Watch South Florida native Kris Wessel searing this while plating that, a lone figure cranking out an Old-Florida-meets-Big-Easy cuisine in the tiny open kitchen of his laid-back Red Light restaurant on the banks of Miami’s Little River.
He stands six-foot-five, with a wingspan and stamina that are NBA-worthy but put to much higher service when he’s hustling at the stove, simultaneously finishing a bowl of his signature barbecue shrimp — in a dark, rich sauce made from shrimp stock, lemon, rosemary, parsley and Worcestershire — while tending to Florida grouper braising in Key lime and getting out another plate of hand-rubbed ribs, smoked down by the river where heron and manatee insist on luxuriating, in denial of their sketchy surroundings.
Now Wessel is taking that down-and-dirty homeboy cooking he does in his “man cave” (yes, the AC is finally fixed and blowing cold enough at Red Light after a couple of years of sweltering summer dining; the restaurant reopens Wednesday after a summer hiatus) and reimagining it for a luxury oceanfront setting. Opening this week with Wessel at the helm is Florida Cookery at the James Royal Palm Hotel, Collins Avenue and 15th Street. The hotel, built in 1939, is back on line after extensive renovations that honor the property’s Art Deco past while reinventing the place as a hip beach resort.
But what exactly is Florida cookery?
“If you’re doing a Florida statement you can’t ignore Latin America, the Caribbean, the American South and influences from New York City. And I won’t,” says the soft-spoken but always high-energy Wessel, 41, whose paternal grandparents settled in Miami Beach in 1926. His grandfather owned a construction company that helped build the Raleigh and Delano hotels, St. Patrick Catholic Church and other Miami Beach landmarks.
Wessel, a self-professed “Florida cracker,” grew up between South Florida and Louisiana, where his mother’s people are from. Later he cooked at several New Orleans restaurants. But he’s taking inspiration for his new place from his Italian grandmother’s Miami Beach kitchen and the old cookbooks she relied on to figure out what to do with the strange tropicals that grew in the yard of the crammed working-class home where she raised 10 kids.
One of the books, a paperbound, well-used number from the 1940s titled Florida Cookery, delivered the name of the new eatery, which offers indoor and outdoor seating with views of the Atlantic and a décor that references Eames-era cool while paying homage to an organic beachy palette.
“By the 1940s and 1950s, as more people were moving to Miami, you started to see a lot of Junior League-style cookbooks that helped housewives figure out what to do with the local stuff that they had never seen before,” Wessel says right before opening day, sitting in the main room of his posh new digs and dipping crispy breadfruit tostones into a bowl of soup featuring lemon-poached chicken, roasted calabaza and chayote.
“Not all of the recipes in those old cookbooks were great. There’s one for a creamed kingfish and spinach mold. Can you imagine? But there are also amazing recipes, like the one for crawfish potato pie. In the old days, whenever they said ‘crayfish,’ they were talking about Florida lobster. There have been so many influences to Florida cuisine over the years. But I guarantee that if you ask 10 South Beach concierges where you should go for Florida food, they can’t suggest anywhere but Joe’s Stone Crab.’’
And of course Florida Cookery, which opened for business Thursday, will hook you up with stone crabs and Key lime pie. But it stretches far beyond with dishes such as veal vaca frita; guanabana-glazed ribs served with green papaya slaw; empanadas stuffed with oxtail, alligator or oysters; cast iron-seared frog legs in lime; Suwannee River wild boar chops with savory sapodilla jam; West Indian rotis filled with curried chicken, shrimp or goat.
Wessel may feel most at home at the gritty Red Light (after all, his father and uncles can tell stories about splashing around in the once-pristine Little River, right behind the restaurant, where a coveted rope swing used to hang,) but he’s hardly new to the trappings of fine dining. Or the concept of elevating Florida ingredients.
At 21, he landed a job working in the kitchen of the celebrated Mark’s Place. Executive chef Mark Militello — a member of the original Mango Gang, which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, helped put South Florida on the culinary map with its creative use of mango, papaya, plantains and other locals — quickly saw Wessel’s potential. By the time he was 23, he was promoted to chef de cuisine. Working alongside him were Hedy Goldsmith and Michelle Bernstein, also just kids who eventually became stars in their own right and, to one degree or another, continue carrying the Mango Gang’s torch.
“Mark and Norman [Van Aken] and those guys were using Florida products in fresh but integral ways. But then soon after, South Beach exploded and every hotel restaurant started bastardizing the Mango Gang concept,” says Wessel, who after Mark’s Place opened a popular sandwich joint on Lincoln Road called Paninoteca and later the white-tablecloth Liaison on Espanola Way.
“There was some version of mango sesame tuna on every menu. It was fusion without much thought. And in my opinion, it hurt the evolution of the serious attention that these chefs had started paying to Florida product.”
Wessel is committed to finding honorable new ways of incorporating jackfruit, guanabana, guava, calabaza and the rest in his cooking. And he’s been combing the Sunshine State for the highest quality farms to supply his kitchen. But some old ideas he wouldn’t dare mess with.
“Throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, every seafood shack in South Florida had a condiment on the table called old sour. All it was was Key lime juice and salt in a bottle, corked and aged for a few weeks. The longer it sits the sweeter and more intense it gets. Imagine all these old fishermen, these Florida crackers, putting that on their cracked conch and turtle steaks and everything else. I found a Miami Herald story from the 1980s that still talked about old sour. But where did it go? It disappeared from Florida tables at some point.”
Now the stuff is making a comeback at Florida Cookery.
“We’ll have it on every table soon,” Wessel says. “As soon as we find the right bottle to match the décor of the restaurant. Me, I’d use any old bottles. But what I get away with at Red Light is not always going to work in a place like this.”