A lush mango tree flourished outside of the Fort Lauderdale home where Florida Cookery chef Kris Wessel spent his early childhood. “My mother tells me that when I was 5 years old, I would peel and eat mangoes right in the hot Florida sun.”
When St. Regis Bal Harbour pastry chef Antonio Bachour was growing up in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, sweet and sizable “pineapple mangoes” from his family’s backyard “would fall from the tree straight to the mouth.” The fruit had so rich and delicious a pineapple flavor “that people would try to steal them — but my brothers and I would always catch them.”
Khong River House’s Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, known as “Chef Bee,” remembers “waiting until a storm would pass and the mangoes fell” in the yard of his home in Ban Sankhohiang, a village in the Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand. At other times, he was the sort of kid Bachour was on the lookout for: “We would steal mangoes from our neighbors. When red ants would bite us in the trees, we would catch them, take them back home, and cook those too.”
That Wessel, Bachour and Arreeratn fell in love with the mango as green youths comes as no surprise: The succulent fruit inspires a fervent fan base wherever it is grown — which is to say throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical lowlands.
These particular mango aficionados, however, matured into top Miami chefs, and they haven’t forgotten their roots, bringing personal perspectives to the way they prepare the fruit at their respective restaurants.
Piyarat’s parents are farmers who still reside in Ban Sankhohiang. He learned the culinary basics from his mother at an early age, and during summers with his grandparents in the nearby village of Ban San Macade, his grandmother taught him to prepare the regional street foods she sold at the market. Sticky rice with mango was one of those treats.
It was a recipe that stuck with the culinarian-to-be: Piyarat presents Pandan Sticky Rice with Fresh Mango on his summer dessert menu at Khong. He and pastry chef Dominique Pereira also fuse mango coulis with pastry cream in a Thai-inspired Mango Napoleon.
“Mangoes should be smooth and flavorful with a little bitterness; not too sour, not too sweet,” Bee says. “It’s all about balance. If the mango was sour, we dipped it in salt, sugar and roasted dried chile. We also shredded it and used it in papaya salad. For dessert, we would make it sweet and creamy. We enjoyed the fruit every possible way.”
Things were different in Puerto Rico, Bachour says: “Never did we use the mangoes for something savory — sweet only!”
Perhaps this is because from ages 7 to 17, his kitchen encounters with the nectarous fruit were mostly at his parent’s bakeries in Rio Grande and Ceiba. Father, mother and son prepared all of the desserts.
“We were doing many things with mangoes,” Bachour recalls, including macadamia-crusted tarts and cheesecakes.
The acclaimed pastry chef continues to do many things with mangoes. At J&G Grill, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the St. Regis, his dessert menu includes a Mango Basil Vacherin composed of mango compote, mango gel, mango sorbet, mango foam, basil ice cream and coconut meringue. He gives the hotel’s room-service Key lime pie a garnish of “mango glass” (“a kind of sugar tuile made with mango, isomalt and glucose”).
Mango pie is a Wessel family specialty. His parents migrated from Broward to New Orleans when he was 8, but Sunshine State relatives sent them packages crammed with the tropical fruit. His mother would transform these garden gifts into Grandmother Esther’s Mango Pie.
His grandma “used to bake these in the ’30s and ’40s, and bring them to my grandfather’s construction crews on Miami Beach,” Wessel says.
Esther would also prepare pies for the family’s annual “mango event” at the beach, which involved a hand-crank ice cream maker “and her 10 sons each taking a turn at churning mango ice cream made with McArthur Dairy cream.”
Wessel returned to Florida when he was 18, and worked under original Mango Gang member Mark Militello.
“The attention to mangoes in a fine-dining setting became clear,” Wessel says. “I continued using mangoes and all tropical fruits in my cooking and restaurants for the next 20 years.”
This spring, Wessel took part in an invasive-species event “where one of my python dishes involved smoking it in mango sauce.”
Recipes from the three chefs follow, but relax: None require python or red ants. All you’ll really need to make these dishes snap to life are fresh, ripe mangoes – and now is the prime time to get them.