Chef Michael Bennett is a native Floridian, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and a passionate chef who truly believes in cooking creatively and making a meal memorable for his guests.
Chef Bennett loves his work, and it shows. Since 2008, he's manned the helm of Bimini Boatyard, one of Fort Lauderdale's most enduring and iconic restaurants. Bennett has brought the sheer joy of cooking to the restaurant's menu. We spoke with Bennett about cooking and family.
Clean Plate Charlie: Fort Lauderdale, while having some very good restaurants, seems like a thousand miles away in attitude from Miami restaurants. Why do you think that is?
Chef Michael Bennett: It's a business and a down-home attitude here in Fort Lauderdale. Here, it's let's do business and go home and have a family life. In Miami, it's kind of like, "I need the P.R.; I need the publicity," and I've never been that way.
Bimini Boatyard is a large restaurant. How many people can you seat?
We have like 460. We added another 80 to 100 seats on the small deck we built last year. You know, they renovated this entire place last year in like 24 hours. I went on vacation for a week, and when I came back, everything was brand new -- the dining room, the bathrooms, everything. They worked nonstop.
What is the tourist-to-local ratio?
A lot, but at lunchtime, we get all locals. Everybody is slowing down after season; we're getting crazed. We broke a record last year. I don't know what everyone else is doing, but we're doing very well. We're doing phenomenal. Business is so busy, I need another kitchen. We're getting ready to really bust it loose next year. We have the cruise ships and the conventions. The concierges from the hotels or the convention center will send us their big parties of 20-plus. You stay here until about 1:30 and I'll swap you paychecks if I don't get a party of at least 20 people here today. We may not have a private room for them, but we'll accommodate them.
You worked at Solo on the Bay in Miami Beach -- that must have been crazy.
I used to do the nightclub after the restaurant from midnight to 5 a.m. It was crazy. There were thousands of people there every weekend. You should have seen the sheer numbers of people we had. We packed them in. Memorial Day 2005, I had 2,500 people walk through that place in one night. That was the night Beyoncé walked in.
Lil Wayne was there one night, and there were 800 people waiting outside to get in.
Where are you from?
I was born at Broward General, and so was my oldest daughter. I was the first child born in Sunrise. My dad was in the marine business. My grandfather owned the marina next door to Bimini Boatyard. My father and uncle used to race boats by the old Marine stadium in Key Biscayne. My father owned a marina in Tampa, but I moved back to Fort Lauderdale because Tampa was too slow for me.
Before I moved back to Fort Lauderdale, I opened up a few restaurants and redid a Radisson in St. Petersburg, right next door to QVC. Susan Lucci and Lauren Hutton used to be my best customers. Lauren Hutton used to come in every day and ask why I can't make anything healthier.
Jack LaLanne also used to come in all the time.
Please tell me he was a nice guy.
The guy was a pistol. It didn't matter how old he was. His mind was as sharp as when he was doing acrobatics in Miami. He used to come in for only broccoli and egg whites every day. He did it the right way.
So do you eat healthy?
I'm a starch-aholic. Because I'm so busy, I only eat once a day, but starch gives me energy. I eat potatoes, pasta, and bread. I can't live without it. I don't eat meat that much because it isn't important to me any more. Although I cheat. I eat a hamburger once a week. That's my guilty pleasure. And it's not because I'm getting old, although I am, but I've been getting heartburn all my life, and now because I don't eat meat, I don't.
What do you think about chefs who look down on vegetarians?
Why would they say that to a customer? We're here to provide a service. If I don't have it in the kitchen, I can't give it to you, but if I have it -- you got it. This business is hospitality. If you have a problem with that, you should be writing a cookbook or teaching a class. If you're going to be a chef, you've got to be a host.
That's why this place is so popular. Nobody cooks seafood at home. People rarely even cook. Including my daughters. They don't cook, but they love to eat at my restaurant because nobody cooks what they like the way Dad does.
Did you cook for your daughters?
When they were young, I worked 70 to 80 hours a week. I wasn't home a lot, but they called me up every night to bring something home for dinner. And it was never one dish; it was always something different for each girl. And now that they're out of the house, it's like, "What am I going to do? I hate everything because Dad's not making it."
I spoiled them so much with the food.
Are they in school?
One's going to University of South Florida, and one's going to Florida State. They're great kids.
Do they want to go into the business?
I don't think so. They're too smart.
Stay tuned for part two of out interview with Michael Bennett, coming soon.
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