It's the middle of a busy dinner rush on a Saturday night at Hot & Soul in Fort Lauderdale. The dining room is packed with couples, families, and groups of friends seated at tables that wind from the front near the floor-to-ceiling windows to the back where still more
But the servers and kitchen staff are nowhere to be found.
Then it happens: out of nowhere a crawfish, a banana, and a shark
"Sometimes we do things that other people [at other establishments] would never do, like when we dress up in silly costumes and sing happy birthday for our customers," says
Three years ago, Hot & Soul opened quietly in a strip mall off North Federal Highway at Oakland Park Boulevard. The place hasn't changed much since then — from the birthday song singing to the signature dishes and the list of daily rotating specials — and that's just the way Hampton,
The couple — along with a loyal, nearly all-original staff of eight — serves dinner six nights a week. These days, the place is well known for the chefs' take on international cuisine, what amounts to dishes that cover the range of Asian and Indian to South American and classic European.
After trying the food, you might be surprised to learn the couple
"It was just something we wanted to do," says Hampton. "This was back in the heyday of Food Network cooking shows with a ton of great chefs. I remember I bought Emeril's cookbook and made every single dish. He was a big reason I decided to become a chef. And I'm pretty sure Christy was OK with being a professional student."
In 1997, the couple packed up and moved to New Orleans, where they lived until 2005. Driven by pure determination, Hampton landed his first job at Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico, the celebrity chef's take on the grand American steakhouse.
"Looking back we were both incredibly lucky. I remember I was scared, with no experience whatsoever," says Hampton. "And it was a very competitive kitchen to work in, with a lot of yelling. I remember doing things like chopping parsley for a half-hour straight, and then someone stealing it so I'd have to start all over."
Starting over would be something both Hampton and
After six years exploring the West Coast dining scene — Hampton working as a private chef and
Hampton spent more than a year with American Social off Las Olas.
"At the time, we thought it would be the perfect place to have a counter service type place. That was our original vision," says Hampton. "Of course, we couldn't make the necessary design changes, so we were stuck with 54 seats instead. Looking back, it almost seems like it was meant to be."
Home is now Fort Lauderdale, but it's also at Hot & Soul. When Hampton isn't working the line beside his single night cook, he's dreaming about it. It's not unusual for
The specials menu is composed much the same way; a quick stroll through the local farmers' market decides that night's selections in a series of immaculate revelations. He'll
At 4 p.m. the doors open, and — like magic — a list of eight or so new dishes are ready to blow your
They also love the music, soft enough to have an easy conversation; they love the short bar offering craft beer by the bottle and on tap with a view of the kitchen beyond; they love the colorful artwork that brightens the dim-lit, purple-walled room.
And they love the food. Dishes are a good size — not too big, not too small, and the price just right — available in full- or half-portions, inspiring diners with even the most abstemious of intentions to indulge in a seemingly gluttonous feast.
Since opening, the restaurant has offered its own rotation of "hit singles" — dishes that were once specials but became so popular Hampton had no choice but to keep them on for fear of disgruntled regulars.
These include the mushroom manchego toast, a popular appetizer of toasted French bread points layered with a decadent combination of melted manchego cheese atop a pile of onion and brown cream sherry sauce-smothered mushrooms. Available in full and
There's also the gnocchi with oxtail, a signature entree Hampton has been preparing since day one. The first thing the kitchen is tasked with preparing each day, an entire oxtail is braised for six hours in a rich vegetable stock until the meat falls
The salty, stew-like gumbo del día is a flashback to days spent in New Orleans, a spicy, red-brown gravy teaming with hunks of fat andouille sausage and tender bits of ham hock, and whatever else the kitchen dreams up that day. Chicken adobo is equally aggressive, offering up insanely moist chicken coated with an intense sauce that mixes vinegar, soy, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorn, and brown sugar served over fluffy jasmine rice. The Vegan Yum Bowl is a coconut-creamy polenta smothered in a savory mushroom gravy that isn't at all sweet, topped with diced bits of fresh fruit and crispy onions creating a complexity of flavors and textures.
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"I'm certainly proud of the way Hot & Soul has evolved over the years," says Hampton. "We're always trying to push the boundaries and be different. I'm doing things today that I would have never done a few years ago, like putting my own twist on dishes I once thought were too cliche to have on this menu. I've become more open. I've evolved too. And I feel that not only makes me a better person, but also a better chef."
"When we first opened we wanted to be ourselves, and that really hasn't changed," says
Hot & Soul
3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through
Gnaughty gnocchi $12/$20
Chicken adobo $9/$17
Gumbo del día MP
Vegan yum bowl $9/$15