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South Florida Is Trading Tackiness for Exotic Fruit

I was hoping for the perfect emblem of the burgeoning local produce scene in a little-known area outside of Miami known as the Redlands—but like so much else in South Florida, commercialism has derailed a good idea.

by Alex Swerdloff
Mar 4 2015, 7:45pm

All photos by the author.

A woman who calls herself a "vino-tech"—which seems to be a subversively fiendish cross between a theme park greeter and sommelier—pours a syrupy liquid into my glass. The wine is amber and thick, and it smells like Manischewitz crossed with paint thinner.

This wine, she tells me, is made from carambola—the East Asian tropical polyhedron also known as starfruit. The fresh pour mixes with the remnants from my last one, which was derived from coconuts and tasted so much of fermented suntan lotion that even Jodie Foster would be turned off.

It's all par for the course at Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery, the Disneyfied purveyor that claims to be the southernmost winemaker in the continental United States. Its vintners utilize only the tropical fruit plentiful in South Florida in their quest to establish a tropical-fruit libation empire.

Don't get me wrong—I wanted to like Schnebly's wine. I was hoping for the perfect emblem of the burgeoning local produce scene in a little-known area an hour south of Miami, variously called Redland, Redlands, or the Redlands. (Everyone seems to disagree on this rural region's correct name.) But like so much else in South Florida, commercialism has derailed a good idea. Schnebly Redland's Winery boasts a bit too much of a faux-Napa-meets-Universal-CityWalk vibe for my taste.

Exotic Fruit- Canistels at Pinecrest Farmers Market

Canistels at Pinecrest Farmers Market.

Nevertheless, the Redlands—let's call it that, as most native South Floridians do—is slowly becoming to Miami what the Hudson Valley is to New York. And as a source of farm-to-table food, the Redlands and its neighbor, Homestead, are beginning to move Miami out of the over-amped, glam-club-fusion food it has been known for.

In order to better navigate the intersection between the Redlands' growers and purveyors and Miami's culinary scene, I headed over to The Cypress Room, chef Michael Schwartz's retro, fine-dining restaurant located in Miami's Design District. Even in the middle of the day, this moody throwback to the Rat Pack and three-martini lunches is a swinging monument to the supper clubs of yore.

WATCH: Chef's Night Out with Michael Schwartz

As we sit at the deep mahogany bar, Schwartz tells me he was not always a fan of using exotic and tropical produce in his cuisine. A native of the Northeast, he was first exposed to the Miami Vice-esque "Mango Gang" cuisine of chefs like Norman Van Aken and Mark Militello when he moved to South Florida in the mid-90s: "For better or worse, they introduced those products to other chefs, who learned to embrace them." But unlike his pastel predecessors, Schwartz has subtly taken the use of native tropicals into the 21st century.

Exotic fruits -for sale at Pinecrest Farmers market in Miami

Exotic fruits for sale in Miami.

"When we opened Genuine," Schwartz says, referring to his first restaurant, Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, "it was important for us to bridge that gap between the farmers and the restaurants." This earnest commitment to the growers and their product, executed without hitting customers over the head with self-important rhetoric, is exactly what Schwartz is all about. He says, "We want to focus on what the local growers grow best, so we don't dictate what they grow. I think that would be a mistake."

Michael's partnership with Redlands growers resonates throughout his menus. Local products can even be seen in the dessert selections, spearheaded by Hedy Goldsmith, Schwartz's longtime pastry chef. I had the good fortune to experience Goldsmith's maple brown butter semifreddo, which included local allspice berries and medjool date leather that could curb-stomp its Fruit Roll-Ups counterpart. Edible flowers from a grower called Paradise Farms topped it off.

Schwartz--Maple-brown-butter-semifredo-at-Cypress-Room

Maple brown butter semifredo at Cypress Room.

"Even when Michael's Genuine opened eight years ago, there were less than a handful of small-scale, independent growers," Schwartz points out. "Now it seems like there's a new handful popping up every other week."

This shift is only the tip of the iceberg, though, as far as Schwartz is concerned: "I would love to see more diversity aside from agriculture. We're currently lacking in things like cheese and livestock."

As Schwartz's empire grew—it now includes a gourmet pizzeria, restaurants on cruise ships, and an outpost on Grand Cayman—the need for some serious foraging kicked in. Early on, Schwartz and his chefs would drive his pickup down to the Redlands, but today he relies on Farm to Kitchen, a sourcing company run by Chris Padin and Ali Lauria, whom Schwartz handpicked and drew into the business. To get Padin's take on the local scene, I headed over to the new warehouse in Little Haiti that they share with a juice company.

The relentless hum of blenders threatens to drown out Padin's voice as he describes what it means to source local produce for Miami restaurants today. Padin points out that "forager" is a bit of a misnomer for him: "I am actually a lot closer to a sourcer than a forager, and we are trying to break out of the forager mold."

Padin- Chris Padin at Farm to Kitchen warehouse

Chris Padin at his Farm to Kitchen warehouse.

The reason for this is simple, he says: "If you go into the Everglades to get an Everglades tomato, it's just so few and far between." While foraging is a possibility in northern Florida, South Florida's tropical fruits and vegetables are typically not found growing wild—they come from small growers, many of which are in the Redlands.

Teena's Pride, Bee Heaven Organic Farm, Paradise Farms, Verde Gardens, Three Sisters Farm, and Martha's U-Pick are among the dozen or so growers in the Redlands with whom Padin works. He agrees that the local food movement in South Florida is maturing: "A lot of the newer restaurants, the first thing they want to do is source locally. They're inspired by what people are doing in Chicago or New York or San Francisco and taking pride in coming to Miami and getting the farm-to-table movement going."

One example is Vagabond Restaurant and Bar, run by Los Angeles transplant Alex Chang, who made his bones at Paladar and Animal. Padin says, "Before the season began, Chang and I sat down and I gave him a rundown on all the tropicals and what to expect throughout the year. Now, he's fully using stuff like the black sapote, which I've never really seen other chefs here fully utilize."

Paradise-Farms--No-meat-or-cigarettes

No meat or cigs at Paradise Farms.

I drove down to Paradise Farms, one of the small farms that Schwartz and Padin work with, in order to get a feel for the scene from the perspective of the local growers. It is a feng shui-designed property that is owned by Gabriele Marewski and manned by an almost all-female staff. Once an abandoned avocado farm, Paradise Farms now grows everything from edible flowers to oyster mushrooms to cotton candy fruit, with a focus on supplying Miami restaurants. Every inch of it is personal and quirky—from the circular growing beds that "respect the principles of sacred geometry" and "incorporate biodynamic principles" to the sign that greets you upon arrival: "no meat or cigarettes."

Since buying the farm in 1999, Mareweski claims the region has undergone pronounced changes: "There has definitely been a shift to small scale, organic growers—and the farmers' market scene has just exploded."

Leaving the somewhat trippy scene of Paradise Farm, my GPS is confounded by the local dirt roads and I end up driving across a pitted path that bisects one of the area's eponymous red fields. It's beautiful and silent, and a relentless blue sky stretches for miles, with enormous white clouds forming landscapes in the sky. The road dumps me out at Robert Is Here, an old-timey, tricked-out fruit stand with a Noah's ark of animals residing in a backyard petting zoo.

Exotic Fruit- Black sapote and sapodilla at Pinecrest Farmer's Market

Black sapote and sapodilla at Pinecrest Farmer's Market.

Tourists line up to buy strawberry shakes and coconut patties, or purchase oranges that are available for shipping coast to coast. Want a tour of the Everglades? They'll hook you up. We are back in the Florida of my grandparents. Everything is for sale and flashily so. The earnest, farm-to-table Redlands that I've come to know from Schwartz, Padin, and Marewski seems a long way away. For better or worse, I'm back in Schnebly territory.

After all, this is South Florida: over-the-top, commercial, tacky. That's what we do. Except when we don't.

As Schwartz says, "We are Miami. Our product and growers aren't at the level of Napa or the Hudson Valley. But I think it's coming."