Our annual food guide, Taste, hits newsstands Thursday, February 19. In this year's issue, you'll find guides to local food neighborhoods; interviews with local coffee roasters, chefs, and chocolatiers; and a handy roundup of South Florida's breweries. Readers of Clean Plate Charlie don't have to wait. Here's a sneak peek from 2015's Taste Guide, and you can follow this link to see other Taste Guide posts you may have missed.
When Christy Samoy and Mike Hampton moved to Fort Lauderdale, they didn't know they would be at the forefront of the South Florida dining scene. Rather, they were just looking for a town they could afford.
Hampton explains that the couple was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. That storm changed the trajectory of their lives, as it did for so many others.
"We lived a few blocks from the river and decided to check into a hotel downtown to ride out the storm. The next morning, there were a lot of broken windows, but we thought we had dodged a bullet. Then the flooding started. I was working at a restaurant in Metarie, just outside of New Orleans, that reopened fairly quickly, and because of the curfews, I couldn't get home to Orleans Parish. One night, Christy and I had a talk, and we decided to move. We had this attitude that we could live wherever we wanted, so we chose San Diego."
The couple liked San Diego but were priced out of real estate.
"That leads us to why we're here in South Florida," says Hampton. "We knew we would never be able to afford a house and never have the money to open a restaurant."
The couple found themselves in Fort Lauderdale, almost by serendipity, as Hampton explains.
"I'm not going to lie. Honestly, I thought we would land in Miami to do what we wanted to do restaurantwise. We weren't sure if the people of Fort Lauderdale would be into our concept. But we really believed in ourselves, and we found a place with cheap rent, which would give us a chance to succeed."
Succeed they did, with Hot & Soul getting not only good critical reviews but high ratings on consumer-driven sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Hampton takes a humble approach to this news.
"The food's good, and the vibe's good. We're not getting rich, but we have sort of a cult following. We don't really know anything about marketing. We just do what we do and hope people will connect with it. On most levels, we're not doing it for the money; we're dead passionate about what we do."
There was a bit of good timing involved with Hot & Soul's success. Funky Buddha, a not-too-distant neighbor, lit the spark in local consumers for a food and drink revolution.
"You can feel there's a vibe, and it's getting better and better here," Hampton says. "All these breweries are opening, and it's cool to be a part of that. I wanted to be part of a community of brewers and chefs, and that's becoming a reality. To me, brewers are rock stars. We had a Christmas party and one of the Funky Buddha brewers came by, and I monopolized him all evening. "
Of course, timing and vibe won't cut it unless the food is good. Hampton and Samoy are both trained chefs, and, although Samoy spends most of her time in the front of the house, she turns out a fair share of the dishes. Hampton explains the "International Soul Food" concept is really just code for "do whatever we want to do." Right now, that means being influenced by New Orleans, Boston, and Florida.
"I've been smoking fish out back and making fish dip," he says. "This is a culmination of everywhere we've lived and traveled and our life experiences."
The couple found some challenges in sourcing the proper ingredients for their dishes. Coming from farm-rich California, Hampton assumed South Florida was filled with markets.
"When we lived in San Diego, there was a farmers' market a block away, and you just assume they're everywhere. Here, I can't just go to one place daily and pick up fish and meat and produce in one spot. We've been using purveyors to make it happen. Our meat purveyor sources responsibly raised animals, and almost all the seafood is local and sustainable. We also use Marando Farms. There are challenges, be we're able to get it done."
The one so-called obstacle the husband-and-wife team finds surprisingly easy is working together.
"Obviously there are some challenges," Hampton says. "Sometimes when we're home, we have to remind ourselves not to talk about work. But she has her tasks and I have mine, and we both trust each other. We were 20 years old when we met, and after 22 years of growing up together, we had a lot of years of getting to know each other before starting a restaurant together. In the end, we like each other's company."
Hampton says their future goal is to "graduate from line cook to restaurateur" and open another restaurant, although the location and concept are still to be decided.
"I'm into cooking vegetarian food, and that could be a concept," he says. "We also talk about doing something in Miami or how cool Delray Beach is becoming."
For now, the culinary couple is still working on nurturing Hot & Soul.
"Everything we do is contingent on the success of what we have now, so 99 percent of our energy is focused on Hot & Soul."
Hot & Soul is located at 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. It is open 5 to 10 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 754-206-2155, or visit hotandsoul.com.