Ask the Chef

Steve Zobel, Chef at d.b.a./cafe in Fort Lauderdale: Q&A about Triomphe, East End Brasserie, and His Nickname "the Rocket"

Going from a 160-seat high-end oceanfront resort bistro to a cozy 60-seat eatery may seem like a step down for some chefs, but for newly-appointed d.b.a. Executive Chef Steve Zobel, it's a dream come true.  

"It reminds me of the places you find at home," Zobel, a Manhattan native, told Clean Plate Charlie. Zobel recently left Fort Lauderdale's Atlantic Resort & Spa's East End Brasserie to work on opening new venture d.b.a./cafe with co-owners Tom Moynihan and Michael Lynch, a fellow New Yorker and founder of Hallandale Beach's Il Mercato

Located in a shopping center at 2364 N Federal Hwy., d.b.a. is short for "doing business as" -- a name open to interpretation as the owners plan on future expansion across South Florida with unique locations offering menus that reflect the area. For example, d.b.a. Miami would have a decided Latin American flair.

The Fort Lauderdale d.b.a. -- slated to open late October -- will be 1,850-square-feet of "laid-back fun," said Zobel, much like the Manhattan eateries he misses from the South Florida food scene. Being touted as an edgy, hip New York City-style wine bar and restaurant, the menu will feature a range of dishes termed global and Euro-centric cuisine. In other words: room to be creative outside the standard French Zobel been serving up for more than a decade.

To learn more about d.b.a. keep reading for a Q&A with Chef Zobel:

Clean Plate Charlie: You grew up in Manhattan -- the ultimate "foodie" city. How did your career as a chef begin?

Steve Zobel: I grew up in the upper west side of Manhattan, and -- believe it or not -- didn't start out as a natural when it came to cooking. After high school I went to college for a little while, and ended up working on Martha's Vineyard during the summer season at places like The Black Dog Tavern. That's where I got my start. I did everything -- all the back of house jobs. And I was the worst cook ever. They even nicknamed me "the rocket" because I was so slow. But I started getting better, and eventually moved on to create dishes and menus. It was a creative outlet for me -- one that I had never had before. 

You've also had the opportunity to cook all over the country -- even abroad.

I began with summers in Martha's Vineyard, but I've also worked in cities like New Orleans and Boston, as well as several cities in Europe, including Normandy, France.

You eventually went back to Manhattan. Where did you get your real "start" in the industry?

I started at The Sign of the Dove. It was my first high-end dining experience. Andrew D'Amico was one of those hard-core, crazy chefs -- the one's people always hear about. But he was a genius where classic American-European cuisine was concerned. It was a great learning experience, and he later offered me a position as sous chef at a place called Contrapunto in [Manhattan], where I really learned to hone my skills in fine dining and Italian cuisine.

You began cooking French cuisine at Triomphe, which was named the "best theater district restaurant" by New York magazine during your career. What brought you to South Florida?

I spent 10 years as executive chef at Triomphe, and there was one really harsh winter a few years back, and I decided to move my family somewhere warm and sunny. Triomphe was great, but -- towards the end -- it wasn't exciting anymore. It got to the point where all my cooks were so well-trained, they almost didn't need me. I was ready for a change.

You began your Florida career with East End Brasserie. Did that make for an easy transition from Triomphe?

Definitely. I spent one year with East End, and my only complaint is that I didn't have the chance to be as creative as I would have liked. It's a huge restaurant on the beach with a lot of tourists, and they want the typical menu favorites. At d.b.a. I'll have the chance to do my own thing. No caesar salads!

Ha, you can never have the perfect caesar salad. What makes d.b.a. different, for you?

We want it to be just a really cool, fun place -- a no-frills kind of thing where you pay for what's on the plate, and not what's on the walls. We want it to have a real neighborhood feel where you come to hang out and have fun. (Appetizers will be $8 and $12, while entrees range from $16 to $28, and all entrees -- including pasta dishes -- will be available in full and half portions to make sharing more affordable.)

Tell us about the interior design.

We wanted it to have that "broken-in" feeling of your local neighborhood spot. There's a lot of brick and wood, even mason jar lighting, for a really rustic feeling. Another highlight will be the shelving -- we have books everywhere -- cookbooks, for people to pick up and read. It's very reminiscent of the places in the city I'm used to. It's got a very East Village, lower East Side vibe going on.

The restaurant's slogan is "food for the wandering palate." What does that mean?

The dishes will have a global flare, while also highlighting contemporary American favorites like hamburgers, pasta and wings.

Will you be sourcing locally?

Yes, and I plan to work with as much local and seasonal ingredients as possible -- not just doing it halfway, but really committing to the idea of buying local. That includes getting fish fresh off the boat, and produce shopping at Marando Farms daily.

I hear you're working on putting together a really special wine list. Tell us more.

Wine is going to be an important part of the d.b.a. experience, and we've put together a unique wine list with small batch and boutique lables. The owner handpicked the wines to complement the cuisine, including distinct blends that really go against the trends. The restaurant will also offer a good selection of craft beers, and we're looking forward to adding pairing dinners, as well as a special pairing section on the menu, as we move forward.

Can you share some of the menu with us?

I'm really excited about our fresh pastas, like the spinach and feta ravioli served with a red pepper tomato sauce, accented with olives, artichoke and mint.

What are you looking forward to most with d.b.a.?

I'm really looking forward to cooking whatever I'm in the mood to create. I'm excited to start making my own pastas, and experimenting with different seasonal ingredients. I also like the fact that I'll have the option to do specials.

So you'll be doing a lot of cooking...

This is going to be much more of a cooking job for me, for sure. In the past, being executive chef of a 100-plus seat establishment meant 90% of the work was administrative, and I wasn't as hands-on as I would have liked to be. I guess what I'm looking forward to most is being back in the kitchen and working the line.

D.B.A. is located at 2364 N Federal Hwy. in Fort Lauderdale and will be open for brunch, lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. A "late night" menu will be available once D.B.A. opens. For more information, call the restaurant at 954-565-3392.