Q&A With Chef Howie Kleinberg of Bulldog BBQ in Aventura (and Top Chef alum)
Chef Howie Kleinberg is not just another barbecue cook. Owner of Bulldog BBQ in North Miami Beach, Kleinberg is a classically trained chef with a background that includes stints at the five-star/five-diamond InterContinental Miami and the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne.
Clean Plate Charlie sat down with him over a sweet tea to discuss everything from the chef's stint on Top Chef to his next restaurant, Bulldog Burger.
Clean Plate Charlie: Tell us your background.
Kleinberg: I was born and raised in Miami but was sent up north to Boston for school. I was really big into sports: football, wrestling, and lacrosse. I wanted to be a football coach but started doing catering gigs to make money while I was in school. My mother and aunt both cater, and I was raised in that environment. Food has always played a big part in my family.
So you shifted gears and decided to make a career in food service?
Yes. I went to Johnson & Wales. I completed my freshman year in six weeks and began working in restaurants. I did not finish college; it came down to paying out for tuition or going to work and getting paid, where I was getting lots of hands-on experience in a kitchen. I was learning a lot more in the work environment; it made sense to go that route.
What are some of the restaurants you worked at prior to owning Bulldog BBQ?
I worked at El San Juan in Puerto Rico, Trojan in Bal Harbor, Giorgio's in Fort Lauderdale. After that, I opened the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne and did stints at the Diplomat and Wish before taking on sous chef responsibilities at Tantra and later Timo. I was an executive chef at Ivy and then at Food Gang before finally opening my own place.
How did you know it was time to open your own restaurant?
I always wanted to own a restaurant, but opening a fine-dining establishment is a huge investment. After thinking about what would work in my neighborhood and would make the most sense, I decided on fast casual barbecue. I wanted to make sure I was ready to put everything aside and be 100 percent dedicated to owning and operating an establishment. Being able to take on a leadership role and mentor my employees means a great deal to me.
Why did you choose barbecue?
Barbecue appeals to the masses. After spending a great deal of my career in fine dining, I wanted to do something that wasn't pretentious. It's not about small portions or fancy presentation. I'm a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Putting my energy and focus into everyday food done on a quality level is very rewarding. It's all about creating a meal that is filling, serving great portions, and doing it big. I love the idea of a great family meal with good Southern hospitality.
What style of barbecue do you serve?
We're heavily influenced by barbecue from the Carolinas. I visited family up there a lot growing up and always enjoyed that style of barbecue.
What makes your barbecue stand out from others?
I don't approach it like traditional barbecue but like a chef. I always pursue it the way I want. I feel that many barbecue joints use too much smoke and wood, and it overpowers the flavor of the meat. I want to set a higher standard for my customers than they are accustomed to at other barbecue restaurants. Some may say our prices are high, but everything is high quality. The cuts of meat, the ingredients, they're all of good quality.
You are a former Top Chef contestant. What did you learn during the experience, and what would you do differently?
I learned that it is a very stressful environment that is heavily edited. All reality shows are. You're there for six weeks with no outside communication, no music, no form of entertainment. You can't even go out for a pack of cigarettes; someone buys them and brings them back to you. If I were to be on a reality show again, I would have more fun and not take it as seriously. I tried my best to keep it real as much as possible.
Is that where you got your nickname, Bulldog?
Yes. One of the contestants and I were always butting heads. She gave me the nickname. She meant for it to have a negative connotation, but I took it as a compliment. Bulldogs are tenacious, loyal, and stubborn. I can relate to those qualities. To be a viable player in this industry, you have to be tough and thick-skinned. Critics, customers -- not everyone is going to like your product. You have to be able to take the criticism.
Tell us about your new project, Bulldog Burger.
It's currently in the early stages. The permits for the store are mostly done. It will be located next door to Bulldog BBQ. I originally started crafting the menu for it as part of a contest for a reality show, but the more I worked with it, I wanted to open the restaurant. Bulldog Burger is going to be a custom burger joint that appeals to a younger crowd. We'll be offering custom grinds and build-your-own options. We'll have unique patties, like one that's stuffed with cheese in the middle. We'll also be offering several kinds of fries and tater tots. We want it to stand out and be a great extension of the Bulldog brand.
When can we expect to see it open?
We're not announcing an official open date at this time, but stay tuned.
What do you like most about working in the hospitality industry?
I love that there are always new things to learn. The only books I own are cookbooks. I'll sit and scan them for ideas and learn about new trends in the industry. I like to understand what drives other chefs. I like to know what makes them tick and how they take it to the next level.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming chefs?
Once you pay your dues, the knowledge is yours. No one can take away your determination or your work ethic. Be willing to go the extra mile. Always treat the customer well; make them feel welcome. Never lose your passion for food.
Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB.