Florida State of Mind: Kris Wessel’s Florida Cookery

 I started as the Chef de Cuisine at Mark’s the year he won the James Beard Award

It seems so obvious, celebrating Florida cuisine in the Sunshine State itself, but Kris Wessel’s Florida Cookery is the only restaurant in town putting a gourmet spin on dishes made with indigenous ingredients. The concept is new, yet steeped in Wessel’s family history, which dates back 87 years on Miami beach. Some of the chef’s best recipes are gleened from his grandmother’s old cookbooks. Situated in The James Royal Palm, which thanks to new ownership and a major rennonvation, is simultaneously the oldest and newest hotel on Miami Beach.

How did you come up with the concept?
I was approached by the James Group a year ago and they asked me what I would want to do at a luxury hotel on the ocean.. with a food statement for the entire hotel. The answer was…Florida…with all of its influences and heritage. I want people to think, ‘Wow, I’m in Florida, eating Florida food..outside.’

The Florida Cookery was named after one of your grandmother’s old cookbooks. Did she ever make any of those recipes for you?
Yes, Key Lime Pie, Turtle Soup and a delicious Conch Chowder. And “crawfish,” which is what they used to call Florida’s spiny lobster.

What is the most unusual thing on the menu?
Probably the Alligator Empanadas with oyster and oxtail. The Wild Boar is also not so usual, in Miami anyways.

Your concept dovetails perfectly with the decor of the hotel. Is that by design?
Yes, it’s very 1940’s– 50’s. Those eras were so strong in Florida. I was happy that they went through with the restoration of the green glass coffee bar. It was the original front desk of The Royal Palm and we use green glasses in the restaurant to evoke that period.

Your name isn’t as associated with The Mango Gang as some chefs we know, but you were there.
I started as the Chef de Cuisine at Mark’s the year he won the James Beard Award. I helped him write a 35-item menu all dealing with Florida product like frog’s legs, lemongrass, yucca and guava that changed every day. We had Jamaicans and Haitians working in the kitchen and it was the best experience ever.

Is it easy to source these local, yet exotic ingredients?
No, it is very difficult to count on the seasonality of tropical fruit. Sapodilla comes into season at different times in Homestead, Miami and the islands.

What is the most important ingredient in your kitchen?
That’s a tough one, but I’d have to say citrus. I use it in so many dishes (such as the Grapefruit-Guajillo Ceviche and Organic Chicken Lemon Soup.) I use it in many ways to incorporate influences from all over. After all, in order to do a real Florida concept, you have to have South America, the Caribbean, the American South and, of course, ideas from New York City.

Florida Cookery
1545 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139
(786) 276-0333