Havana Hideout Owner Reveals Inspiration Behind 'Paper Plate Cuisine'

Categories: Behind the Line
Chrissy Benoit1.JPG
Photo by Patty Canedo
Havana Hideout owner Chrissy Benoit.
At first glance, you may miss Havana Hideout, nestled in toward the end of downtown Lake Worth. However, this tucked-away little jewel sparkles as an homage to "paper plate cuisine." If the music doesn't catch your ear or the inviting couches in front of the door don't call to you, the smell from "Wanda," the nickname for the kitchen that's housed in a truck outside, will.

Restaurants take on the personality of their owners, and Havana Hideout's warm and welcoming atmosphere come straight from owner/chef Chrissy Benoit, who spoke to us recently about how she got started and came up with her restaurant. Here's an excerpt.
 
Q: How did you get into the industry?

A: My first job in the industry was at 15 years old, I was a server. What I appreciated about it was that the better you were to people, the more money you made. I was hired in a restaurant in California that was very culinary driven. I became a trainer there. Eventually, I got a job working with Wolfgang Puck opening his restaurants, writing his training material, and training the staff. I came to Florida to open the Disney and Sawgrass restaurants.

Q: What made you want to become a chef?

A: I hit a point where I wanted to kick the tires and light the fires. I accepted a  position in St. Thomas at a high end resort in Caneel Bay. It was a great experience. After that I worked at New York as a consultant for a year. I never took formal training as a cook. I was fortunate, especially at Wolfgang's, to be surrounded by these great ingredients, and I had to learn it because I was teaching it.

Q: How did you come up with Havana Hideout?

A: I came to Florida as a restaurant consultant for The Cottage. This location used to be called the Lizard Den. I brought it to the owners of The Cottage, but they weren't interested.

I think I bit off a bit more than I can chew. The first big issue was the walk-in cooler fell threw the floor. I spent a year designing the kitchen. It was a challenge to launch, and I ended up keeping the original name for the first six months that I took it over. I waited to change the name until the menu and the new look was set.

It was especially tough when I opened, because people just came to drink. But I believed in the food, so at first I had to give it away, fortunately it caught on.

There are only eight to 10 items on the menu, but everything's made from scratch. We make everything from by hand. We core and cut the tomatoes for the salsa, roast the chicken, we even make the ice cream.

Q: Which dish on the menu best represents your personality?

A: I would say it's the salsa, it's just so simple and fresh. But then it could be the fish tacos. It's not what people expect. The pineapple salsa is bright, then you have the achiote rub, which is very earthy, and then the fresh creamy chipotle coleslaw. Its so yummy! 

Q: How did you get on the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives"?

A: David Paige, one of the producers, called me in December ['08] to talk about being on. Someone had called them, a regular, a foodie, I'm not sure. It was a tough process, I had to send my recipes, my resume, pictures of the restaurant, it was a lengthy process.

We filmed for two days, two 16-hour days. [Host] Guy Fieri came in on the third day. He is exactly how he is on TV. He's very skilled and knows what he's doing in the kitchen. It was a great experience. I still don't know who called, but God bless them.

Q: Who would you like to battle in an "Iron Chef" challenge?

A: The people I would like to challenge [laughing] and I say this because I just want to cook with them. Guy Fieri just because I love the way he cooks. Bobby Flay because I love his real approach to food. Cat Cora because I really appreciate the discipline of women chefs; she's probably great.
 
Q: Do you like to work the line?

A: I love to work the line, especially in this kitchen. The kitchen is right in it with the people. It's very interactive, and there's a lot of adrenaline and passion that goes into it. These guys can see the food go out and can watch people enjoy it from right here [the truck]. We take pride in that, being able to say 'I made that.'

Q: What was your first experience on the line like?

A: Well I was working for Robert Earl; he's responsible for the restaurants in the Hard Rock. I was a GM opening one of these new restaurants in Orlando. So I didn't really start on the line, but I was responsible for all the training material and the menu, so I had a good idea of what I was doing. Since I was in that position I was able to step in on the line when I needed too. When I did step in, I knew what I was doing, wasn't in the way, and I built some confidence there unexpectedly.

Another time when I started at The Cottage [as a consultant], the owners gave me a lot of creative space. I built the menu so nothing was over $10. We even won a food award. We were doing 200 to 400 covers a night, but it was a three-person kitchen, so there were times it got intense. We learned to work as a team and take the steam off each other. It was a great experience.

Q: What was your most hectic time working on the line?

A: I was working for Wolfgang Puck, and my job was to create these training materials, train the staff, and open the restaurants. We opened a café in Denver and these places sat a minimum of 350 people. The line was wrapped around the 16th Street Plaza - people were waiting in the snow!

This other time, we were opening the restaurant in Disney. We had 22 servers, an all new staff, fine dining upstairs, seating on the patio. All of the sudden the ticket machine just started going off. The expeditor, this very experienced chef, is standing there and the tickets go over his shoulder, down to the floor and just start curling around. I looked at him and asked if he was ok. He just looked at me and said he had to step out for a minute. I stepped in to organize and called the tickets to the line. It was a huge adrenaline rush. It's always high pressure.

Q: What is your favorite cooking style?

A: I connect with this Latin aspect because I have been able to travel in those areas so much. The street food aspect, I just love it. You know you take people who don't have a lot of money and are able to make such wonderful food.

Q: What is your favorite food to work with?

A: Produce, all types. There is so much of it and just so much you can do with it. There are so many different types too. Things I haven't even worked with yet, it's really amazing.

Q: What is your favorite tool to work with?

A: A knife. I mean in my new production kitchen I have convection ovens. I've never really worked with one before, and it's just amazing how it cuts your cooking time in half. But honestly, we make 16 gallons of salsa every other day. We hand cut all those tomatoes, so a knife is a very important tool.

Q: How often do you get to cook the menu?

A: I just cooked a shift before you got here [laughing]. I cooked for four hours today. I get in the truck a minimum of once a week but it's usually at least three times a week.

Q: What is something you want first time guests to take from their experience here?

A: The friendliness and enveloping nature of this place. It's about human interaction. My staff is the best! They love our guests and really connect with the people.

Q: Does it still surprise you when you are fully packed on an ordinary weeknight?

A: Yes, I'm still wowed by it. I sit back and think we must be doing something right. This is such a tough time and people aren't really spending on going out right now. So for people to come and choose to spend perhaps their only night out of the week with us is amazing to me. Then again when we are kind of dead, I think, OK, what are we doing wrong?


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