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Kris Wessel Interview

Chef Kris Wessel, photo courtesy Kris WesselBoniato chips, Oolite Restaurant, photo by lee kleinYellowfin over quinoa, Oolite Restaurant, photo by lee kleinHomemade roti, Oolite Restaurant, photo by lee klein

There are a couple of giant jars filled with fermenting kombucha sitting in display on the counter at Oolite Restaurant & Bar. That is so Kris Wessel. Throughout his career, the James Beard-nominated chef has been a distinctively forward-thinking culinary force, constantly contemplating one new notion or another regarding potential menu items, or else tinkering with ones he’s already created, or else working on science-project-like experiments in food and beverage -- like that mildly bubbling, fermenting tea on the counter. At one point during our conversation, he referred to himself as “a hyper-creative freak.” It is true: Liaison, Red Light Little River and Florida Cookery were each highly conceptualized. Oolite is even more so.

The gorgeous limestone-clad restaurant, located in the Frank Gehry-designed building on the side of the New World Symphony, touts a concept of “healthy regional.” The regional part is nothing new for Wessel. Neither is the big, brash flavors bursting from his plates. But protein-based meals, salubrious cooking techniques, and a totally gluten-free menu seem to represent a revised direction. So that’s where we start:

Duck arepas at Oolite

What inspired your turn towards healthy cuisine?

When I was running Red Light I got all these crazy ideas that the upper East Side needed a really healthy concept, so I developed this Green Light idea to do in the same space, to try to bolster my lunch business. It was very vegetable heavy, had vegan traits, had singular protein traits…and I never did it. I sat on the idea, and then I went into Florida Cookery, which like Red Light was also a regional statement. But the idea to do regional cooking in a healthy way was always with me.

And the gluten-free aspect?

That came three years ago, when tests determined that our youngest daughter had an allergy to gluten. So I started deconstructing her lunches for school. I didn’t give her bread; just turkey, cheese and apple, and the same went for dinners I cooked for her. I eliminated gluten altogether, and what I found was that you could still use rice flour, you could still use chic pea flour, corn flour, brown rice flour…I realized that it would be easy to do in a commercial kitchen.

If I didn’t know beforehand, I wouldn’t have guessed the food I tried here was gluten-free. And you don’t really push the idea on the menu; the “gluten-free” statement is tucked somewhat inconspicuously at the bottom left of the page.

Healthy regional first, gluten-free second, because I want the diner to go ‘Great: Regional cooking, lots of flavor. I’m going to get some goat, some tamarind duck, some barbecue shrimp.’ At the end of the meal, when I tell them that the whole house is gluten-free, they’re going to be like, “Really? Wow, it’s so flavorful.” You can still have flavor and be gluten-free. It’s a misperception.

Besides being gluten-free, how is the cuisine at Oolite compared with what you’ve done in the past?

The food here is like all of the food I’ve ever cooked, just with more of a definitive focus. I’m not piling mashed potatoes or rice on the plate with the protein. I’m serving you the protein -- maybe a duck, maybe some vegetable protein -- but I have the black beans, the gluten-free mac & cheese, the boniato…if you want that. Or not. So it’s sort of like deconstructed Kris Wessel.

Grain plate at Oolite, photo by lee klein

Is part of your aim to educate the public about certain foods?

If you’re from New York or you’re from Europe or the Midwest, and you read ‘Palomilla steak ‘Hialeah style’ on my menu, I want you to ask the waiter: ‘What is Hialeah?’ If you read lechon, ropa vieja, arepa, I want you to take away that this is a restaurant that is indicative of the region. This is a real regional restaurant.  If I achieve that, perfect. Then, if you order the 3-grain salad or the Brussels sprouts with Creole goat cheese and you also feel like this is a healthy restaurant, I’m golden. Because that’s the base concept of the restaurant.

Your take on the word ‘regional’ implies more than just South Florida.

My interpretation is from the southeast portion of the American south down to the Caribbean down to South America. This whole southeastern hemisphere to me is the region. It’s wide. Conch chowder. Key lime pie. Ropa vieja. Palomilla. Tamarind duck. Arepas. Barbecue shrimp from the American South. That’s my region. And it’s always been my region.

What else have you been cooking up?

I’m doing oxtail, I’m doing goat, I’m doing lechon, I’m doing the slow-cooked, braised meats that aren’t traditionally on menus. To me its mainstream -- I’ve been cooking it all my life. But for someone to order oxtail or goat in a restaurant, that’s not mainstream. As the seasons change, everything from sea urchin to razor clams to whatever comes in season is going on the menu.

How tricky has it been working with unfamiliar ingredients?

We make roti from chickpea flour. Getting it to be crispy is one thing, but getting it to be thin enough to roll and use as a wrap is a challenge; you have to use xanthan gum, and flax comes into play as well. I’m an old school chef, but I’m using new school techniques and new school flours and binders that I’d have never used 20 years ago. I didn’t even know what they were.

Besides the commitment to healthier product, you’re also relying on lighter cooking methods such as poaching and steaming…do you even have a deep fryer on the premises?

We have one fryer, which is used basically for the boniato chips and tostones. But if you fry the chips or tostones in a deep fryer with canola oil and you do it correctly, meaning quick in-quick out, it’s better than if you fry it in a sauté pan. Less saturated fats get into the food in a hot fryer.

Curried goat at Oolite, photo by lee klein

Does the mammoth size of the Oolite space intimidate you?

They were telling me that Cooper Avenue during Art Basel was doing 1,000 covers a day. I’m not scared, I’m ecstatic. Because of the hotel experience I got at The James, I understand better how to prepare the different modes of the kitchen to get ready for volume. And that’s important, because this is a giant. Oolite is 17 times the size of Red Light. We’ve got 200 seats indoors and another 80 potentially outdoors. But we’ll be able to handle it. I have amazing equipment, like a double rack convection oven: Key lime rotisserie chickens on the bottom, tamarind ducks on top – all day long. When we get into the colder months I’ll do other game like quail, and I’ll do lamb, all sorts of proteins.

When I last interviewed you in 2010 you had just returned from Charleston, and you were impressed with the camaraderie among chefs in that city as compared to Miami. Has that changed?

I think it has a little bit. Especially with the newer, younger wave of chefs like Danny Serfer (Blue Collar), Cesar Zapata at The Federal, Alberto Cabrera at Bread and Butter. I joked with Danny when he announced he was opening Mignonette. I think the sub-line for the place was ‘a hybrid Florida-Louisiana oyster bar’. I said to him, ‘Finally, a restaurant that emulates my style!’ He loved it. He said, ‘Man, you gotta give me your recipe for oysters Bienville.’ And I said, ‘No way, it’s my mother’s recipe. I’ll never give it to you.’ So we went back and forth. I don’t know if Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken back in the day would have that type of fun banter.

Was there a reason for the lack of cohesion?

It’s hard for us to keep a fraternity together because we’re so spread out. In New York, New Orleans, Charleston, the restaurants are all right there, all on top of each other. Miami is different. I’m friends with Clay Conley (formerly of Azul in the Mandarin Oriental), and when he went up to work in Palm Beach (Buccan; Imoto) I was like, ‘Fuck. There goes my good buddy.’ Everything is so stretched out here.

What’s excited you in the Miami dining scene over the past few years?

Well if the Bienville recipe works out, I’ll be excited to see an oyster bar open for sure. I’m excited to see more and more of the New York chefs and international chefs making a commitment -- Morimoto opening in a month, Gastón Acurio (La Mar), Jean-Georges (Vongerichten) up in Bal Harbour – that’s a great restaurant. Any time you bring in chefs like this, it’s a great thing because it’s going to bring the level of everyone up. Although I’ve been saying this for years (laughs)…well, it should bring the level up.

What would you still like to see?

I’d still like to see more independent efforts on the Beach. The Van Dyke closed, El Rancho Grande closed…Lincoln Road used to be full of family-run businesses. Now it’s corporate America.

Is it still difficult to find good kitchen help?

It’s very hard. But I have two cooks who were with me at The James who are fantastic, and I have a great chef de cuisine, Lisa Odom, who was at Tongue & Cheek. That’s why I can sit here with you without having oil and slop all over me. She’s so proficient at production that an idea I have for, say, rice cracker, she’ll batch out 400 pounds of dough and get it perfect. I can achieve that with her and with this team. So let’s go: Bring on Art Basel! Bring it all on!