Palette Magazine

Chef Josie Smith-Malave comes home to Bubbles + Pearls

By Shayne Benowitz

Chef Josie Smith-Malave, owner of Bubbles + Pearls;
Chef Josie Smith-Malave, owner of Bubbles + Pearls;

There’s a quote from Edward Albee’s play Zoo Story that goes: “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”

For Hialeah native Josie Smith-Malave, 42, it was a journey of nearly 20 years, more than half of it spent in New York City in and out of some of its most celebrated kitchens and eventually starring as a chef-testant on Bravo’s Top Chef Season 2 in Los Angeles. The other half was spent traveling the world, with a few years spent in San Francisco for good measure. In 2014, after her winding journey and brush with celebrity, she came back to South Florida and opened her first restaurant — Bubbles + Pearls — in Wilton Manors with her fiancé Marcy Miller in September 2016.

Raised in a devout Baptist household, in what she calls a borderline working class family — “Okay, okay, we were poor…” — by a Puerto Rican-Italian mother and Filipino father, Smith-Malave recalls her youth. “[It was] incredible, amazing and tumultuous, but there was always a lot of love.” From an early age, she had a feeling she was destined for greatness, telling her father at age 10 not to expect grandkids from her because that wasn’t her ambition. However, it was a challenge figuring out how to channel her enthusiasm.

In middle school, she auditioned for the musical theater program at Norland-North Center for the Arts magnet school in Miami Gardens, but was accepted into its visual arts program. When she moved to New York City at 22, she tried everything from casting at a friend’s modeling agency to playing football with the New York Sharks and applying to the New York Film Academy and The Actors Studio before finally enrolling in culinary school at the Art Institute — and sticking with it.


Coming to Terms

Smith-Malave welcomes me into Bubbles + Pearls, her aptly named Champagne and oyster bar, one afternoon before her staff arrives for dinner prep. She’s dressed in black, wearing a snapback baseball cap with BROOKLYN inscribed in all capital letters, a dark grey vest and a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame T-shirt with a few tattoos peering out from beneath her sleeves. Her warm and loquacious manner is punctuated by her trademark and infectiously jolly guffaw, which was immortalized on Top Chef, for better or for worse.

As we talk about her childhood in Miami, she recounts all the different schools she attended and her various accolades before glossing over the fact that “due to extraordinary circumstances” she didn’t finish high school. Instead she got her GED shortly after the date she would have graduated.

Despite her tight-knit family bonds, her parents divorced and she moved out at age 16. The latter was because her parents weren’t ready to accept her blossoming identity as a bisexual. She recalls her first lesbian moments. “It was in elementary school. I remember wanting to kiss my classmates, and they weren’t boys,” she says bashfully as she recounts a story about passing notes to her crush, telling the girl they were from a secret admirer, a boy, when they were really from her.

In high school, she found community in a group of kids who identified as LGBTQ. While she remained closeted, she learned to be more comfortable. “I remember being in awe all the time,” she says. “I’d go to a friend’s house and watch the dynamic as this 17-year-old boy queens out with his mom, and it was a total non-issue.”

With her own parents she became rebellious, sneaking out of the house on a Friday night and not coming home until Sunday. Much of her coming of age took place at The Waterfront, a gay dive bar in Hialeah. “It had a gay flag and feathers. They made chicharrones in the backyard, and it had a real Latin vibe. Inside, it felt like you were in a boat and they played the best music. Exposé, “Diamond Girl,” real Miami booty bass. It was totally 305,” she says. “That’s where I explored more.”

When she left home, she moved to South Beach, where she worked at a deli on Ocean Drive and at a candy store, while promoting parties throughout the 1990s. “I was never alone,” she recalls. “There was always community, friends and extended family.”


A Top Chef is Born

After graduating from the Art Institute in New York, she floated through a number of high-profile kitchens, starting with an internship at Wylie Dufresne’s white-hot WD-50 in 2002. At the time, he and his chefs were breaking boundaries in American molecular gastronomy and Smith-Malave was enthralled, calling them “a band of pirates — totally rock ‘n roll.” When her internship ended, she told Dufresne she wanted to follow his footsteps, so he helped her find a position with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who she apprenticed under at his midtown restaurant Vong.

It was as sous chef at Williamsburg’s Marlow & Sons — a cozy hipster canteen specializing in oysters and a spare Mediterranean-inspired menu that changed daily — that she truly gained an appreciation for the value of sourcing the freshest produce. Today, she says it was Marlow & Sons that inspired her concept for Bubbles + Pearls.

It was also at that time that her then-girlfriend secretly sent an application for Top Chef for her after she had innocently mentioned that she should be on the show one night. Her high-watt personality lit up the casting directors and before she knew it she was part of the cast in L.A. in 2006. Though she was eliminated relatively early — in round five of 13 — she loved the limelight, and it loved her right back.

She went onto appear in Seasons 3 and 5 and reprised her role as a chef-testant in Season 10 in Seattle, making it to round 12 of 17. The publicity helped align her as a spokesperson with LGBTQ organizations, like GLAAD, TrueChild, Olivia Travel and the ACLU. In 2010, she founded her own non-profit, Global Soul Project, with the belief that food connects us all and a mission to end hunger and foster community.


The Homecoming

After two and a half years in San Francisco working at Thee Parkside, a restaurant and bar with a backyard that staged punk, indie and metal bands, Smith-Malave came back to South Florida. She’d made some poor financial choices and lost her beloved apartment in Hayes Valley. But it was really family that called her home. Her mom had gotten sick, and her brother Jonathan had just had his second child. She moved in with her sister Julie in Miramar with plans to start over from scratch, intent on leaving the kitchen behind and disinterested in a relationship.

She enrolled in Gratitude Training, a three-part self-development program designed to identify ineffective belief systems in order to break through to your fullest potential and happiest life. Smith-Malave talks about it constantly now, the effects clearly life-changing. It helped her mend her relationships with family, muster the courage to open her own restaurant, and it informs the way she engages with her staff. “I live in a different space, a space of gratitude,” she says.

It also propelled her to open her options when it came to dating and try OKCupid where she met Miller, an artist whose specialty is pet portraits. Their first date was at a restaurant on Wilton Drive where Bubbles + Pearls now exists. Smith-Malave approached the owners, who are friends of Miller’s, in June 2016 to see if they’d be interested in consulting services. Instead, they offered to sell the business. Two and a half months later, Bubbles + Pearls emerged.

Inheriting a tiny kitchen, the raw bar concept made sense logistically and Smith-Malave surprised herself with the cutesy name, which had to grow on Miller. The restaurant also serves a pared down menu of small plates like burrata and heirloom tomato toast, bone marrow with parmesan and black garlic and homemade biscuits that her mother makes served with pork belly and fig honey.

In fact, it’s a family affair with her mother working three nights a week and her father creating promotional material and providing marketing. “You can only run away for so long,” Smith-Malave says. “I couldn’t unveil this vision without working with family. It would feel inauthentic. My niece and nephew are watching now.”

She looks around her cozy dining hall with a wooden bar lined with yellow aluminium stools, the walls stacked with Champagne bottles. Artist Kelly Keith just arrived and installs her work, which will be on display for the next few months. “I never thought I’d come home. I thought this city doesn’t have what I need to be fulfilled. I was wrong. This is my home town. I worked my entire life to be able to do this.”

“We’re not obligated to be who we were 10 years ago… or even five minutes ago.”