Chef promotes local produce, healthy lifestyle in cookbook, community

Posted: March 03, 2011

MIAMI - Michael Schwartz devotees know the names by heart, and they're almost all there: the crispy, sweet-and-sour pork belly with kimchi and crushed peanuts; the shrimp and chorizo pizza; the onions stuffed with ground lamb; the milk-chocolate cremoso with espresso parfait.

Schwartz - the game-changing, Northeast Philly-raised chef who staked an early claim in Miami's Design District, who helped free South Florida cuisine from the ubiquitous mango, who last year won a James Beard Award and who is putting his notoriety to work on behalf of farmers, schoolchildren and inner-city food shoppers - has shared fan favorites in his first cookbook.

About the only thing missing from Michael's Genuine Food: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat by Schwartz and JoAnn Cianciulli (Clarkson Potter, $35) is his crispy hominy with chile and lime. It's an unfortunate omission for those who love it at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, but one made with their best interests in mind.

"It's very dangerous to make at home," said Schwartz, 46, who lives in Miami Beach with his wife, Tamara, and three children. "Any time you deep-fry at home, there's oil splattering all over the place. It's crazy."

Schwartz really is all about health and well-being. His commitment is evident on his menu, on the street and in his business practices. He provides his employees with health insurance - not an easy thing for an independent restaurateur to do.

He's not secretive about the sources of his incredibly fresh ingredients, as many as possible secured from local or instate farmers and producers. The more business they get, he figures, the better the chances they'll be able to keep producing. That belief propelled him from behind the stove of his wildly successful restaurant into the forefront of food-access issues in South Florida and beyond.

"It's common sense," he said. "As we started to forge relationships with farmers and suppliers, we noticed that a lot of that stuff was inaccessible. It was better for the farmers and producers to start sharing that information with the restaurant community."

Then came his involvement with Wholesome Wave and Roots in the City.

Wholesome Wave is a national nonprofit founded by Michel Nischan, executive chef of the Dressing Room in Westport, Conn., and the son of displaced farmers. Its goal is to eliminate "food deserts" in communities where fast-food restaurants grow like kudzu while stores selling affordable, fresh produce are scarce. (One of its partners is the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market.)

Wholesome Wave came up with a way to double the value of food stamps when recipients use them to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. The program operates in more than 20 cities, and Schwartz helped to bring it to Miami.

"I read a piece about it in the New York Times," he said. "It was fascinating, such a simple premise that makes everybody happy: the government, the farmers who want to sell and the people who don't have access to fresh products because it's expensive."

In Miami, the initiative is called Roots in the City, and it operates through a twice-weekly farmers market in the Overtown neighborhood.

It's just one piece of Schwartz's involvement with the Miami neighborhood. Like a number of other local chefs, he has "adopted" a school - in his case Overtown's Phillis Wheatley Elementary. He and the kids plant vegetables, cook nutritious meals and practice healthy habits he hopes will last their lifetimes.

Busing tables in Fox Chase

When Schwartz started in the business, he didn't know he wanted to be in it. He was 15 when he became a busboy at Ristorante DiLullo, the trendsetting Northern Italian restaurant in the Fox Chase area that's known these days as Moonstruck. He began prepping ingredients in the kitchen and worked his way up to line cook.

"That experience had a big impact," he said. "It was very authentic. I learned how to make pasta from the little old Italian ladies who didn't speak English. Going back to 1980, the things they were doing were very innovative, using radicchio, making tomato sorbet and Parmesan ice cream."

In 1986, Schwartz left for California, where he landed a job at Wolfgang Puck's Asian-fusion restaurant Chinois. He worked in kitchens from Los Angeles to New York City, until settling in Miami in the early 1990s.

After making a name for himself on South Beach (Nemo, Big Pink), Schwartz opened Michael's Genuine in 2007. A year later, the New York Times named it one of the nation's 10 best new restaurants.

It became a star magnet, though Schwartz denied it's a celebrity hangout. ("We've got a specific vibe, very low-key. Some of them [celebrities] seek out a better dining experience - without the pomp and the fabulous.") And it became a little harder for locals to get a reservation before 10 p.m.

"Expectations are a scary thing," Schwartz said. "We really had to raise our game."

He and his staff raised it high enough to garner him a James Beard Award last year as best chef in the South.

"The award is truly symbolic of how well-respected he is for the kind of cooking practices and creativity that he has brought," said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, which celebrates and aims to preserve America's diverse culinary heritage. "He certainly has a big personality. Clearly when you look at his menu, you see inventiveness, but it's also approachable."

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