Gustavo Carvajalat, left, and his date, Johnny V pastry chef Malka Espinel, right, shared a table with Emeril's chef Tom Azar, center, his wife, Cheryl Azar.
The best meals in South Florida are served behind locked doors in closed restaurants.
Chefs cook for chefs. They bring their own bottles and share war stories from their kitchens. They test off-the-menu items on each other -- lamb-and-cheese sandwiches, maybe, or a bacon-studded dessert.
But mostly, the Chefs' Club members dish about their craft. And that's why their monthly gatherings are private, open only to those who toil over stovetops and ovens.
"When you spend almost every waking hour in the kitchen, you think no one else understands your problems," said Adam Votaw, who recently left Chispa in Doral and Coral Gables to cook for a hotel group. "But other chefs are your brothers and sisters. We all experience the same crap."
Votaw helped start the Chefs' Club last year because he'd found that South Florida lacked the kind of convivial community of cooks he'd seen in places like San Francisco and New York.
"None of us talked or ate each other's food except when we made the rounds at conventions," he said.
Votaw tossed around the idea of organized get-togethers with Chispa's publicist, and soon a group of 15 to 20 chefs from some of the area's top restaurants began hanging out.
Once a month, one of the chefs will invite the others -- plus spouses, dates and sometimes children -- to his or her restaurant on a day off, bringing in a skeletal kitchen crew to help prepare a family-style feast.
Everyone brings a bottle or two of wine, and the house opens its bar. The conversation usually begins flowing before the appetizers emerge from the kitchen.
The chefs grumble about problem customers who steal silverware and demand to be reseated no matter what table they're given. They grouse about restaurant kitchens that operate more like science labs than places for food production. They fuss about servers who bring diners more attitude than food.
At a recent Chefs' Club, Michael Jacobs, executive chef of Grass in Miami, described his efforts to train his staff in customer service.
He said he gives his servers chapters from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer's book, Setting the Table, to help them fine-tune their pleasantries. Jacobs hopes his customers will come for an upscale dining experience and not be deterred by his restaurant's previous incarnation as a club.
"In New York or L.A., the servers are wannabe actors, so they're always trying to impress their customers to get noticed," he said. "In Miami, you've got a lot of models waiting tables. They don't care what you think of them."
Ortanique's chef-owner, Cindy Hutson, opened her Coral Gables restaurant to the club in April for a Jamaican brunch. Her partner, Delius Shirley, manned the bar, blending bananas and strawberries with Jamaican rum and mixing grapefruit-flavored Ting soda with gin.
"It's not about us showing off or trying to one-up each other," Hutson said as she put her curried lamb roti, a fried whole snapper and cornflake-crusted plantains on a buffet table. "This is our comfort food. It's what we'd cook for ourselves."
As she put out the spread and the other chefs began to dig in, Clay Conley from Azul at Miami's Mandarin Oriental asked her about ackee, one of her side dishes. Hutson explained it's the national fruit of Jamaica and can be poisonous if harvested too early or too late.
"Wow," Conley said. "Where do you get it?"
At the May gathering at Wish in Miami Beach, the conversation turned serious for about a minute after chef Michael Bloise presented his foie gras egg rolls.
A visitor noted that chefs in other cities have pulled the creamy, fatty delicacy off their menus, citing animal-rights concerns. (Ducks and geese are force-fed to fatten their livers -- foie gras is French for "fat liver" -- before slaughter.)
The idea didn't have any traction with this crowd. Some of the chefs said they resented that critics call foie gras production "inhumane," reasoning that geese are food animals, not humans.
Bloise's rock-shrimp lettuce wraps with carrot, papaya, mint and Sechwan pepper earned a round of applause. So did his bouillabaisse with clams, mussels, lobster, sausage, corn and peas.
"I still look up to these people, because they've been the pace-setters of Miami cooking," Bloise said of his Chefs' Club colleagues. "When we get together and share ideas and hash out our problems, it really inspires me to step up my game."
The chefs agree the camaraderie and group therapy are the reasons Chefs' Club has thrived. The food doesn't hurt, either.
When Jacobs hosted the July meal at Grass, he brought out raw strips of Wagyu Grade A5 rib-eye -- the highest-grade Kobe-style beef available in the United States. The chefs were like kids in a candy store, hovering around hot salt stones and giddily taking turns searing the beef.
Jacobs knew it would be a hit, just like his marsala-soy skirt steak kebabs and simply grilled Florida yellowjack.
But he entered unknown territory when he brought out his brioche bread pudding with tart amarena cherries and applewood-smoked bacon -- his first attempt at the dessert.
As Jacobs served the dish, he kept an eye on Malka Espinel, pastry chef at Johnny V in Fort Lauderdale.
"If Malka likes it, it's going on the menu," he said.
And she did