Lunch with lydia

Lunch with Lydia: Michael Schwartz’s big comeback

It’s common to see star chefs, ballplayers, celebs of all sorts and a cross section of Miami powerbrokers lunching at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District. What’s odd is to see Chef Michael Schwartz himself sitting down for a bite.

He mixes wild salmon tartare with the runny poached egg that tops it and spoons some onto a brioche crostini. He tastes. He ponders.

“So good. Salmon is the only fish we bring in that we don’t get locally. And it’s running right now.’’

He’s in white, but in street clothes. These days, he rarely gets to don a chef’s coat or put in a shift at the stove — any of his stoves. Schwartz now rules over a small kingdom of kitchens, which means there isn’t much time to actually cook.

“There are four restaurants, two ships and the Raleigh Hotel,” he says. “I spend a lot of time managing the business. To the point that I have to schedule myself to be able to be work in a kitchen for a day, because being in the kitchen is what I love. But my role has changed drastically. I go around coaching people. I taste. I take lots of meetings. The big challenge has been letting go and delegating. I want to be involved in every decision, in every personnel issue. But I’m learning to look at everything a little more globally.”

Just six years ago as he prepared to open Michael’s Genuine in a sparsely populated Design District that was especially deserted at the dinner hour, he had to summon the kind of faith he wasn’t sure he had anymore.

Bad luck

In 2002, after a successful run as chef of Nemo, epicenter of South Beach cool in the 1990s, he parted ways with partner Myles Chefetz (by then Schwartz was also overseeing Chefetz’s Big Pink and Shoji restaurants.) He went on to do stints at the old Beach House Bal Harbour, Boca Raton’s Zemi and South Beach’s Afterglo. But none of those gigs worked out.

“I had a string of bad luck. I knew that if Michael’s Genuine didn’t make it, I’d be gone,” Schwartz says as he samples the char-grilled octopus with Gigante beans that his chef de cuisine at Michael’s has prepared.

“I was not happy with the partnership with Myles, but I left without really thinking about what I was going to do. And I had young kids. By the time I opened Michael’s Genuine with new partners, I had dug a pretty big hole. I was in debt big time. And I was rattled by bad decisions and bad experiences.”

Still, Schwartz believed in his concept for Michael’s Genuine. At a time when too many restaurants in town were guilty of being glam-over-substance, he wanted to run a high-energy but pretense-free place and turn out a bold but unfussy cuisine that would shine the spotlight on the highest-quality local and seasonal ingredients he could get his hands on.

And he did his homework, traveling to farms from northern Florida to Homestead in search of the finest tropical fruits, tomatoes, greens, herbs, meats, poultry, eggs and more. He sought out fishmongers who delivered the freshest seafood from local waters. And after that he really went to work, stationed at the wood-burning oven in his new restaurant’s open kitchen day in and day out. He worked five months straight without taking his first real day off.

“You can say I was 100 percent motivated to succeed,” says Schwartz, 49, who got his start in the restaurant business when he was 16 and still in his native Philadelphia.

Rare praise

A year after Michael’s Genuine opened, Frank Bruni of The New York Times named it one of the top 10 new U.S. restaurants. Around the same time, famed British chef Jamie Oliver declared it among his five favorite restaurants in the States. In 2010, Schwartz nabbed the culinary world’s top prize, a James Beard award for Best Chef in the South. By then, culinary heavyweights such as Spain’s Ferran Adria and Alice Waters — the grande dame of the farm-to-table movement — plus Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart and many others were beating a path to Michael’s Genuine.

“I served Ferran a bowl of iced kumquats,” Schwartz says. “Getting a great review is always a great thing for a chef. But what really makes you feel good is to get great feedback from your peers in the business.”

At the end of March, Schwartz opened the elegant Cypress Room in the Design District, just a stroll away from Michael’s Genuine and from Harry’s Pizzeria, which he started in 2011. About three weeks after Cypress Room went on line, he opened Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel, a venture with SBE, new owners of the historic South Beach property. And just a couple of weeks after the Raleigh opening, he was aboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, finalizing menus for its fine dining restaurant, which he now helms. He has had the restaurant on sister ship Oasis of the Seas since 2011. Add to these the Grand Cayman outpost of Michaels’ Genuine. And recently, SBE announced it will open another of their SLS hotels on Brickell Avenue, with plans for a Michael Schwartz restaurant, there, too. Though Schwartz says that project is still a couple of years away.

And while there has been talk of other restaurant projects with SBE outside Miami, Schwartz would rather not project too far into the future.

“I’ve just opened several places back to back. And I have a relationship with my restaurants that is not unlike my relationship with my three children. Their personalities are all different. And at different times I feel like I have to give one more attention than another.”

Which one feels most like his baby right now?

“Cypress Room is where I want to be all the time.”

Old Florida

The white-tablecloth Cypress Room, in a cozy space at 3620 NE Second Ave., features an Old Florida vibe with its reclaimed pecky cypress paneling and wainscoting, its taxidermied white-tailed deer, wild boar and marlin, its tropical pink toile wallpaper. The cuisine is more sophisticated than at the gastropubby Michael’s Genuine, but it still gives the starring role to local ingredients.

“We wanted a place that was more upscale, but still about simplicity. There is no silliness, no molecular stuff,” Schwartz says. “There’s bone china, lots of crystal, proper salad forks and soup spoons. But it’s not tweezer food. Nothing is too highly composed.”

In keeping with the concept, Schwartz’s executive pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith (they became a formidable duo back in the Nemo days) brings a new subtlety and refinement to desserts here.

Goldsmith was just up for a James Beard, her second consecutive nomination in a fiercely contested national field. But the award went to Brooks Headley of New York City’s Del Posto.

“I was p-----,” says Schwartz, who flew to New York for the ceremony sure it would be Goldsmith’s year. “She’s so good. She’ll win it next time.”

Things could not have turned around more dramatically for Schwartz in the last six years. But does he worry about keeping so many plates spinning at once?

“There are new challenges now. I’m no longer the underdog that everyone was rooting for. Even when I was in the dumps, miserable and grasping for the next paycheck, I believed in my talent. And I’m incredibly proud of everything that has happened. But I try not to stop and think about it too much. My motto now is ‘Just don’t f--- it up.’ ”

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