Q: Someone said they had to do a taste test
blindfolded because you were too pretty
and would win. What do you think of that?
A: It’s not that I’m the prettiest chef. One of my customers
said that it wasn’t my food, it was my beautiful smile and
my personality. It broke me down. I want people to say,
“God, that girl can cook.” I want people to leave my place
totally startled that I kicked butt, saying,“She really cares.”
Q: Can you give us an idea of how you
conceive your food?
A: I want really clean flavors. Our menu changes every two
to three months, so in six months I’ll be saying, “What was
I thinking?” Lychees just came in season, so I’ll take pork
belly and confit it for 12 to 14 hours in olive oil with brown
sugar, salt, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf, a little ginger and
star anise. Then I’ll pull it out of the confit liquid, let it cool
and dry, sauce the liquid and fry the pork belly confit so it
gets crispy. Then I’ll take salad greens with pea shoots or
beet greens and add fresh lychees. The lychees will make
the dish creamy, the vegetable will give crispness. I don’t
think it needs much more. I’ll add a simple vinaigrette
with orange juice and a tiny touch of soy and a bit of the
juice dripping from the lychees. Keep it simple.
could use a scrub brush, and he said,“No,” and gave me
half a lime. It was a hot stove. I burnt my fingertips, but I
cleaned it until it was shining and beautiful. Jan once
locked me in the walk-in to make me make whipped
cream right, not with a mixer. It sounds monstrous, but the
French were even worse.
When I got to France, I found grown men in the kitchen
who wanted to make me cry, but I never did. You’ve got to
defend yourself. I was determined to be strong enough to
do it. There were crazy things going on in the late 1990s in
South Beach before things got so trendy.
Q: So what came out of all that?
A: Thanks to them, I don’t take guff. For a while, I became
pretty nasty, but now I can be respectful by holding
my own. It upsets me when kids can’t take it. A kitchen
is sometimes a dangerous place. You’re dealing with
knives, fires and a lot of testosterone. You have to learn
discipline. You can’t be respected until you’ve earned it.
Ballet made me into a very disciplined lady.
Q: What’s this about you starting as a classical
A: I was too short to go into classical ballet, so I got a
scholarship with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe in New York
when I was barely 18. In Florida, I was a big fish in a little
pond. In New York, girls were ready to step on you to be
noticed, and I’ve always been a very nice person. So I didn’t
want to be a dancer. Still, when I danced I was a different
person, not myself. I always had low self-esteem, and when I
danced, I felt taller, slimmer, more beautiful. I always feel that
way in the kitchen — powerful and beautiful.
Q: Being a chef and dancing are nonverbal. Is
being a talk show host complicated for you?
A: I’m not a great speaker, but I could always hear the
music of the food, its sizzle, pop and crack. The music of
food is beautiful. For the first 10 years of my career, I didn’t
talk much. I’m a little bit shy, but it’s not that I don’t know
how to speak. It’s that I’d rather listen. When young cooks
come to me and go on and on, showing off what they
know, those are the kids who are not going to make it.
Listening is what makes a good cook.
Q: Did you have early tough experiences in
A: In my first kitchen job, I worked for Jan Jorgenson, the
new guy in Miami, who had a lot to prove in the early
years of the Mango Gang. It was one of the best training
experiences of my career. I was a prep cook, and he told
me to go clean the stove with lime. I asked if I could use
a lemon, and he said, “No, it’s too expensive.” I asked if I
Q: What is your best advice for culinary students?
A: Not to be so sensitive. When chefs discipline you, they
are not attacking your ego. Have more humility. And
listen. Write down every recipe you learn along the
way. I wish I had written down half of what I’ve created.
It makes me crazy that I haven’t. You can go in the
kitchen feeling like it’s the worst day of your life and
come out feeling like a rock star if you put yourself in
the food and give your diners a kind of gratification.
An architect or artist may have to wait 10 to 20 years to
see their work realized. We only have to wait a couple of
hours to see our work come to fruition.