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Networking: John Critchley

Executive chef Epic Hotel and Area 31 restaurant, Miami

By James Wright
August 01, 2010

"Miami has two seasons - wet and dry - so we can get away with changing the menu as we see fit."

Miami gets pretty hot, especially in August, but on the 16th floor of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants' Epic Hotel, there's typically a nice, cool breeze and wonderful views of the Miami River and nearby Brickell. There's a hot restaurant there too, named after the nearby fishing region known as Area 31, which stretches across the Florida coast into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Most of the fish served by Chef John Critchley at Area 31 are from there, including Key West pink shrimp, escolar and mahimahi.

Critchley was invited to prepare sustainably harvested blackgill rockfish from California's Morro Bay at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event in May, and his interpretation - slices of lightly seared fillets paired with Vidalia onions and topped with a chestnut purée and salsa verde - was so memorable that we had to know more about him.

JW: What's your top-selling fish?

JC: The main concept is local fish simply prepared. Our menu features seven or eight fishes paired with a sauce. Our best seller is probably yellowtail snapper, a product straight from the Keys. It's got firm flesh and a mild flavor; it's just a beautiful, clean fish.


How much of your fish is from Area 31?

Generally over 80 percent. We've also been getting oysters from Cape Cod Bay, where I grew up. Clams are from Indian River right up the beach in Cocoa Beach, Fla. For the most part we get things from Georgia to the Gulf and Caribbean. At this time of year we get corvina from Ecuador. It's a unique South American fish.


How often do you alter your dinner menu?

I talk to my fishermen almost every morning, so I get a heads-up for up to a month and I can change [the menu] as I see fit. At certain times of year, kingfish are running and the menu is heavy with those. Miami has two seasons - wet and dry - so we can get away with changing it as we see fit.

Why did you choose Seafood Watch 
as your sustainability reference?

We were introduced to them through Kimpton; when I started here we had just started forming that relationship. They're extremely helpful and do a lot of research on these species. It's a great resource for chefs who need guidance. We have restaurants of all different concepts, and not every one is purchasing a half-million dollars of fish every year like we do. Last year we butchered 54,000 pounds of fish in-house.


Do you prefer to cut your own fish?

I think whole fish hold better. And the end quality is good - with a sous or executive chef butchering the fish, we can manipulate it the way we want it.

What's your most important criteria regarding sustainable seafood?

We need to know where it's from. 
It's great to actually have [that information] on our invoices, which [suppliers] never used to do.


Are you concerned about local fish being harmed by the oil spill?

Of course - the whole world is right now. But I haven't had to change anything. We've seen a spike in prices but didn't move that on to our customers. We're worried about the long term, so we're keeping our concept and our focus but we will incorporate in-season items that may not be as close.


Have guests voiced concern about the safety of your seafood since the oil spill?

Honestly, no. If there was anything said it might be a joke back and forth, but our customers really trust us to have the freshest seafood, especially as a leader in sustainable seafood here in Miami.


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