Traveling to Miami has always marked memorable events. My first trip in 2012, while filming American Street Feasts with the Food Network UK, resulted in meeting my beautiful wife, Frenchy. This visit, we celebrated the holidays and brought in the new year by flying to Miami together to visit our brand new restaurant space. This is how it all came together...
In the summer of 2015, Frenchy contacted our good friend Vivian Belzaguy about a contest hosted by The New Tropic, a highly followed Miami media outlet, that would award one year's free rent and a state-of-the-art kitchen supplied by the Arts & Entertainment District, an up and coming Miami neighbourhood. It sounded too good to be true and our busy schedules quickly got in the way of submitting the application before the initial deadline. It wasn’t until Vivian coincidentally met one of the contest organizers that we were informed that the deadline had been extended and we still had just a few days to enter! Frenchy, 'the good lady wife', along with her best friend, Vivian, and I decided to take action and hastily put together an idea we had been discussing over the last few years. Our dream was to bring British food to Miami, a place that is covered with restaurants from all different cultures yet with very few representing proper British food. Let’s face it! The UK has more than a few burger and BBQ joints at present, so why not bring ‘a bit of British’ to the States?
The entry for the A&Eats competition required extensive information about our restaurant vision; our concept, what would make us unique, our team's experience and some examples of our menu. So, we put our pitch together and entered. Once our idea was submitted, we crossed our fingers and waited to see what would happen. About a week later, we were told we had made it to the second round and had to fill out yet another detailed application. This time, they inquired about the name of our concept, our proposed logo, photos of the food, a three-year profit and loss plan and a pitch presentation for a meeting with the landlord and developers. We immediately began putting our heads together to decide on the answers we were going to present for those tough questions.
During that first week of planning, we decided on our name, The Avenue, inspired by our potential new address on North Miami Avenue. We agreed the concept and menu would bring British classics that are iconic but refined, yet simple and playful, paired with the best of American craft beers and Viv got to work on the logo, which would reflect exactly that.
Our Pitch in Action
Since Frenchy and I were in London, Vivian brought us along via Skype to our pitch meeting with the landlords. Despite all the glitches we could encounter in this type of communication, our pitch was completed in a well rehearsed five-minute speech. It was over in a flash! We felt that everything had been done to the best of our ability and the landlords were encouraging, but we had no idea what the other teams had in store… so we waited until the notification arrived from New Tropic... “Congratulations! You are through to the semi-finals, the voting round!” This was getting really serious now! They had also featured our photos and story prominently on their website and in the articles about the contest… no pressure! We took to social media to ask for the support of our friends and family as the winner of the voting round would be guaranteed a spot in the final cook-off. While we still aren’t sure who won the voting round, we didn’t exactly care once we received yet another round of great news – we had made it through to the final cook-off where the winner would be chosen! We were almost immediately approached by The New Tropic for an interview exclusively about our concept and team – again this was getting real! I excitedly booked my flight to Miami, it’s not every day that you get the chance to compete for a restaurant.
The details of the cook-off final were sent out to us and it was to be held at Florida International University (incidentally, the university that Frenchy attended). There would be six finalists taking turns cooking and presenting for the six judges, and we were picked to go first. GULP!
What to Cook?
We had to produce three dishes, an amuse bouche for 50 guests and two dishes that only the judges would try. After much discussion over the options, we decided the best route would be to take the guests on a journey of starters, mains, and pudding (dessert for those across the pond). We began by serving the crowd my mini scotch quail eggs – which were a hit among the Miami natives who had never seen anything of the sort, followed by the main course of Pie & Mash to the judges. Dessert was an easy decision: Custard tart, raspberry compote, and shortbread biscuits served with sweet English breakfast tea. I used to sell it at my stall in London, and it doesn’t get more British than that. The best advice I’ve ever had in cooking competitions is to stick with what you’re good at, and that’s exactly what we were going to do.
With all this decided, we counted down the days and I began prep lists and emails with local suppliers and breweries.
Three Days ‘til Finals
I landed in Fort Lauderdale late in the evening to be greeted by a rather excited Viv and Sandy, the dog. Viv and Frenchy had me under strict instructions to focus, avoid any distractions and stay out of trouble until after the finals. There was a lot of work to do!
The following morning I started early. I had arranged a lot beforehand, through the power of the internet, so it was just a question of meeting the suppliers and picking it all up. First up was Proper Sausages, an independent butcher who was to supply the sausage meat for the mini scotch eggs and the ground beef for the pie. Freddy, the owner, is married to a Londoner, so not only could he understand my accent, but he also knew exactly what I was after and why.
Next up was Wynwood Brewery, who was going to supply us with the beer for the beef and ale pie. After much discussion with Dominic, we decided on using Wynwood Fox, an imperial dry red ale that would not only pair well as a beverage but as an ingredient giving great flavour, richness and colour to the beef.
A few supermarkets later, I finally found an Italian butcher, Laurenzo's, for some bone marrow and, I was pretty-much-done shopping and back in the kitchen ready to get cooking and practice our presentation. After a couple of days, including several pastry disasters and some bad language (apologies to Viv & flatmate Jackie, although why do Americans always giggle when Brits curse?), my food prep and our presentation was ready for the finals.
And Finally, The Finals
Viv and I packed the car and said our farewells to Sandy the dog, “Sandy, we’ll be back in the late hours and we will have won a restaurant!” Now Sandy either knew what was ahead or had no idea what we were declaring with our rather bold statement. We’ll never know, but she seemed excited for us, so we took it as a good sign and left her to her own devices.
We arrived and set up at FIU, greeting the other finalists we were all sharing space and stoves with. It’s a strange thing meeting the other competitors. On one hand you’re enthusiastic to meet them, try their food and wish them all the best, but on the other hand, you remember you’re competing with them and you actually don’t them to win. ;-) At the end of the day, we wished a good luck to all and may the best team win!
I had recruited some help from the wonderful Jackie (Viv’s flatmate) and the dream team of Jorge & Samantha, of Pastel Guayaba, a popular home-based pastry team, who had interviewed me on a previous trip for TropiCult. They were amazing and were put in charge of the quail eggs by frying, cutting and plating up in a presentation Viv and I created – a basket full of hay, giving the sense of farm-fresh eggs. With our station all set up and pies in the oven, we were nearly ready. A quick peek around the other finalists proved that I was up against some very tough opposition. With everything from high-end restaurant food to casual dining such as ourselves.
We were the first in line to present at 7:45 pm. They gave us a 20-minute slot broken down into 5 minutes for our presentation, 10 minutes for the judges to eat, and 5 minutes for a bit of Q&A. A few last minute thoughts popped into my head, “Should I have done fish & chips?”, “Is the custard tart-sweet enough?”, “Are they going to understand my accent?!” Luckily Viv had arrived just in time to calm me down,
“Andy… Focus! …and speak slowly!” (a phrase I have now become accustomed to hearing from Frenchy and Viv).
As one often experiences in competitions, the 30 minutes you thought you had suddenly rushes into one minute. Before we knew it, our name was being announced to begin our presentation. With Viv running the photos on the projection screen, I gave my five-minute presentation. The pie was served with Wynwood Fox, a match made in heaven beer pairing, followed by my custard tart and cups of tea. The whole 20-minute process seemed to take 2 minutes! I suddenly found myself in the kitchen with Viv and the crew asking, “How did I do? What do you think? Do you think they liked it?” At that point, there was nothing more we could do except clean up and wait for the other finalists to give their presentations.
Drum roll, please!
Finally, all the presentations were finished. We were all gathered, waiting for the result. “…And the winner is… The Avenue!” Boom! A whirlwind moment if ever there was one, I grabbed Viv and threw her around a little, embraced the team, and we proceeded to accept our ‘key’. We thanked everyone who had helped us that night, as well as congratulated the other finalists on a job well done. Now it was time to celebrate by hitting Miami Beach and partying hard all night, with the massive trophy-like key wrapped around my neck! We had a lot to celebrate!
In the end, our “partying” only lasted two beers before we called it a night. I remember looking at Viv:
Me: We’ve got a lot of work to do, haven't we?
Viv: Yeah, and it all starts tomorrow.
Me: Back to your place, then. We’ve got to tell Sandy the news…
Our excitement, as well as Sandy’s, still hasn’t entirely settled. Although the time since the competition has been spent in back-to-back meetings, excel spreadsheets, financial plans and far more numbers than you’d ever think were associated with something as delicious as food, we are simply thrilled to have been given this opportunity. Visiting Miami this past month was quite surreal. We walked a raw, concrete space covered in construction materials and dust that will someday become my first restaurant. We were invited to have a stall at a local food market at the Miami Flea where we sold over 200 scotch eggs. We were hired for our first catering gig. We hosted a pop-up series that sold out in just a few days… (more on that later). It’s quite crazy the things that can happen when you start to follow a dream. You can wake up and it can be your reality.