A Chat with Miami Chef Daniel Serfer of Blue Collar and Mignonette
Daniel Serfer is one of Miami’s most creative and well-loved local chefs. A native of The Magic City, Serfer trained at Le Cordon Bleu, then earned his culinary stripes while working under Allen Susser at Chef Allen’s. Susser eventually appointed Serfer as executive chef of The 15th Street Fisheries & Dockside Café in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Serfer promptly revamped the entire restaurant, creating a more modern and approachable menu.
In 2012, Serfer opened his first restaurant, Blue Collar, offering a menu of contemporary American comfort food in an intimate setting (in the cool neighborhood of MiMo). The restaurant quickly became a local favorite, pleasing both carnivores and vegetarians alike.
In April 2014, Serfer announced the opening of his second restaurant, an oyster bar called Mignonette. In the year since its opening, the restaurant (in the up and coming neighborhood of Edgewater) has stayed hot, retaining a steady stream of both local and visiting diners seeking a delicious, fun, and traditional seafood experience. The menu offers classics like Oysters Rockefeller, warm lobster rolls, and Clams Casino, as well as must-haves like the famous prime rib.
Serfer took some time to chat with The Daily Meal about the experience of opening a second restaurant, his general approach to food, and his restaurant pet peeves.
What was your first restaurant industry job?
I worked in Tallahassee when I was in college at a place called Po’ Boys Creole Café. It was kind of like a Dip-N-Dunk: dip it in the flour, dunk it in the frier. It was really busy so there was a large lunch crowd all at once. So even though the food wasn’t so intricate, it really taught me how to be organized and fast; the sandwiches there are excellent. The hardest thing I ever did was opening up Mignonette, because I can’t be in two places at once.
When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run and will be a good experience?
I like to see that people aren’t standing around; people aren’t on their phones. I think it’s obvious – you know when you walk into a restaurant whether it’s right or not. My pet peeve, though, is snooty hosts or hostesses. I could be in shorts and flip-flops – we’re in Miami after all – but despite what I may be wearing, I still deserve good service and not to be treated at the door like I couldn’t afford to eat at that place. It’s usually indicative of my experience. And the reverse is true – when you walk in and a host is warm and gracious, that usually translates to the rest of the meal.
What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?
Probably when I was at Azul when Michelle (Bernstien) was there. On New Year’s Eve of 2002 going into 2003, she did a prix fixe. I was in my junior year of college, and I came down for it, and at that dinner is when I decided to work in the kitchen instead of becoming a lawyer. That meal really changed it. It was so good.
What would you say are the major similarities and differences between Blue Collar and Mignonette?
If you go into each restaurant back-to-back, it’s very obvious that they share the same DNA. The way the staff interacts with the guests and what we’re trying to achieve – and, of course, the vegetable menu. I think you can very much see that the bones are similar. Even in the food, one is seafood-heavy and one more meat-focused, but you look at the preparations and both are very simple and very approachable for the guest. The biggest difference would be that one is seafood-heavy and one is land-heavy. Also, Mignonette is our second restaurant, so we were trying a little bit more with the design and feel. As I mature, I would hope the restaurants would, too.
Has it been difficult splitting up your time between the two eateries?
The hardest thing I ever did was opening up Mignonette, because I can’t be in two places at once. It was really just letting the people that are in place – the managers and the chefs – letting them do their thing and trusting them to do it. And finding the right balance of where to spend my time is still an ongoing process. Initially, that was so hard. For Blue Collar, I spent literally 14 hours a day, every day for two years there. So, when we opened Mignonette and in the six months leading up to it, it was very difficult. Now, I think I’ve found a good balance of how to manage the two and not lose much.
What is a food you don’t particular enjoy?
I don’t really like octopus, so I told Bobby (Frank, the chef de cuisine at Mignonette), ‘Show me an octopus that I like.’ And whatever he did, it’s amazing, it’s a winner [it’s a mouth-watering octopus sous vide that is now permanently on the menu]. Now that I’m at two places, I let the chef de cuisine do more menu development than I have in the past. I let them come up with their own things and flex their abilities, because they want to and I want them to.
What is exciting to you in today’s food environment?
I love how everyone is very excited about oysters – more raw bars and oyster bars are opening down here, and I think that’s great. I heard someone describe as “half-cup culture.”
Have you come up against any oyster or lobster snobs?
We’ve been very fortunate so far. In fact, the other day someone came in from Connecticut and they enjoyed the lobster roll very much – we do the New England style with the warm butter. Obviously, Maine lobster crushes Florida lobster always. But, the same oyster you would eat at an oyster bar up north is the same one I have here. As long as we keep it cold and shuck it properly, it should taste the same. We’ve had more of, ‘I’m from so and so and this is really great’ rather than the opposite.
What should people be buying now to make at home?
Chicken thighs! Chicken breast sucks. Chicken thighs are so good and they are way more forgiving than breast as far as being able to keep the meat moist. I have a new wood grill at my house – I use cherry and oak, and I’m obsessed with cooking chicken on it. I don’t usually like chicken that much unless it’s fried or in Chinese food, but I can put chicken on there and I enjoy it very much, it’s easy – garlic, thyme, oil, salt, and pepper. Even before we had a grill and we were living in an apartment, we’d do chicken thighs in a pan or in the oven. We have chicken thighs on the menu at Mignonette and sometimes at Blue Collar. I think it would be awesome if more people would give into the chicken thigh at home.