(March 3, 2023) When Chef Niven Patel told his parents that he was going to study at the Culinary Arts School at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, his family, which included his parents and a small crowd of relatives, were all horrified. Those ‘bride wanted’ ads were definitely not going to write themselves. As far as Niven Patel was concerned, however, it was Fort Lauderdale or nothing. Chef Niven Patel is one of Florida’s most celebrated chefs, a two-time James Beard nominee (he received a nomination in 2023) who has been on the cover of the New York Times Sunday food section and named one of the Best New Chefs of 2020 by Food & Wine Magazine. Chef Nivens run three restaurants in Miami – Ghee Indian Kitchen, Mamey Miami, and Orno, with Erba all set to open this year. All the vegetables and herbs are sourced from Rancho Patel, Chef Niven’s organic farm, where he grows everything from custard apple to tomatoes and turmeric. So, you see, when he writes on Instagram that he’s ‘Living the Chef Dream’, he really means it.
Chef Niven was born to Gujarati parents in Georgia, who had migrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. As the Patel clan is now known to do, they got into the motel business and expanding later to convenience stores as well. Chef Niven’s life was seemingly planned out for him and in 2003, he headed to business school in Jacksonville. It just wasn’t meant to be, however. Instead, Chef Niven turned to the happiest days he had known – composing menus for his family and helping create the dishes. “I have been cooking all my life. I used to make my menus as a child and let my family order and then I went into the kitchen to cook whatever they wanted,” he said. So, after many a heated argument, his parents, mollified by the fact that there was an aunt in Fort Lauderdale, let him go to culinary school. He hasn’t looked back since.
When Chef Niven arrived at the Culinary Arts School, he felt right at home. “I was cooking and working in restaurants the whole time during college,” he recalled. He worked at 3030 Ocean Restaurant at the Harbour Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale. He found a mentor in Chef Dean Max at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa and then back home, to re-join the family business and set up restaurants for them. That’s when Chef Dean invited him to come to Islamorada as a sous chef. He stayed for four years and in 2010, moved with Chef Dean to The Brasserie in the Cayman Islands.
“That’s where I really found my style of cooking. It was modern American food but we had our own farm and two of our own fishing boats,” he told the Flamingo. There, he worked with freshly-caught wahoo (the ceviche made with Florida Wahoo is still a specialty at his restaurants), “yellowfin tuna, different varieties of amazing snapper, like black snapper from 1,200 feet of water,” he recalled, enthusiastically.
By this time, he had found himself a wife – a Gujarati, to boot. He joined her in Miami, finding himself a job at Michael Schwartz’s namesake flagship in the Design District, where he worked as chef de cuisine starting in 2014.
This story begins with a tomato. Anybody who has so much dabbled with a kitchen garden will know the effort that goes into planting a seed, tending a sapling and waiting for it to bear fruit. The dangers are endless, from pests to waking up one morning to find an entire potato crop overtaken by blight. One day, one of his cooks “grabbed this perfect tomato, took two slices off of it and then threw the other half in the trash. And I lost it.” If his chefs didn’t understand the value of fresh produce, what was the point, really. “So I told them, “You guys are all going to come to my house and we’re going to start a farm.”
Today, Chef Niven Patel and his wife call Rancho Patel home – that’s where the couple raise their twins. The chef is up at the break of dawn, as are his daughters, usually and together, they survey the crops. Chef Niven picks the vegetables and fruit, his daughters gather clumps of wild flowers that are put in vases at the restaurants. And most importantly, fresh produce is taken from the farm to the restaurants. Menus are decided based on what’s available. Anybody lucky enough to visit, is likely to find local farmers and helpers pushing around wheelbarrows ladedn with mangoes, custard apples, lychees (he loves lychees) papaya, turmeric, carrot, tomatoes – one gets the idea. Taro (tapioca) is another staple.
“We would cook up a feast,” he told the New York Times. Then, they started inviting friends, fellow chefs and farmers over, cooking up elaborate Gujarati meals. It was simple vegetarian fare, most of it cooked in ghee. All this while, it hadn’t occured to Chef Patel to cook Indian food, that had never been the plan. But guests absolutely loved his meals. “I thought, ‘We have to do this; we have to make a place that’s like eating at home,'” he told the New York Times.
Cooking in Ghee
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When he started up Ghee Indian Kitchen in Miami in 2017, staff were sent to Rancho Patel to learn the ropes. Besides, while the menu is planned in advance, the day’s produce can change everything. He recalls, in an interview, bringing in 40 pounds of Siberian kale, which ended up as a braised green dish that “was awesome.”
The theme at Ghee is “simple but flavourful.” The menu has things like bhel, tossed with chutney and avocado and topped off with local tuna. And kheema samosas with mint chutney.
After Ghee Indian Kitchen came Mamey Miami, which he runs with Mohamed Alkassar, director of operations for Nolan Reynolds International. The tropical-themed restaurant was named after the melon native to Cuba and Central America. Chef Niven takes his inspiration from his travels here, celebrating the exotic flavours and spices of tropical cuisine. Here, you can try yellowfin tuna tostones with tomato sofrito, Bahamian conch fritters with cilantro tartar source and roasted peppers, the Creole mahi and Brussel sprouts pad thai.
Erba, which is all set to open in 2023, is a nod to the chef’s time in Florence, Italy, from the Alpareno Restaurant Group. The restaurant will feature in-house pasta and a “vegetable forward menu.” That’s all the owners are willing to say, for now.
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