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Interview with Willis Loughhead, Part One

Categories: Chef Interviews
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Photo by Peter Taylor
We lost Willis to NY
Willis Loughhead's first South Florida gig was 14 years ago at the Palm Grill (locations in Key West and North Miami). Most locals, however, will remember him from when he was top toque at Tantra (1999 to 2002) and from when he ran Bizcaya at The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove (until 2004).

Then Willis moved to New York -- specifically to The Bar Room at MoMA, where he was chef de cuisine (it copped best new restaurant kudos from The James Beard Foundation as well as Esquire Magazine). A stint at New York's Country and dual role as Food and Beverage Director and executive chef of The Cooper Square Hotel followed. After Short Order recently named Willis as one of the ten best chefs to leave Miami he contacted us to say thanks. So we took the opportunity to find out what he's been up to since he left.

Was it at all intimidating gong from a Miami restaurant kitchen to a New York restaurant kitchen?

Moving from the Ritz-Carlton opening to the opening of the MoMA was simple and strikingly similar in terms of stress level. The scale was larger in NY; lines were around the block to get in to the museum, with 500 people waiting on 53rd street, but the pressures are the same. The opening of a bodega selling sandwiches or catering a party of 1,000 people is equal....quality is key and if you care, the pressure is there regardless of locale and prep area. I feel the same adrenaline/pressure cooking for friends and family over the holidays in my home as I have cooking in restaurants.

The biggest difference between Miami and New York dining scenes?

The biggest difference is that New York has a variety of quality and ethnic restaurants on a sliding price scale. Miami always seems to be locked into a specific price range for quality restaurants regardless of ethnic background or theme. In New York, you can get a great curry or ramen on a corner for under $12.

Also, the great difference in the two cities is quite simply LUNCH TRUCKS. I cannot remember any in Miami aside from -- my closest approximation -- the window at Versailles on Calle Ocho for cortadito and postres.  In New York, we can go to a corner  and order all sorts of foods from a truck.....waffles, sausages, taqueria food, crepes, halal, bbq,  boutique coffee, cupcakes, etc.

The most interesting ingredient or regional food you've seen lately in New York that Miami might be lacking?

It is not what I cook, but I think that Miami could use two concepts....ippudo and yakitori.

Care to share a Miami food memory?

When I come down here I stay with my friend Damian and his family who live in the Gables....we will eat at his home or at Casablanca Fish Company where he and I have been eating and shopping since we ceremoniously opened every Stone Crab Season by driving over to the old causeway location and eating a pound or two each, cracking them on their old picnic tables, and then driving back over the causeway to the 2nd Street Beach -- a block from where we shared a first floor flat on Collins.

The person who influenced you most down here is...

My largest influence and my best memory of true Food and Beverage professionalism while I was in Miami comes from Marco Selva.  Marco was then the opening GM of the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, but he had worked through all ranks of food and beverage to become the 5 diamond GM of the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. First he hired Roberto Holz, a great chef who is now the chef of the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. And then he hired me. I learned professionalism, delegation, respect and many of the standards to which I currently hold myself accountable from Marco.

You were single when you left. Now...

I am recently married to Emily Fu who I met at The Modern when we were both opening the property for Danny Meyer. We got engaged in Napa at Opus One with Michael Silacci (the winemaker of Opus and a close friend). Our wedding was in Montauk, Clam Bake themed, and photographed by Peter Taylor. Peter was the person who photographed the food, wine and chefs in SoFla in the early part of the last decade.  He always shot using vintage cameras and natural lighting, which was unusual in the early stages of the digital camera age.

Tomorrow: Which Miami foods and restaurants Loughhead misses, working with charcuterie, and sharing a very personal moment.

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