We chatted with Chef Dean Max, a man noted for his seafood dishes but also for his push to use fresh, local products whenever possible, unusual in a hotel restaurant setting.
Max, a Virginia and Florida farm boy, runs five restaurants: 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale's Harbor Beach Marriott; the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, AMP 150 in Cleveland; Latitude 41 in Columbus, Ohio; and the Brasserie in Georgetown, Grand Caymans.
New Times: You're really pushing Zellwood corn right now. Tell us about this corn fetish of yours.
Dean Max: The sweet-corn season in Florida is very short, and it just happens to be the ingredient of the month. It's here -- and three weeks later, it's gone. I grew up growing corn on my parents' farm. I bought corn as a produce broker with my dad in South Florida for years. I have been at most of the packing houses in the South, and it brings back great memories.
NT: Tell me about owning your own restaurants versus running those in hotels... you said you prefer hotels. Why?
Max: After having my own small place in Brentwood, California, you really see a big difference in running your own small place. In a hotel, you have accounting to process the paperwork, loss prevention to make sure your wine isn't walking out the back door, human resources to process employees, background checks, etc., and a base of built-in customers at your disposal.
They also have great benefits for your employees, which is helpful in keeping people with you. In all of my environments, I run the food and service like a street restaurant (hungry to make the customer happy) -- and I spend my time working on the food and customer relations. It's the best of both worlds for my staff, the hotel owners, and me.
NT: You're a mentor for younger chefs. Who mentored you?
Max: I never had that one icon mentor. It was a mix of mentors. My dad taught me hard work but worked me so hard as a child on the farm. My mom taught me to enjoy food and cooking at home. Chefs like Guenter Seeger (Atlanta) and Girard Pangaud (Washington, D.C.) taught me simplicity in cooking and how to get good purveyors.
NT: What are you learning from younger chefs?
Max: They keep you pushing to show them new stuff. I love to watch them develop and see them try to discover new directions. I also like to help guide them to make good decisions and not try to overcreate in hopes of gaining attention. Sometimes giving people what they want but doing it perfectly is a good thing too.
NT: What one thing won't you tolerate from your kitchen staff?
Max: Working dirty and not respecting the food. Also being respectful of leadership is huge.
NT: What's the hardest thing about being a chef in South Florida?
Max: The purveyors. We constantly seek to develop more local purveyors, and I am always working with the ones we have to make sure they stay in business. Coming from L.A. where the markets are amazing, and San Francisco before that, where everyone in your neighborhood brews their own beer and makes cheese on the side... it's a hard time in South Florida not having the diversity of products.
NT: If you could, what one food would you put on every one of your menus that's not there?
Max: Between five restaurants, with all different concepts and in different areas, I think I have everything I want on a menu somewhere. It would have to be an illegal food like whale for me not to already be serving it. For all the restaurants, I would have to say pork belly. I put it on all my menus on occasion, but it sells much better in the Midwest.
NT: Who cooks at home?
Max: My wife. We have a son and two daughters. My wife is a great cook and loves food. It's a must for a chef to have a woman who loves to eat. All my chef friends that have picky-eating girlfriends never make it.
Max: Coffee. I drink it all morning, and then have a double shot before service at night.
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NT: Any food you don't like?
Max: I am not fond of blue cheese. Its taste is too strong for me. I also don't like real gamey organs. Other than that, I love it all.
NT: Your list of favorites: junk food, music, thing to relax (legal or not), travel destination for the food alone?
Max: Chicken wings and salt and vinegar kettle chips; everything but country -- I'm a big fan of modern rock; playing guitar, surfing, fishing; France -- you don't go there for the hospitality (wink).