Chef Jeff McInnis has had quite a ride over the past two years. Last year during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, much of the buzz on Twitter from food media, festival-goers, and restaurant insiders and professionals was surrounding his relatively new restaurant Yardbird. The following year has meant more buzz, and recently, news about an expansion of his Southern menu beyond Florida's borders. That's right, he's New York bound (evidence that you can go even farther north to find the South?). So it shouldn't be a surprise that McInnis is participating in this year's festival (Feb. 21 through the 24).
In this interview with Chef McInnis and Yardbird's owner John Kunkel (founder of 50 Eggs) previewing the festival (part of a series of interviews leading up to the event), the chef and owner talk about how things have changed (or haven't) in the past year, what Chef McInnis will be cooking at the festival's Chicken Coup event this year, the origins of Yardbird's fried chicken recipe (it's 100 years old), why Brooklyn for Yardbird's expansion, and where else he'd be interested in opening a restaurant. Read on, and check out this recent video with the chef for more on Yardbird.
You're participating in Andrew Carmellini's Chicken Coupe. Are you planning to cook your signature chicken and waffles? If so, are you doing anything different with it? And if not, what are you doing?
Jeff McInnis: For Chicken Coup, we’re preparing our signature Mama’s Chicken Biscuits, made with flaky buttermilk biscuits, crispy chicken, pepper jelly, and pickled watermelon radish.
Last year, your restaurant was one of the darlings of the festival, one of the most talked about spots. What was that like?
JM: It was a great experience. We got to cook at the restaurant for a lot of the chefs and visitors who came to town for the festival, and the feedback was tremendous.
And how have things changed over the past year?
JM: We haven’t changed. We’ve made a few slight changes to our menu — many of them seasonal — but we’re still the same and going strong. Our core principles haven’t changed.
What about the festival are you most looking forward to?
JM: I’m looking forward to seeing old chef friends I haven’t seen in a while.
Last year when we visited, the food was really enjoyable, but we were really blown away by the service, the friendliness, and your personal touch. Can you talk a little about the philosophy behind Yardbird as a restaurant as a whole and what you've tried to accomplish with it?
JM: We preach the gospel of good old Southern hospitality in everything we do. From the food to the service, we make sure that no one leaves without having experiences that are memorable and unique.
What are the three spots in Miami, mud or opera, sandwich or six-course tasting menu, that you're most excited about right now?
JM: Khong River House, which just opened last month; Broken Shaker, which is a hip cocktail outdoor lounge; and Rec Room at The Gale Hotel.
People often say about Florida, you have to go north to go south. What do you say to that?
JM: Besides Yardbird and the soon-to-open Swine Southern Table & Bar, there’s not a whole lot of Southern-inspired restaurants or folks in the area.
What's the secret to great fried chicken?
JM: A good, juicy free-range bird, hot oil, plenty of spice, and the right amount of brining.
Whose fried chicken did you model yours after if anyone's? And the waffles... what was the inspiration for that recipe?
JM: We did a lot of testing for the opening of Yardbird. And after all was said and done, we decided on a 100-year-old recipe that belonged to my partner John Kunkel’s grandmother. It’s an old recipe that has stood the test of time.
Grub Street reported that you're looking to open a restaurant in New York City, and that you've been checking out Park Slope and like that area. What is it about Park Slope and Brooklyn that appeals to you?
John Kunkel: While Park Slope is interesting and has a great feel, we are keeping our options open and looking throughout New York City for the right space. We are in no rush, however.
It's interesting that you're looking to go straight past Manhattan and directly to Brooklyn... why Brooklyn? Is Manhattan just too much or is Brooklyn really that much more enticing?
JK: Nothing is set in stone yet and we are certainly keeping all of our options open, but Brooklyn does have a great energy and excitement about it.
Granted, you're probably not looking past New York City, but if you weren't looking to open a restaurant in New York (or Brooklyn), what other city would you most be interested in?
JK: New York City seems like a perfect fit for Yardbird, but there are other major "food" cities, such as Chicago, that are also appealing.
Is there another cuisine or concept that you'd really be interested in exploring as a restaurant concept?
JM: Well, there are few cuisines that don’t intrigue me. I always enjoy exploring different regional cuisines.