Philadelphia native Michael Schwartz is the chef-owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink and Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami. He authored Michael’s Genuine Food: Down to Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat and received the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. On December 15, we spoke by phone and Schwartz shared several culinary insights.
What are five ingredients that every single person needs at home to cook?
That’s opening a big can of worms, but I’ll give you five I think will help. How about olives and olive oil, for their versatility, and citrus, also for its versatility. There’s three. Artisan cheeses, which I think are really big and popular right now, and easily accessible. And great quality proteins, meat and fish. Those are five that if you have on hand, you’re going to do a pretty good job entertaining.
What would life be like for you without olive oil?
Life without olive oil, that’s hard to imagine really, because that’s one of those ingredients we take for granted. A lot of people use it maybe to sautee or use in salad dressings, but we do a lot more with it, and appreciate it for its nuances and different flavor profiles based on different applications. Life without olive oil would be pretty miserable for me.
What was the last meal you cooked at home?
Just a couple of nights ago. It was for my daughter’s birthday. Usually what happens at home, there’s a cooking committee. Certain people will do certain things. She requested steak, so that’s my job, to cook, obviously. My wife cooked some of the sides, and the kids made the salad, and I cooked meat. That’s really how we really like to cook at home. It doesn’t happen all the time. I’m not going to say every time we sit down, everyone contributes, but for the birthday celebration, my middle daughter, it it all sort of came together pretty well, and that was a good thing. It’s always a pretty good variety of things. There’s always a protein, but then lots of sides, and always a great salad is involved at home.
What’s the key to cooking a great steak at home?
Two keys. One is super high heat, so either open the windows or have good ventilation. The other is to let the steak come to room temperature before you cook it, and I think that’s one people don’t often do, but pull it out of the fridge and don’t be afraid to let it sit on the counter for a half hour, at least, un-til it tempers. When you do that, you’ll get a more even cooking throughout the steak.
What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that?
It was in Philly, where I’m from, and it was in a restaurant called DeLullo’s. It was a very fancy Italian restaurant in which I was a busboy, for a short time, before I moved into the kitchen, doing prep. I remember my first night on the line was pretty interesting, and I was overwhelmed, of course. I remember the owner coming over and talking to to the guy who was working to me, sort of training me, saying, “What is this kid doing on the line? He needs to go.” I wound up staying at that restaurant for several years, mastering every station. That was a real motivator for me… I remember it very vividly as a horrible experience that was very intimidating. It’s very fast paced, so my first night on the line in a restaurant was not a great experience, but I stuck with it. That was 32 years ago.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens now?
I look for enthusiasm, first and foremost. Experience is fine, but enthusiasm is the key for me, someone who’s interested, and informed and did their homework and is interested in being there and learning. That’s the most important part of hiring for me.
What will it take to make Miami a great restaurant city, if it isn’t already?
I think it’s headed in the right direction, Miami, as a great food city. It’s starting to become more comfortable with itself, so less to prove, less super-trendy restaurants, and more about quality ingredients, which are much more accessible right now. It’s well on its way, in a good space right now.
What would you like to be known for as a chef?
I guess for me, my goal right now is to do the best at sourcing locally, supporting local agriculture, and mentoring some younger people in this industry.
How has your life changed since earning the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South?
The James Beard Award was a big boost for me. I don’t know that it changed a lot. It satisfied a life long goal that I had, probably increasing business and notoriety. It didn’t change many things, but it was very rewarding.
Who’s a person you’ve never cooked with before that you would most like to cook with?
That’s a good one…How about Barack Obama? Is he a cook?
I think that would just be the time of my life.