MIAMI, FL -- You know Miami's outsize Latino influence when an internationally acclaimed French chef is extolling the virtues of croquetas.
After spending several days navigating the crowds at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival's (SOBEWFF) marquee events, there is something wonderful about shaking off the sand and heading to Miami's pristine Design District for something both familiar and completely new. Croquetas and Champagne, hosted by renowned French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and curated by popular blogger Sef Gonzalez of Burger Beast, debuted Saturday night to a sold-out crowd.
It was the food festival equivalent of going to your mother's house after a fun night and having her throw together some homey Latin comfort food - provided she also greeted you with an endless supply of Champagne Henriot.
While this pairing may seem unusual, it made perfect sense to Gonzalez when SOBEWFF festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager proposed it.
"There are some people who look down on croquetas," Gonzales admits. "What I've always done in my work is try to take Cuban comfort food to the next level and why shouldn't they be with champagne? When they're done right, they're incredible and there's nothing better."
It was an outlook shared by Jean-Georges. "The best drink in the world is champagne. When it cuts the richness of the croquetas, it's like two cultures coming together," he explained. Growing up in Alsace, Jean-Georges loved ham and cheese croquettes but which is it now - croquettes or croquetas? "I like croquetas," he laughed. "I like the exotic."
Guests voted for their favorites and there was an eclectic mix of young chefs taking on the classics and hometown heroes trying something different. Gilbert Arriaza runs his family's quintessential Cuban bakery but put out a Brazilian chicken salgado croqueta while Martha Cardenas of El Mago de Las Fritas served a croqueta de tamale. Brian Cartenuto of Tucker Duke's brought out bourbon pimento cheese croquetas with smoked ham while James Tahhan of Sabores kept it simple with jamón Serrano and manchego croquetas topped with guava and rosemary marmalade. Executive chef Jeremy Ford was at the fryer for Jean-Georges' Matador Room, producing pitch perfect stone crab croquetas with chipotle aioli. There were many more so it was a tough call to make.
Siblings Eileen and Jonathan Andrade believed they were at a disadvantage going into the competition. For decades, Islas Canarias, the family run restaurant their grandfather established when he arrived from Cuba, has been Miami's go-to for croquetas. It was a lot to live up to though Eileen has had no trouble making a name for herself as one of the city's up and coming young chefs since opening the popular Finka Table & Tap with her brother.
This didn't stop the Andrades' from having fun with their entry. Their mac-n-cheese croquetas with lump crab are a Finka favorite but they paired it with pork croquetas made with a Cuban style mojo that touched back to their roots, albeit with a kimchi base.
"Without my grandfather's legacy behind me, it wouldn't be the same. People know that that if you're from the Islas Canarias [Restaurant], it must be good food," she explained. "It's very important for me and Jon to represent both. My grandfather passed away recently but he was my inspiration. Everything I do is for him because he did it for us."
They must have found just the right balance because their croquetas won the night.