It’s So Miami with Yardbird Chef Jeff McInnis
In Miami Beach, where the cuisine is condemned to constantly consider a never-ending swimsuit season, it takes a top-notch toque to make Southern staples like fried chicken and sweet tea-brined ribs the hottest dishes in town. But that’s exactly what Top Chef-finalist Jeff McInnis does at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, his hoppin’ new 170-seat eatery on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 16th Street. Alex Pasquariello catches up with the Florida Panhandle native to chat about the beach’s best biscuits, what he does on a day off in Miami and is his favorite Art Deco architect.
What inspired you to bring the dishes of the Deep South to Miami Beach?
I grew up in the Panhandle — Florida and Alabama — and went to college in Charleston, where I wound up living seven years while working in a Southern restaurant on Sullivan’s Island. So, Southern food is in my blood, and it’s the first cuisine I learned to cook. When I arrived in Miami almost nine years ago I was missing those flavors I grew up with, and I was lucky to finally find some like-minded thinkers in my Yardbird partners John Kunkel and Chris Romero.
You have a team scouring South Florida for new ingredients to add to the menu. What are they finding and what will we see next in the restaurant?
The local poultry we get at Yardbird is my personal favorite. It’s such great quality and — of course — a focal point of the menu, as our name suggests. From chicken to guinea hen to quail or duck we are always looking for the next fun ingredient. On that note, my favorite ingredient is always the next new ingredient — I don’t think any chef enjoys repetition. And there’s really nothing more exciting than being introduced to something new. The other day my buddies brought us 10 pounds of duck tongues. We braised, fried and pickled them — that was definitely something new!
As long as you serve that fried duck tongue with Yardbird’s biscuits — they’re otherworldly. What’s the secret?
No secret. We use basic techniques that have been around since the 18th century. We roll them out and bake them fresh as we need them — there just isn’t anything better than freshly baked biscuits. We bake at least 400 a night, and on busy nights we roll out more than 800.
Southern Comforts: Yardbird s’mores (upper left), macaroni and cheese (upper right), shrimp n’ stone ground grits (lower left) and Llewellyn’s fried chicken with waffles and spicy Tabasco honey (lower right).
Yardbird’s bourbon menu is impressive. How does it pair up with Southern flavors?
Bourbon is the perfect complement to Southern food. It really complements a few flavors in particular — nuts, like pecans and peanuts; peaches; all varieties of pork, but especially bacon and salty ham; steak; and even cheeses and chocolates.
Describe your ideal day off in Miami.
First of all it requires waking up to something other than a telephone or alarm clock. From there, it’s all about doing something on the water — fishing or boating or kite boarding or…all of the above! Then I just want to relax and eat a great dinner at a restaurant where I don’t have to cook or do the dishes.
So, who are you letting cook for you in Miami these days?
The Pubbelly gang [Ed: Chefs Andres Schreiner, Jose Mendin and Sergio Navarro] has been putting out some great Asian-inspired gastropub concepts lately. I also just went to Chef Michael Pirolo’s new place on Alton road the other night – Macchialina. I love their homemade pasta and comforting, old-style Italian dishes.
Tell us your best fish story.
I’m lucky to live on the water with a boat right out my back door. When I have a day I off, I typically run off the coast about a mile or two and find a reef to anchor up and just fish for hours. My best fishing experience was in the Keys four years ago when I hooked a sailfish.
What, no marlins?
No. I’ve been on boats and seen guys pull marlins in before — but I’ve never been the guy in the chair.
Are you into Art Deco?
My brother is an architect here in Miami, and he’s taught me a lot about the design world. I have nothing but respect for the Art Deco design, and I’m a big fan of Morris Lapidus [architect of the original Fontainebleau Miami Beach tower]. Actually, there were these Art Deco plate designs that Lapidus had intended to do for dinnerware about 50 years ago. When I was Chef de Cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton, my boss Thomas Connell took these old drawings and had them made into plates.
What neighborhood across the Causeway should folks staying in Miami Beach be sure to see?
Definitely check out the Design District and Wynwood Arts District. My favorite art gallery over there is the Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts Gallery; also the Locust Project is always doing something interesting and different. Or try and get in on the Wynwood Art Walks.
You’re an accomplished traveler. Been anywhere cool lately?
There’s no place that inspires me more than the Big Easy. I love the history, Southern hospitality, French influence, Jazz music, and of course the food is unreal. I ate at John Besh’s Domenica the last time I was in New Orleans. It was exceptional. Donald Link is another great chef in New Orleans – Herbsaint and Cochon are untouchable.