Interview With Chef Daniel Ramos of Market 17 (Part 1)

Categories: The Verbal Nosh
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photo: Deirdra Funcheon
Daniel Ramos in the new digs.


After months of anticipation (and a few delays), the new farm-to-table eatery Market 17 is now open on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. The restaurant is no small undertaking. All dishes are prepared from scratch. It serves ostrich. It makes ceviche tableside. The owners, brother and sister Aaron and Kirsta Grauberger, are both sommeliers, so there are 350 wines to choose from. There's a private dining room and even a customized dining-in-the-dark option for adventurous groups (the waiter uses a pair of night-vision goggles when bringing in the plates).

The man behind the menu is chef Daniel Ramos, formerly of Delray Beach's Sundy House. We caught up with him in person just before Thanksgiving. Here's our Q&A: 

Tell us your life story. Did you grow up around here?
No, I was born in New York. I moved to Florida in 1985, Clearwater Beach. I was 8 years old. Clearwater is where I grew up. That's where I got my start working in restaurants. It was an accident -- a complete accident.

Did you start as a server?
No, I started as a dishwasher.

I worked my way through the ranks, and I enjoyed it. William Bunton -- I'll never forget his name. He was the guy that was like, "You know, you're good -- you've got to go to culinary school! You gotta go out there and stick with it."

Does he know you opened a restaurant?
No. I tried to find him. I don't know where he is at, but there are a lot of people who inspired me. One of my big inspirations was at the Marriot... Jonathan Dempsey. I still talk to him, and he is in St. Augustine. He was after my post-culinary school experience.

You have come up at a couple of different places like the Sundy House.
I've been at the Sundy House, and before that I was in Tampa. I opened the Tampa Marriott Waterside, and then I worked at some country clubs. I worked as many jobs as I can. The best experience was the Terrace Country Club and also the Marriott. Everything else was tiny little places, but you know it is funny, I still talk to some of the guys. Even from my worst experiences, I learned great amounts of stuff. There is always something to learn.

Did you go to culinary school?
Yes, in West Palm [Beach.] Now it is the Lincoln culinary school, but when I went there, it was a private culinary school. When I was there, I had a great experience. I got a two-year associate's [degree]. You get out what you put into it. I got a lot out of culinary school. Asking the teachers questions, doing the special events, volunteering to meet people. So really I put in a lot a lot of effort, and I feel like I got a lot out of it. More than the average student, I believe.

Then I moved back to Tampa to be near my family, and I realized Tampa has no... it's not a food town. There was nowhere to do fine dining. So I had to come back to West Palm Beach. There were places to get recognized. I had to come back to South Florida, and Johnny V was my first job.

What's he like?
Johnny V. is a good guy. He taught me a lot. He came up in the whole Dennis Max crowd. You know, the Mark Miltellos, the Allen Sussers... the Mango Gang. He hired me at the Sundy House as a line cook, and [I got promoted] to supervisor [then to] sous chef to executive sous chef to executive chef. So I worked there for quite a while, and I learned a lot. I left once and worked for Sysco because I thought I would have more time with my family.

What were you doing with Sysco?
Sales. Yeah, sales. I took the job because I wanted to get into their research and development and develop recipes  -- they were supposed to expand a new kitchen and hire another chef, but they never did. I would have ended up waiting there ten years. It is a good long-term job, but it wasn't for me -- I belong in the kitchen. But I learned a lot from doing that. The ingredients, the inventory, how to open a restaurant, what you need, how to manage costs -- because basically I was a consultant. You gotta help your accounts succeed. If your accounts don't make money, then you don't make money, so that was my job, to go into restaurants and say, "All right, you know, I see you buying this cheese, you know you're buying this cheese, you know I have this,  why don't you try this cheese on that dish? That way, you can use it different ways."

How did you go from Sundy House to Market 17?
I was at Sundy House a long stretch, and Kirsta was hired on as a manager for Sundy House, and that's how we met. I had started getting all of these books about food politics. I wanted to learn more about humane treatment of animals. I wanted to learn more about the egg industry, the chicken industry, the beef industry.
 
And none of that made you a vegetarian?
None of that has made me a vegetarian, no. But it did educate me more about vegetarians --  that's why I honor vegetarians and vegans. I don't cook anything in chicken stock unless it is a piece of chicken, but any beans, rice, we use a lot of vegetable stock. We use carrot trimmings, onion trimmings, and things like that. So that's me saying I understand vegans, I understand vegetarians. A lot of my food, if you take off the proteins, that dish is vegetarian.

Yeah, I saw on your menu that you will make a vegetarian version of any dish.
All of our dishes circle around vegetables. Each dish has at least five different vegetables. So anyway, I did all this research for Kirsta because she wanted to do an organic local restaurant. I was already going in that direction; I was already doing the research. I was doing it just to educate myself; I wasn't doing it because I wanted to open an organic restaurant. So as soon as I heard, it was just a coincidence that I was already doing research on the topic, and I had already made plans to go to New York to go [do a stage under the chef at] Gramercy Tavern.

Tell us about the stage.
When you do a stage, basically it's a training camp. There comes a point in your career where you can't go back to school and you gotta find ways to learn and you have to do it on your own time, so a lot of these chefs in New York, you'll call them and say you want to do a stage, which means you want to come there and work for free as long as they'll let you. All you do is learn -- you jump from station to station, just ask a million questions. They were kind enough to allow me to come there for -- it was literally three weeks every day, morning, afternoon, and night, just learning. Seeing how they prepare, how they handle the presentation -- everything that cooks do. New York's chefs, they could come here and they are executive-chef material. They are passionate and professional. They care. They love what they do, and coming in at noon and leaving at 2 in the morning -- they don't bat an eye, because they know that's just what it takes. You know what I mean? And they'll do it. I really admire all the cooks. I was very thankful that they allowed that.

What else did you do to prepare for the opening?
For months prior to opening, I was just sitting at a computer... I needed a starting point. My starting point was small foods, Localecopia, and Zach Bell. Those are the three people that I went to and asked them, "I know you're buying locally -- who are you buying from? What big falls have you had? What successes have you had?" Zach Bell and I sat down for like four hours and talked about his vendors, and he gave me contact information, phone numbers, etc. So I took that list and took the list I had compiled online, and I was able to just have a starting point for just contacting vendors. So I came up with a list of 60 farms in Florida, and I just went down the list and started calling people: "What do you have? My name is Daniel. There is a restaurant opening up; we're going to be buying locally. What's your season for this? For this? Do you have a system in place for getting it to me?" I just started narrowing it down, and then out of those farms, I started calling and saying, "I want to come see your farm," so we started doing field trips. We went to Feelsmere, Okeechobee, Ocala; we went to Avon parks, so we went to the egg farms; we went to Loxahatchee and saw swamps. Our egg farm is Coffeehouse Farms in the City of Okeechobee. We went to Erickson farms. We did all these field trips just to kind of see what is out there. Meet them, put a face with the name, and from there, we found more people.

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