The chef could no longer eat at his own restaurant.
For more than four years, Cesar Zapata had delighted in lavishing his inventive comfort food — a so-called Jar o’ Duck, Buffalo pig wings, a burger with roasted plantain jam and pork cracklings — onto diners at The Federal, lovingly putting them into a food coma.
That rich and often heavy cuisine had made the restaurant he ran with his wife and partner, Aniece Meinhold, into a runaway success. They were featured on television shows (Bravo TV’s Best New Restaurant and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.) And they continually were a favorite special-occasion and weekend splurge for locals.
It just wasn’t the kind of food Zapata could eat every day.
A rare digestive condition that had required surgery forced him to change his diet to eat more fresh vegetables and lean meats and to begin exercising daily. He went vegan for six months last year and signed up for a 300-mile bike ride.
The cuisine he was making at The Federal no longer fit into his lifestyle. And the more he and Meinhold looked around, neither was it the kind of food their regulars ate every day, either.
“If I did, I’d be a house,” Meinhold said.
“I didn’t want to live like that anymore,” Zapata added.
So they risked it — and changed everything.
Earlier this month, the couple closed The Federal for four days. When it reopened on May 17, it was a completely different restaurant focused on the kind of food that would be healthy and delicious enough to eat every day, with options for those on everything from low-carb and paleo diets to vegan and vegetarian diners.
Gone was the dark, American tavern theme, with burlap accents and taxidermied animal head trophies. In its place, a new, bright look, with splashes of Dreamsickle orange and teal.
Gone was the name, The Federal — shortened to simply The Fed, new logo and all.
And most important, gone was the menu.
It was a risk anyone who had ever owned a restaurant told them was a huge mistake. But to the couple, who have succeeded opening unexpected restaurants in unexpected locations, it was a risk they needed to take.
“I feel it in my bones this is the right thing,” Meinhold said.
Meinhold and Zapata invite challenge.
Five years ago, the couple, who met while helping to open the Four Seasons in Brickell, struck out on their own with a novel idea: a pop-up restaurant that was the first of its kind in Miami.
Every night, they took over the Crown Bistro downtown, hung drapes, changed centerpieces, and most importantly, changed the menu to their Vietnamese-inspired menu for the pop-up, Phuc Yea (pronounced “fook,” but they invite the pun). With Meinhold’s background in public relations and Zapata as its flavor master, Phuc Yea became a hit with locals.
They used the momentum (and their entire life’s savings) to open The Federal. Its tavern food was the idea of a silent investor who is no longer part of the operation; the couple initally wanted to make Phuc Yea a permanent restaurant. But fans soaked up the rich dishes Zapata prepared — from buttermilk “biskits” that made them a hit with TV celebrity chef Tom Colicchio to that Jar o’ Duck, spiced duck rillette with sweet potatoes and marshmallow fluff.
“The Federal was like our first baby,” Meinhold said.
From the outside, there seemed no reason to change.
But Zapata, 36, found himself eating at his own restaurant less and less. He could no longer eat the barbecued meats and creams and cheeses that were the heart of many popular dishes very often. He developed a sensitivity to lactose and gluten. He started going out for lunch rather than making himself a completely different meal at the restaurant every day.
Meanwhile, he started riding road bicycles with Meinhold, 34, and working out regularly. They watched all the food documentaries (Forks Over Knives, Food, Inc.) and read books on nutrition, such as Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Clearly, The Federal was out of sync with their lifestyle.
Around them, they saw a similar pattern with their regulars and neighbors. The MiMo neighborhood started embracing more vegan- and gluten-friendly options. And they realized that simply prepared food was also more affordable for every day. (“I’d rather see you come in once a week than once every three months,” Meinhold said.)
What they found missing was healthier food that was also lip-smacking, with the vibrant spices and flavors that would please a chef.
So Zapata turned to his roots. He explored the fresh flavors of Southwest cuisine he had learned while a rising chef in Houston and the touchstones of Phuc Yea’s Vietnamese cuisine and found common ground: dishes that combined bright flavors, spicy chiles, citrus, roasted and grilled meat. And they use organic and local meats and vegetables whenever possible.
“Let the ingredients shine,” Zapata said. “I have to be passionate about what I cook.”
They approached their partner, Wadi Barreto, a 30-year businessman who owns several grocery stores that sell to lower income families through a government program. He balked at first — until he tasted the food the Fed would offer.
“Ani is constantly thinking. Cesar is constantly creating. If there’s anybody I trust, it’s Ani and Cesar,” Barreto said. “A chef is like an artist. You can’t tie up the hands of a chef when he’s creating.”
At the new Fed, there are “skillets,” a sort of make-your-own tacos with fillings like braised, organic chicken; citrus-marinated daily fish; grass-fed Angus steak — all served with a half-dozen housemade sauces and salsas. The menu has entire vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free sections with gluten-free tortillas. There are Mexican-style sandwiches and even a couple of holdovers from The Federal, such as the “biskits.”
They will still offer splurge items during their weekend brunches, echoing how regulars eat: clean during the week, lavishly during the weekend, Meinhold said. And all at about $20 a person or less.
“If you want to misbehave, you can misbehave,” Meinhold said.
Meanwhile, they continue working on their second restaurant, a permanent home for Phuc Yea they hope to open this summer in MiMo.
There have been scary moments.
The first day they reopened, someone who had found the original menu for The Federal online came in, sat down, saw the new menu and said, “This is great, but it’s not what I’m in the mood for right now.” He walked out without ordering.
“I felt sick, like ‘Did we do the right thing?’ ” Meinhold recalled.
But during a recent Wednesday lunch, 12 to 15 were seated, exploring The Fed’s new menu and look. The restaurant was filled with the aromas of the Southwest, a buzz of something new and fresh, and, the couple hopes, of promise for The Fed’s next four years.
“I truly believe this is an evolution of The Federal,” Meinhold said. “It’s a more grown-up version of what we want to offer the neighborhood.”