A Door Closes, A Window Opens...
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AVENTURA, FLORIDA, April 25, 2011--Allen Susser--one of Florida's favorite, most-successful and most-influential chefs-has closed Chef Allen's Restaurant after 25 years to focus on restaurant development, consulting, teaching and other culinary ventures.
"The public knows me primarily as a fine-dining chef and restaurateur," says the Brooklyn-born Susser, who moved to Miami in 1980--after working at the Bristol in Paris and Le Cirque in New York-and opened Chef Allen's six years later. "And running my restaurant has been my primary focus, my passion for half my lifetime! But more and more, I'm being called upon to help other people launch and grow their businesses and I find it extremely rewarding.
"Plus," Allen continues, "I've recently branched out into more-casual dining concepts which have been really well received. So it's time to look at expanding those branded concepts, here in Florida and elsewhere. And then there's the retail consulting I do, helping food companies improve the quality, cost and consistency of new and existing products.
"It seems that every few days someone puts an exciting new project in front of me," Allen reports. "I'd like to be more free to focus more closely on these opportunities."
A tireless supporter of causes ranging from hunger relief to cancer to homelessness to culinary education, Allen will continue to participate in a large number of fundraising events each year, often in the role of event organizer or executive chef. For 24 years, he has chaired the Miami Taste of the Nation event, fighting childhood hunger with Share Our Strength. For 20 years, he has represented Miami in the Taste of the NFL, supporting hunger relief locally and nationwide. Over the years Allen has hosted and participated in scores of other benefits, including a major Hurricane Andrew relief effort in 1992, where he organized 40-plus chefs in his first-ever disaster-relief event. Allen's most-recent fundraising project is directing a coalition of international chefs to support disaster relief in Japan (chefshelpjapan.com).
"They say you 'do well by doing good' and I've always believed in that," Allen says.
Today it's widely agreed that the Chef Allen name conveys caring, quality and community service. "As I make this transition, none of that will change," Allen says.
The decision to close Chef Allen's, as one would imagine, was not an easy one. "This has always been a family restaurant in every sense," Allen explains. "My own family-my wife Judi, my kids Liza and Deanna, my parents and Judi's parents, my siblings--have helped enormously over the years. But I also mean that for 25 years, Chef Allen's has been a place where families and friends have gathered for their happiest moments.
"On any day, it's an honor when people who could go anywhere choose us to cook for them," he continues. "And it's an even bigger honor when they choose us for their important occasions."
Speaking of staff, Allen will retain as many of his employees as possible, moving them into other positions within the company. In cases where there's no fit, he's helping staffers find work in other restaurants.
"The staff has always been like family to our family," Allen says. "That's part of what makes us a great restaurant. The team works really well together, they have fun, they enjoy the challenges and they make it look effortless."
"In my heart, I'm a restaurant guy and always will be," Allen says. "I love to cook and food is my life."
A Note about New World Cuisine
Arriving in Florida in 1980 to be executive chef at Turnberry Isle Yacht & Country Club, Allen remembers being shocked and disappointed to see that local restaurant chefs were not taking advantage of the bounty of Florida's fields, farms and waters. If you wanted "fine dining," that pretty much meant French (or "continental") food; much of the fish being served was frozen and then buried under a heavy cream-and-butter sauce. Although he had been rigorously trained in classic French techniques, Allen could see clearly that it was time to try something different. Not only would using local ingredients be easier and make more sense, the result would be a cuisine that's better suited to the climate, more imaginative, more healthful, more exciting for increasingly sophisticated guests and, bottom line, far more delicious.
So Allen set up a system for buying pristinely fresh local seafood and learned the best way to prepare it, retaining maximum flavor, texture and nutrients. He experimented with all the native tropical fruits, transforming them into salads, sauces, marinades and more. For seasonings and spices, he looked to Latin America, the Caribbean and North Africa, turning often to his own staff for info and inspiration. The result was a vibrant, multi-cultural cuisine that Allen called "New World." Today this approach is widely embraced by top chefs in South Florida and the simple philosophy behind it-to draw inspiration from other cultures but also celebrate what's in your backyard-has taken root nationwide and become a major culinary movement.
"In the time I've been here, I've watched Miami grow from a culinary backwater to one of the most-vibrant dining cities in the country," Allen reports.
Still, even with a near-perfect climate and year-round growing season, it hasn't always been easy for Allen to get the ingredients he wants in the quantities he needs. So over the years he learned to reach out to the community for help. As much as half of his mango supply, for example, has been coming from home growers who bring ripe fruit to the restaurant by the box, bag, crate and car full. Anyone who hands over 200 pounds of fresh mangos (the equivalent of a wheelbarrow), receives dinner for two. Allen's "bring us your backyard fruit" campaign nets him roughly 2000 pounds of mangos over the three-month (May/June/July) growing season and turns up unique varieties--such as Zill, Edward and Bombay-that his purveyor is unlikely to offer. "The fruit tends to come in 50 to 60 pounds at a time, as it ripens," Allen says, "and I use every last one of them." The system has also further strengthened the bond Allen has always worked to build with his community.
And a note about Allen's Accomplishments
Over the years Chef Allen's Restaurant has earned just about every accolade possible, from a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast to Food & Wine Magazine naming him one of the "Top Ten Best New Chefs in America." The New York Times called him "the Ponce de Leon of New Floridian cooking" while Time declared his food "a New World marvel."
The Miami Herald always gave Chef Allen's its highest rating while Zagat, for many years, listed the restaurant as #1 in South Florida.
In addition to his 326-page cookbook New World Cuisine (Doubleday, 1995), Allen wrote The Great Citrus Book (Ten Speed Press, 1997), The Great Mango Book (Ten Speed, 2001) and produced the Great Citrus Poster.
Following are some of Allen's current projects:
*Consulting chef to Jade Mountain, a luxurious boutique hotel on St. Lucia, recently named the #3 resort in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. Allen oversees all food and beverage, including restaurants and room-service. The hotel has a large organic garden and has recently begun production of estate-grown chocolates, from cacao bean to bar.
*Consulting corporate chef, Brooklyn Water Bagel Company. Founded in 2009 with Larry King as its national spokesperson, the company currently has seven units open and 13 to come before year end 2011. Other product roll-outs are in the works. Brooklyn Water Bagel was recently named Best Bagel in Broward and Palm Beach County by the Sun Sentinel.
*Ft. Lauderdale Airport. In partnership with Delaware North Companies, the $2-billion hospitality management company that provides foodservice to airports, stadiums and national parks, Allen operates two food outlets at Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Chef Allen's 2 Go features fresh chef-made salads and sandwiches, serving roughly 1,000 customers per day (kiosk service, no seating). Top sellers include papaya pineapple barbecued ham and cheese on ciabatta bread and mango jerk chicken with Caribbean curry slaw on Bahamian bread. The second concept, Burger Bar by Chef Allen, is a 78-seat restaurant serving 13 custom-blended (short ribs, brisket and sirloin) burgers. Other menu items include stone crab chowder, jerk chicken wings, shakes and adult shakes. Checks average $16 per person and projected sales are $1.5 million. Burger Bar is currently expanding into other airport and freestanding locations, through joint ventures and franchise agreements.
* Wholesale and retail products. Chef Allen-branded products are sold online and in selected gourmet stores nationwide such as Epicure Market on Miami Beach. The line includes a wide variety of spice mixes and seven tropical fruit and hot sauces: Key Lime Mojo Marinade, Passion Fruit Mojo Marinade, Tamarind Chili Spicy Grill Sauce, Hot Mango Cocktail Sauce, Mango Ketchup, Orange-Chipotle Blasting Sauce and Papaya Pineapple BBQ Sauce.
*Books & Books Café by Chef Allen in Coral Gables, Florida. Allen joined forces with Books & Books, the country's premier independent bookseller, to create a casual all-day café in their Coral Gables store. The 100-seat café emphasizes fresh, local ingredients and flavors.
*Consulting chef, Brickell Bridge Bistro & Bar, Miami. Allen is working with the owners to develop what he calls "a sexy little Italian bistro with a fresh Miami Latin twist." His responsibilities include concept and menu development.
*Spokesperson and Recipe Development. Since 2006, Allen has been spokesperson for the National Mango Board, developing recipes, training chefs and working to promote the fruit through media, culinary demos and more. Previously he had a similar role with Sunkist. Allen also was a member of the American Airlines' Chefs Conclave from 1993 to 2003, developing dishes and menus for First and Business Class on flights in and out of Latin America and the Caribbean.
*National Advisory Board Member, James Beard Foundation, New York. Since 1996, Allen has been one 21 people working behind the scenes to guide events and programming including the highly visible James Beard Foundation Awards Program.