February 5, 2014

César Zapata

Two years ago, when César Zapata was ending his last project, Phuc Yea!, his playful paean to the Vietnamese food his wife, Aniece Meinhold, grew up eating and Miami’s first-ever pop-up restaurant, he wasn’t sure what would come next. He, Meinhold and their business partner had found a location for a new restaurant, but what exactly Zapata would cook wasn’t yet clear. All he knew was he “wanted something that combined all of our experiences,” he recalls, “our ethnicities and our differences.” In other words, he wanted something American. And thus The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions was born, a modern tavern serving not just refined takes on classic American comfort food, but dishes that evoke fond memories of the glory days when we didn’t worry about fat or carbs. Dishes that tug at a good ole’ Floridian heart. At 35, Zapata is a master at making food you think you know—until a closer look often reveals he’s performed a clever sleight of hand and done some delightful reinterpreting. One bite of his perfectly sweet, buttery biscuit, or his buffalo pig wing, with its impossibly moist meat and crisp skin, and you’ll understand this. Call it culinary irony that a classically trained chef who spent years toiling in fine kitchens, experimenting with the famed foams and pearls of molecular gastronomy, would find his biggest success in a place where grits and smoked fish dip occupy prime spots on the menu. Or that some of Miami’s best ‘American’ food is made at the gifted hands of a Medellin-born kid who moved to Patterson, N.J., when he was 9, his family fleeing the violence of his homeland. Or that his mother, who worked two jobs to help keep the family afloat, was so adamant Zapata not be a cook, she insisted he go to school for something—anything!—else. And so the man who makes magic in his Miami kitchen is also a certified medical technician. “She thought this was a terrible idea,” he said. “She was worried that I’d never make a decent living.” Alas, mothers can sometimes be deliciously wrong.

For Zapata, creating The Federal meant embracing a nostalgic view of America, one influenced by his experience as an immigrant. By the time he was 14, he was the family cook, making nightly dinners for his younger brother and sister while his parents worked. “There was lots of Colombian food, but there was also lots of Italian food,” he said. But it was when he finally left Patterson and moved to Houston (“following an old girlfriend,” he admits) that his world opened up. Culinary school there introduced him to French cooking concepts; the Lone Star State schooled him on smoke and chiles. For years, it was all cultural fodder swirling around in his head, never making it onto a plate. When The Federal opened, that changed and his new culinary language emerged. “What I love most,” he said, “is making food that makes you feel something.”

See chef César Zapata at the Pure Leaf Farm to Table Brunch, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23 at The Palms in Miami Beach.

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