar, he helped me develop some dishes. He doesn’t know how to cook, but he had ideas and I would execute them. He’s very honest, so if I do something that’s not very good he’ll let me know.  I have the mentality that I’ve owned a restaurant and I’ve been doing this for a long time, and so I know what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s hard for me to separate from myself, and think, ‘What would it be like to be a diner?’ Ryan brings that perspective and it’s very useful.

Mignonette seating, photo by lee klein

What’s surprised you since opening Mignonette?

How many oysters we actually sell. I mean I know we opened an oyster bar, but we have so many other things on the menu and all the raw bar stuff…I was skeptical. OK, this is a good example of how it works with me and Ryan: I said to him, ‘I don’t know, Ryan, carrying eight oysters is a lot of oysters (they come 100 per bag). We may have to throw a lot of them out. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Maybe we should carry four to six.’ So Ryan is like, ‘You’re not an oyster bar if you carry so few oysters. Let’s just roll with eight and we’ll see.’ So we did, and we’re able to successfully roll with eight. One Friday we sold eleven hundred oysters.

That’s a lot of shucking.

We’re lucky we have this girl Lisa Chadwick, she’s an amazing shucker. We’re all getting a lot better, and now we’re all pretty fast. But she smokes us. She can get like five tickets in a row with two dozen oysters on each and just put her head down and shuck them. That was a main concern of mine: Would we be able to keep up?

What do you tend to eat at Mignonette?

For lunch I like to get the roast beef sandwich and some oysters. For dinner, oysters, popcorn conch, and the redfish.

How is the redfish prepared?

We sear it real hard, get a good crust on it, and then we make a pan sauce with shallots, piquillo peppers, brandy, a little stock and some butter, and toss some herbs in. I’ve always liked pan sauces, no matter what – meat pan sauce, fish pan sauce, you get all the flavor that sticks to the pan back when you deglaze. It’s awesome.

Oysters Bienville & Rockefeller @ Mignonette, photo by lee klein

Did you get the Bienville recipe from Kris Wessel? (Wessel recently told me that he refused to give the recipe to Danny).

No, I got it from Emeril.

Tell me about these delicious oysters.

The Bienville is a Stellar Bay oyster with rock shrimp, mushrooms, brandy, shallots, and a little bit of cream with egg yolk for a glacage. The Rockefeller is a Piper’s Point, with spinach, watercress, Pernod, and a little breadcrumb and parmesan.

What dish or dishes haven’t worked so far at Mignonette?

Mahi and swordfish. We have a lot of fish on the menu, but those were the only two that really weren’t selling.  With swordfish I should have known. I love swordfish, but we had it on Blue Collar’s menu when we first opened and it didn’t do well. Even at Chef Allen’s and The Fisheries (The 15TH Street Fisheries & Dockside Café in Ft. Lauderdale) it didn’t do well. But at Blue Collar mahi does very well, at Chef Allen’s we sold tons of mahi, and same at The Fisheries. So that was really surprising.

What did you learn from Chef Allen?

Everything. How to lead a team. How to treat ingredients right. How to taste something and know if it’s seasoned correctly. How to really think a dish through. Early on in my career there I’d tell him of this idea I had and he’d say, ‘And then?’ I couldn’t finish the dish in a complete way. Allen’s the fucking best, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything but that. No matter how hectic things could get, he never yelled at anyone. I can get a little hotheaded and nasty at times. I’m sure with this open kitchen I can come across looking like a monster, so I wish I could have taken more of that from him– staying levelheaded all the time and never freaking out on someone. Maybe talking about it and actually calling myself on it will help.

Oxtail-rock shrimp gumbo at Mignonette, photo by lee klein

This is an oxtail-rock shrimp gumbo. In there you have an oxtail that we braise and then pull; dub sausage (the closest thing to an Andouille) from Proper Sausages; rock shrimp from Cape Canaveral Shrimp Co.; and the heat comes from Fresnos, jalapeños, and cayenne. The spice mix is made with gumbo filé, paprika, all that type of stuff, and the trinity (peppers, onions tomatoes), dark roux, lots of dark stock, lots of lobster stock, and lots of Abita beer; Turbodog is the variety (a dark brown ale). We like this version a lot. The first time we did it we braised the oxtails in red wine, the classic way, but this time we braised them in straight Abita and feel like we got a better color and the flavors come through more. It’s my nod to Blue Collar. One of our most popular dishes there is the spicy oxtail, so I was it’s a nice way to bridge what we do over there with what we do here.

The young man who is chef de cuisine here, Robert Frank, worked with Emeril at Loew’s for like three years and was with Norman for the entire year at 180, so he has a lot of good experience with gumbos and things like that. He actually showed me how to make a great gumbo. We worked together on the heat. We do a base level of all the fresh chili peppers and then we adjust with the cayenne as needed.

Best gumbo you ever had?

Kris Wessel’s. The best anything that he does is the best I’ve had. So gumbo, barbecued shrimp, oyster pie, mango pie…I fucking love Kris. I think he’s the best. I went to Red Light all the time. I like Oolite very much too. He just knows flavors so well.

Conch po-boy at Mignonette, photo by lee klein

What sells well outside of oysters?

The popcorn conch, as an appetizer and on a po-boy. The crudo does well. We keep it very simple: Some kind of juice, some kind of chili, a nice salt and a good olive oil. That’s it. Maybe an herb. One week we did a lobster crudo with South African tail and hazelnuts for a little texture, but that was it.

Are you the first to do a conch po-boy?

I haven’t seen it alone in a po-boy. I think it works. As long as you tenderize the conch well enough. That’s always a bit of a challenge. We tenderize it with the Jaccard and you think you’ve done it enough, but every piece is a little different. The bread is from La Pariesienne Bakery.

Do you do a po-boy with clams?

We haven’t, but we’ve got fried clams on the menu so if someone asks for one, sure. I think I would do it with pickles. Somehow I’m thinking fried clams and a pickled something would go all right together.

Mignonette lemon bar, photo by lee klein

What’s the best dessert in the house?

My favorite is the Meyer lemon bar. I’ve always just loved lemon bars. They’re so satisfying. We do it with a grenadine whipped cream and fresh berries. That’s what I always get for dessert when I’m here. We use some Meyer lemon in our lemonade, too.

Do you have any other specialty beverages?

We have our house aperitif, which is Oudinot Champagne, and we make a gastrique with Banyuls vinegar, candied shallots and pink peppercorns and mix a small amount of that in.

Champagne aperitif at Mignonette, photo by lee klein

Any ideas for future restaurant projects?

In my head, yeah. I have tons of ideas I’d love to execute one day, but next I’d like to – I have an eight-month old son, so I’d like to see him walk, take him to the park, things like that.

Would you encourage your son to become a chef?

I’d like him to do whatever he wants. But I would maybe want him not to be -- I mean, it’s hard. I’ll be 34 next month, and as I get older…When I was twenty-something and full of piss-and-vinegar at Chef Allen’s, it was nothing to work late into the night and be back the next day at 11. Now if I don’t get to sleep by 1 or 1:30, I worry about how I’m going to do it the next day. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and I love doing it, but it’s not something I would push him to do. I don’t think you can do it unless you enjoy the whole kit-and-kaboodle. And I don’t know that his mom would let him either, with all the sharp knives and checkered history of people – well, I don’t think his mom would let him (laughs).