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.”