I knew very little, nothing really, about Locust Projects until last night. The non-profit organization, whose mission is to provide a space for visual artists to experiment with new ideas, was hosting a conversation with chef Michael Schwartz in the Design District.
I sat on one of the pink hills that were part of an installation by Leyden Rodriguez Casanova, a Cuban artist. For the installation, called An Uneven Floor, he covered the space’s floors with plywood and built hills a little like skating ramps. He then covered them with fuzzy, hot pink carpeting. Perfect for a picnic.
Schwartz prepared an heirloom tomato, beet, walnut and blue cheese salad (the recipe can be found in the first issue of edible South Florida). His bar manager (what’s up with the term mixologist, Schwartz noted), Ryan Goodspeed, prepared a strawberry caipirinha using local strawberries and basil that went down a little too easily.
It was interesting to hear Schwartz’s answers to the questions from Locust Projects contributor Dennis Scholl, an art collector, wine maker and a friend of the chef. Here are some of my favorite exchanges.
DS: You’ve named your restaurant, pretentiously, Michael’s Genuine. Genuine: refraining from pretense or affectation. Have you managed to avoid pretense and affectation?
MS: What are you saying? [Laughter]
I think that we have.
When I was going to open the restaurant, I’ve been in Miami now 15-16 years and the restaurant will be three in March so I’d been in Miami for a good dozen years and when we were talking about names for the restaurant, I recognized that it was important to include my name because I had a bit of a local following. But we just felt like Michael’s just, there’s lots of Michael’s restaurants …
So we tried to take a name that would kind of capture not only my name but what our intentions were, and that word genuine kinda popped, and for us it was kind of a measuring stick for everything that we decided to do at the restaurant. So it stands for a lot and it’s important.
[Apparently at one point, the name Genuine Schwartz was considered.]
On sourcing …
MS: I fancy myself a pretty good shopper. People say things like, what’s the secret, why is the food good? And the food is good because we start with good food. And that is sometimes, especially now, is not that easy to do. And especially in my business, time is valuable and one-stop shopping is very appealing to chefs.
We spend a tremendous amount of time sourcing product and supporting – and it’s easy to say – local growers.
DS: It’s become kind of a buzz word …
MS: Sure, sustainable, and organic, and eating local.
We’ve believed in that for a long of time and are happy and fortunate that it’s trendy and popular now, and I think that if that’s what it takes for people to realize why they’re interested in that, it’s good, it’s fine. So sourcing product is really important to us. We’re in the height of the growing season here in South Florida and there’s stuff growing in our backyard that we should be proud of and celebrate.
DS: Are there things on the menu now … that have to stay there because people will go crazy if they don’t? And does that bother you?
MS: Does it bother me? No. It limits us though. As we create dishes that kind of stick, if we don’t take them off then it doesn’t leave us room to create new ones so there’s been things that have come off the menu and on the menu and cycled around over the years. There are things that have been on the menu since we opened that we haven’t taken off, but I’ll take it off.
DS: You’ve resisted the urge, so far, to kind of spread yourself thin. Is that a conscious effort on our part? You’ve certainly had opportunities.
MS: It’s funny because chefs work really hard and when they have an opportunity to expand or capitalize in the success that they’ve created, a lot of times they’ll take it, and it’s very tempting because usually throughout our careers we work very hard and long hours for very little money.
Usually they say strike when the iron’s hot. That for me… if the iron’s hot, you’re not ready because you’re busy keeping the iron hot. I didn’t want to make the mistake of expanding too fast and not being at the restaurant. It’s been almost three years and I’m still there quite a bit. Starting now to kinda pull out as we open a restaurant in Grand Cayman. So I’ll start to pull out a little bit to try to split and spend a little bit of time to get that restaurant opening going, or things like I’m working on a cookbook so that’s taking some time. So I’m learning how to not to be at the restaurant 16 hours a day everyday, but to still feel like I’ve infused it with enough culture and to maintain that.
Locust Projects holds events throughout the year (last October they hosted chef Jeff McGinnis from The Di Lido South Beach) and though they’re not all culinary, they seem interesting. Check out their events schedule.