There is a point in every teenager’s life when the components of their growing bodies—noses, limbs, ears—lose the harmonic symmetry they displayed as children and spend some time in awkward disarray before eventually, if they’re lucky, realigning.
The city of Miami is currently enduring its phase as a graceless teenager. Signs of maturity can be spotted, haphazardly strewn around the city’s body, in the elegant cheekbones of the new half-billion-dollar opera house complex downtown, the debaucherous weeklong contemporary art festival that draws collectors from around the world, and the greening of several important corporate offices. Other aspects of Miami’s coming into itself, however, lag behind.
Its upscale food scene, for instance—surprising in a city so replete with world-class hotels. It’s hard to blame anyone; the food in Miami often serves as backdrop, just for show (in a cocaine-fueled city of supermodels, who eats?). There’s Bed, a restaurant where the food is served, of course, in bed. There’s the new “beautritional cuisine,” served at Afterglo, where you can buy a “Beauty Pill” made of salmon, mango and broccoli sprouts. And now the hottest gimmick of the moment—sustainable—has finally come to town.
Except it’s not a gimmick this time. Chef/owner Jeffrey Brana is committed to supporting local, sustainable producers—that is, when he can find them. “Tropical Delights, a great little farm just south of Miami, is run by a couple and the husband’s sister, on just five acres. They put their heart and soul and lives into that farm, and grow a wide variety of tropical fruits and herbs and edible flowers.” He scratches his head. “There’s a hydroponics farm up in Loxahatchee that does a lot of our salad greens…and a clam fishery in Sebastian that’s very much on the forefront of the sustainable aquaculture movement. And, uh….” His voice trails off.
This is unexpected talk coming from a boy out of Tampa, but it makes more sense when Jeffrey reveals having spent a year in the Napa Valley. “Any chef not from there, going there is a real awakening. I just immersed myself in the product—it was SO easy to do there because so many people cooked that way.” In 2004 he took part in a Jean-Louis Palladin internship that pairs chefs with fishermen, farmers, and the like. He remembers driving through the Marin Land Trust, pieces of land preserved for farming, and telling Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery how great it would be to have a similar setup in Florida. “Jeffrey, you just have to go out there and do it,” she said. “It really stuck with me,” he says seriously. “So when the opportunity came to open my own restaurant, being sustainable was a big focus of mine.”
The good thing about running such a small restaurant, says Jeffrey, is the ability to accept product from tiny, irregular producers. “If it’s good, we tell them we want it, no matter how small the quantity,” he says. “The menu as a whole changes seasonally, but we’ll adapt dishes within the season based on what’s come in.”
Jeffrey’s drive to support sustainable farming has, necessarily, eclipsed the desire to buy local. Extending his range nets him spectacular Georgia cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses from Jeremy and Jessica Little at Sweet Grass Dairy, who converted Jessica’s parents’ conventional dairy farm and into a cheese-making creamery that practices rotational grazing; smoked Tennessee mountain ham from old-time artisan Allen Benton; and meat from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. Most of these he hears about through word of mouth—paradoxically, there exists a thriving national, and sometimes even international, network of chefs sharing resources on sustainable suppliers who rely on locality as their brand.
A typical meal at Brana starts with a delicate Key West pink shrimp resting like an odalisque on a dollop of avocado puree, accompanied by such baubles as arctic char roe, hazelnut dust, a hyacinth flower and nasturtium leaf. Next is a rich, house-fashioned torchon de foie gras, with Loxahatchee greens and a Pedro Ximenez puree. After that, a tender piece of cobia fish nestled under a blanket of Tennessee mountain ham and over a bedding of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a blue-crab emulsion. The sensory onslaught continues with a truffle-poached capon from Four Story Farms alongside an acorn squash mash, and later, a beautifully tender piece of seared flatiron steak with the most bijou baby vegetables: the sweetness of a turnip, its sister the carrot, and a few leaves of spinach with their blossoms. Two beautiful cheeses from Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy arrive, warmed perfectly to room temperature. Dessert comes in two parts: first, a delicate monstera-fruit ice cream and slices of carambola (starfruit) drizzled with Indian River honey, then a thick, moussey chocolate pudding with Jamaican mint ice cream, hazelnut powder and sweet beet puree. The check comes accompanied by tiny Mexican wedding cookies spiced with orange zest, and a few homemade marshmallows dipped in fennel pollen. A menu like this would impress in Berkeley—in Miami, it’s positively radical.
Despite the fact that it’s the once-a-month Friday night when the local
art galleries stay open late, the restaurant is only half full. The
reviews have been positive, but Restaurant Brana seems to have gathered
more national than local press, which is ironic, given its
predilections. The other paradox is that Jeffrey gets word of new
suppliers from friends on a similar mission, but in other parts of the
country; in other words, through a national (and sometimes even
international) network of chefs committed to buying from local,
sustainable producers. There wouldn’t be many he could talk to in
In October and November 2006, I meandered circuitously between San Francisco to Miami under the auspices of Minnesota-based nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, interviewing farmers, ecologists, musicians and activists for a book on youth revitalizing rural landscapes all across America. Hero-bosses Jan Joannides and Brett Olsen have allowed me to post my interviews here, but look for them in the Youth Renewing the Countryside book, due out in the spring of 2008.