It was cultural and visual overload, he says. You would go to the market and see people drinking snake blood, whacking chickens right there and pulling feathers off. There was no cultural or visual similarity to anything I had known. I loved being the odd man out. I loved being surrounded every single day with nothing that I was familiar with.
Kunkels first job in the restaurant business was washing dishes at 15. He has been a bar back, a bartender and more. Eventually he moved up to management for Chilis Grill & Bar and Einstein Bros. Bagels. In 2001, he opened Taste Bakery at Ninth Street and Alton Road.
I opened underfunded, and then Sept. 11 hit. I had to let the whole staff go. We slowly built the business from there, with my wife and my brother delivering muffins and helping out in the store. Eventually I got out of debt.
Just as he righted his finances, he stumbled across a space at 14th Street and Alton Road that was up for grabs.
It was a total hole in the wall. I remember walking my wife over there. I had written this menu for this Mexican concept. But we had just gotten out of debt. There was this little tear, and then she said, Are you sure it will be successful?
Lime, offering fresh ingredients and health-conscious options, had a line out the front door from the moment it opened in 2004.
Everybody had said Mexican food wouldnt work in Miami because there was too much of a Latin, but not Mexican population. I said, Oh, really? That just added fuel to the fire for me. The same way that hearing that nobody would eat fried chicken on South Beach added fuel to the fire when I was thinking about opening Yardbird.
Kunkel could easily have taken his big Ruby Tuesday payday and kissed off the risky, labor-intensive restaurant business. But hes set on becoming a Miami restaurant king, though not, he says, on starting another chain.
In a few weeks, his company, 50 Eggs Inc., will open Swine Southern Table & Bar, a pork-focused cousin to Yardbird, in the former Brasserie Les Halles space in Coral Gables.
Next comes Kungfuzi, a 700-square-foot noodle shop on Alton Road, across the street from the original Lime (the only Lime Kunkel still operates) that will serve a small menu of noodle dishes and Vietnamese-style sandwiches until 5 a.m.
But perhaps the project he is most excited about is Test Kitchen, slated to open later this year at the former Sunshine Motel at Biscayne Boulevard and 74th Street. He envisions it as a teaching center for underprivileged kids and a community test kitchen for local chefs as well as a venue for high-end private dinners by visiting culinary stars.
I think about The Federal, Blue Collar, Sakaya Kitchen when I think about Miamis real culinary scene. Those guys are gaining momentum. But when youre working in a busy kitchen, you dont have the time or space to test new ideas, Kunkel says.
Test Kitchen is a place where young chefs can come free of charge and spend the day working, meeting other chefs. The one thing Miami had lacked for a long time was a sense of community in the restaurant scene. Were finally seeing that sense of community. And I want to help grow that.