Maybe you remember a time, not many years ago, when Miami’s food scene consisted of little more than Cuban cafeterias and Jewish delis and a few shabby fish houses.
Now, not only does every celebrity chef worthy of their TV time want to open an outpost here, but our restaurants have begun to export themselves. How did this happen, and what have we learned along the way of Miami’s international culinary fame? Three of our successful export-chefs explain.
For those who can remember the lean years of Miami’s culinary scene, you might also recall when Cindy Hutson opened her restaurant in the near-wasteland of Lincoln Road.
Back then, in ’95, Norma’s on the Beach stood nearly alone on Miami Beach, where most of the food was served through the take-out window of cafecito dives. But her novel approach of making healthier versions of Caribbean dishes took off quickly, and Hutson became among those who helped slowly change the dining scene in the city, later opening the well-loved Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables and more recently Zest in Downtown Miami.
Offers soon flooded in. Restaurateurs and investors wanted Hutson to bring her style of cooking to cities across the globe. She settled first on a consultant position with a spot in Grand Cayman. And she quickly learned she had no idea how to operate in a foreign country.
“Oh yeah. It was kind of a wake-up call trying to work in the islands for the first time,” she recalls.
She had brought with her to Grand Cayman carefully written-out recipes. The problem was that she had written everything in ounces, while kitchen staffs overseas used the metric system.
Then she had to learn that not everything was available on the islands. A fish that comes to the dock one day might not be caught the next, and a day or two of rough seas might mean an entire shipment of produce wouldn’t arrive. “That happened a lot, actually,” she says. “I learned to start watching the tide reports.”
Since 2016, Hutson has run her own restaurant in Jamaica, taking with her what she learned in the other islands. Most importantly, she now runs a farm on the site of her Jamaican restaurant, helping to alleviate the gaps in the supply chain.
Hutson also knows now to soak it in more, something she missed in those never-ending workdays during her first experiences working overseas.
“My kitchen in Jamaica looks over the cliffs of Negril. I can look out and watch sunrises and sunsets. Sometimes I see dolphins jumping. Yeah, it’s just different working there,” she says.
If there’s one major drawback to expanding overseas, it’s perhaps that Scott Linquist wasn’t there the day Barack Obama showed up.
The former president stopped into Coyo Taco in Wynwood in November, ordered tacos, guac and eqsuite, and dropped a $40 tip. Throughout it all, Linquist got updates from his employees from across the Atlantic.
At the time, Linquist was in Lisbon, opening the Coyo outpost there. It’s part of a growing empire of Linquist’s restaurants. He’s got Coyo locations in Panama and Portugal and also consulted on the opening of a Mexican restaurant in India. Soon, he’s eyeing expansions in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere.
This hasn’t been a straight shot to success for Linquist. After starting out as a busboy at a restaurant outside Los Angeles, he climbed quickly to head chef at just 21 years old. “It was a bad move for the restaurant,” Linquist recalls of his days struggling to keep track of costs. He left for culinary school, worked his way back up from the bottom and rose to become head chef of New York’s Dos Caminos in 2002. He spent a decade there, watching it grow into a major chain.
A decade later he took a consultant job in Miami before getting a call about an upstart Wynwood taco place. Coyo opened in 2014 in debt and nearly out of money. “That day, we opened the doors and 60 people were waiting,” he says. “We got lucky, because if we weren’t an immediate success, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Now, for the overseas expansion, Linquist and partners have developed a solid process, watching costs closely. They license the Coyo Taco name to local operators but still maintain control over the menu and the way dishes are made. Still, Linquist says he and his partners had to figure out ways to teach the local staff and to assure the quality remains consistent to Coyo Taco’s brand.
The goal will never be to set up a Coyo in every town, in every shopping mall. The idea instead is to keep it consistent to the original concept, setting up in trendy, high-traffic areas, with a menu geared to be more elevated than your average taco stand. “The sales of this place, nobody believes what we do from this little Wynwood restaurant,” Linquist says.
It’s not the successes that José Mendín has had over the years, like the growing chain of Pubbelly restaurants, that occupy his thoughts. No, it’s the failure that he keeps thinking about, the time in 2014 that he had to shut the doors of PB Steak.
He thinks back now and believes the concept was solid, the food was excellent, the service on-par. Mendín had everything sealed up except for one thing, and it turned out to be fatal.
“One day to the next we were down a hundred grand, and we had no choice but to close it,” he recalls. “We just didn’t have a good handle on costs, and they got away from us.”
Which is why Mendín says he spends so much time thinking about costs with his growing empire. Now, he and his partners have branched out overseas, with restaurants in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico City.
Going global means watching costs in ways he didn’t predict. In Mexico City, for instance, he learned that diners don’t drop in for an hour or two like they might here, allowing his restaurants to turn the table once or twice per dinner service. In Mexico’s capital, people plop themselves down for a night, often staying well past midnight.
In the Dominican Republic, the challenge for Pubbelly Sushi in Casa de Campo was getting supplies. “The Dominican was a nightmare to set up,” Mendín says. Just simple things like soy sauce or Japanese fish meant expensive overhead to ship things in.
In Puerto Rico, where Mendín grew up, he learned that diners would come in with preconceived notions about what a dish should taste like. Every village, it turns out, might define the national dish of mofongo differently.
“Going overseas, we learned that there has to be a different way of doing things” Mendin says. “It’s not just about duplicating what we did in Miami.”