On the eve of the 2016 StarChefs South Florida Rising Stars Awards Ceremony, Symrise hosted a private roundtable discussion featuring some of Miami's most prominent names in the food and beverage industry. Chef Alex Chang of Vagabond, Chef Bradley Kilgore of Alter, and Chef Diego Oka of La Mar Miami shared the spotlight with mixologists Christian Rolon of The Regent Cocktail Club and John Lermayer of Sweet Liberty. Moderated by Symrise's Vice President of Marketing & Consumer Insights, Emmanuel Laroche, the panel delivered some valuable insights into their world. Inquiring minds wanted to know; what inspires them?
Master mixologist, Lermayer, kicked off the lively discussion. "These days, I tend to look for great spirits. I look to frame the flavor of the spirit and do what I can to asset that and build on that as a foundation. Spirits production is getting so good worldwide. For me, it's [about] tasting great spirits and understanding that the people who make spirits are usually well traveled, intelligent, and really very interesting. Also, being able to take a piece of their work and seeing how I can build on it and deliver it to my guests with the ultimate goal being satisfying the people who choose to come to my bar.”
For Chang, seasonal raw ingredients are key to his inspiration. "Whatever is at the peak of its season, like a mango. You can see it bursting, it's telling you to eat it. How can I build a dish off of this and build around that one ingredient?" Kilgore added to Chang's philosophy, "Sometimes the ingredient will drive the inspiration or the concept of the dish. Also, maybe it's a cooking technique or something you want to manipulate, then you build new flavors around it." Unlike the other restaurants represented on the panel, La Mar's Peruvian theme leads Oka on a different inspirational path. For him, highlighting the culture is important, but adapting to Florida's local ingredients is a key twist. "If you want to innovate, you first have to know about tradition.”
The incredibly talented group agreed; inspiration for innovation can come from just about everywhere and it's truly OK to learn from others. "That's one of the biggest challenges," said Chang. "You start as a cook, and you are just trying to master someone else's recipe and their vision as you slowly start to branch out on your own. It's almost hard to break away. How much you know, can kind of handcuff you. In a way, that can stop your creative process. You almost have to force yourself to take a step back and try to look at it from a different perspective." Originality is important, but so is honoring the learning process. "I've done a few techniques over time," shared Kilgore. "Some I've seen come up a few years later. Maybe someone with a bigger voice was able to put a stamp on it, but it wasn't like a copy-cat thing. There's a balance between leaning on something and using something to hold you up.”
There's a constant give and take between the customers and a business; a song and dance of sorts. The tricky part is calculating that enigmatic formula which will lead to a successful path. "How does it make a person happy?" is one of the questions Rolon asks himself when thinking about a new cocktail. "I love what I do. It makes me happy if they are happy. They are the inspiration." Oka, whose restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental boasts 256 seats, easily caters to different groups. "Customers are important. Without them, we can't continue working, and being open. There are some that go to restaurants to have an experience and they can go to that restaurant once every two months, and there are restaurants you can go to every week." Lermayer also brought up an excellent point regarding "buzzwords" and how they can positively or negatively affect a customer. "A lot of it for me is a kind of psychology and how we word flavors and how we make it approachable." Kilgore agreed, "Every time I get a little bit too cheeky, it doesn't work out ... I had poussin on the menu, and I changed it to young chicken and it started selling ... Some people don't want to be outsmarted too. Give them three words they recognize and one new one so they're intrigued.”
South Florida's culinary scene is quickly soaring high. Focus, drive, determination, and creativity is easily found throughout the city. But support, respect, and a rare camaraderie among peers is cementing its success. Nothing could be more inspiring.
Be sure to check back next week for Part 2: Trends & Treats