Floribbean Forecast Cross-cultural cuisine taking Florida by storm may be heading north

May 16, 1993|By Karol Menzie | Karol Menzie,Staff Writer

When it comes to cuisine, the great American melting pot i more of a grab bag.

A land rich in immigrants and fairly fluid in social structure can always have its pick of the best dishes from all the cultures that inhabit it.

And every now and then, something comes along that captures the taste buds of the nation. In the '70s, it was French cuisine. In the '80s it was Chinese, Pacific Rim, Southwest. And in the '90s, palates in the know are touting a spicy but down-home blend of southern United States, Spanish, Caribbean and Latin American foods that's being called "Floribbean," "Nuevo Cubano," or "New World Cuisine."

"It's really a hot spot right now," said Caroline Stuart, author, with Jeanne Voltz, of "The Florida Cookbook" (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf, $24), in a recent phone interview. "Chefs have taken what's available and given it new twists," she said. True, that's happening all over the country, but Florida has such abundance of fruits and fish, and so many ethnic influences, she said, that culinarily speaking, "it's really new territory."

Among ethnic influences, she noted, are Spanish, Greek, Caribbean, Asian, Cuban, Haitian, Czech -- and southern American. "Central Florida is as rural as central Georgia," she said. "There's a tremendous amount of farmland. . . . I grew up on a ranch, with cows and cowboys."

"Florida is where European cooking entered this country" -- 200 years before California was settled, said Ms. Stuart's co-author, Jeanne Voltz. "Florida has been settled by an enormous mix of people. . . . Florida reinvents its cookery with every new wave of people."

For Ms. Voltz, former food editor of the Miami Herald, Florida has always been a place of great food. Besides the ethnic richness, she said, Florida has "such a great bounty of wild and wonderful fruits and game. . . . There's just no substitute for really fresh things."

What's happening, she said, is some young chefs are capitalizing on the good things the state has to offer. "And some of them are doing a wonderful job."

One of those is Oliver Saucy, who moved to Florida after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y. Since 1983, he's been at Cafe Maxx in Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale.

Mr. Saucy said a major influence in the explosion of Florida cookery has been the new availability of exotic produce, fish and game. Florida farmers and breeders are producing baby lettuces and unusual tomato varieties, farm-raised soft-shell crabs and oysters, rabbit and quail. There's a Floridian producing goat cheese. "Up to about three years ago I had to import this stuff from California," Mr. Saucy said.

Compared with California, "Florida is just going through puberty in developing a system of growers," he said. "But now there are so many things we're doing -- and doing very well."

In his own cooking, Mr. Saucy said, "I like to keep an open mind. I take things from Japanese, Oriental, Italian, French and California American and relate them to stuff we grow here." His menu for that day, for instance, included jumbo grilled sea scallops with a tropical salsa of mango, papaya and hot pepper.

"In the '80s, people got turned on to good food," Mr. Saucy said, "so there's a bona fide demand" for good, fresh tastes today. And, the new Florida cuisine generally eschews heavy cream and butter sauces. "It's light, it's healthy," he said.

"It's a style of cooking that makes a lot of sense here," said chef Robbin Haas, of the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club north of Miami. "It's a regional style of cooking based on the history and heritage of Florida." In his own kitchen, it means dishes such as tamarind-guava sauce for grilled lamb or veal, and Southern-fried frogs' legs with a stew of black-eyed peas, okra and tomatoes. "It's a big, bold-flavor approach to cooking," he said.

Mr. Haas compares the recent explosion of interest in Florida cuisine to the interest in Southwest cooking of a few years ago. "Any time you get a real strong style of regional cooking," it attracts adherents, Mr. Haas said. But it's more than a matter of throwing local ingredients together. "The chefs who have good discipline are doing things that are real positive," he said. But there are others who are "not doing their homework."

Although the ingredients and influences of the Florida style have been around for some time, Mr. Haas cites the expansion of the fashion and movie industries in South Florida as cultural elements that encouraged the development of a sophisticated, signature regional style. "There's a couple of chefs down here trying to make a difference."

"I call it 'New World Cuisine," said Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in North Miami Beach. "I use local resources of fresh fish and tropical fruit, influenced by the Caribbean and Latin America and the Old World."

That results in such dishes as pan-roasted grouper with green lentils, and pompano en papillote (in parchment) with black truffles.

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