Since its birth, the United States has remained a proud melting pot of influences from all corners of the world. Despite the nation’s cultural differences and vast ancestral influences, one tradition remains highly celebrated: food. Whether your stomach grumbles at the very thought of juicy barbecue, you salivate at the smell of spicy street tacos, or live for long courses of authentic Japanese sushi, America offers a mouthwatering meld of century-old recipes blended with new-age cooking techniques for truly diverse dishes that can be found all across the nation.
For former “Top Chef” finalist, Jeff McInnis, this beautiful fusion of cultures and foods comes to life at his newly opened Sarsaparilla Club restaurant, where southern-style cooking meets American dim sum. Located in the vivacious, multicultural city of Miami, at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach hotel, the Sarsaparilla Club offers a palate-enhancing experience.
The folks behind this part-dim sum, part-comfort food restaurant, Chef McInnis and his partner in the kitchen (and in love), fellow “Top Chef” alum, Chef Janine Booth, pride themselves on their individual upbringings and portray it with every recipe offered at the Sarsaparilla Club.
As Executive Chef and owner of The Sarsaparilla Club, you pride the restaurant on its “innovative take on American Dim Sum combining Dim Sum and Comfort Food.” How did this brilliant idea to fuse the two come about?
We wanted a concept without boundaries. My partner Janine and I developed this brand keeping in mind all of the global flavors around the world. You’ll see lots of influence from her Australian upbringing as well as my American background. We dabble in flavors from all areas of the globe! The majority of our food is upscale yet unpretentious, something we take much pride in. I steer away from using the word American comfort food in our branding as it places limits on our cuisine. We use a lot of amazing Asian techniques especially in the dim sum, dumplings, and Bao bun categories.
Growing up in the South, in Niceville, Florida, and spending summers on your grandparent’s farm in Alabama, you must have been exposed to some excellent southern comfort-style food. What were some of your favorite dishes growing up?
Many people believe that because I was born in the South, the food at The Sarsaparilla Club is only relating to Southern comfort food- which is hardly the case. The Sarsaparilla club is extremely unique and you will not find this diversity in Southern restaurants. Our food is very eclectic and global. For example, we have fried chicken on the menu but it’s not your typical Southern fried chicken. We brine the chicken for several days then fry it in green curry and toss it with Kaffir lime leaf powder. We also have grits on the menu but they are not your typical ground dried grits; instead they are a fresh corn with an Italian touch to the top, including mascarpone and arugula purée.
As for “farm to table,” I’ve never really focused on it as much as people think. Perhaps this is due to my upbringing in the South. While growing up, the term “farm to table” was never used in my nor Janine’s family. Our upbringings allowed us to consume pure foods straight from farms and gardens- this was just everyday life for us. I believe if a chef has to focus and try to deliver”farm to table” then perhaps they really don’t know or understand good sources for their food. We pride ourselves on buying a great product from local meat, produce, and seafood purveyors. The majority of our food is local and fresh just as it should be!
How do you feel the restaurant’s location and its surrounding culture directly affect the style and ambiance of the restaurant?
It is great to be located at the Shelborne Hotel which is an iconic property in the heart of South Beach. With a backyard of the Atlantic Ocean and sun above us every day it’s hard not to enjoy the Miami lifestyle. We are blessed that our back porch overlooks the pool, palm trees, and ocean. My favorite time is just before dusk and the sun is setting and you can smell the salty ocean air blowing through our dining room. Thus, the Shelborne location deeply enhances our restaurants vibe and style.
Your partner and fellow chef at the Sarsaparilla Club, Janine Booth, has also been a Top Chef contestant. How did you two first meet and decide to open up a restaurant together at the beautiful Shelborne Hotel?
We first met at a restaurant that I opened years ago call Gigi’s. She was a regular at the restaurant and eventually took on a job/career with us. Now Janine and I have been cooking together for several years. She and I developed the concept of Sarsaparilla in New York while we opened up our first restaurant Root & Bone together. I love cooking with her and she is my soulmate/partner that I could not live or cook without.
You garnered great attention for your appearance on Top Chef. What was that experience like?
I can speak for both myself and Janine, who also participated on the show, that we truly enjoyed the experience of being on Top Chef. From meeting new chefs who would soon become our best friends, to the challenges and judges. We’ve kept in touch with our alumni on the show and from other seasons throughout the years. There is a great comradery of Chefs that participated in events together and support each other. I think the show has also enhanced the way we do business and marketing. Not only were our restaurants being promoted, but also our personal brands.
As far as Top Chef and our cooking skills, it has developed us to be more organized and to cook quicker. These are definitely skill sets that we both learned throughout our experience. Not to mention having tons of amazing judges and celebrity chefs give you advice on particular foods. We both found that aspect priceless!
How do you feel both of your individual culinary works complements one another?
Janine and I are like Ying and Yang. We both complement each other perfectly. Some of my more traditional techniques are grounded and perhaps wiser which are tested through time and experience. Janine is like a Maserati- driving hundreds of miles per hour experiencing and developing daily with cutting-edge and modern techniques. Together we come up with some amazing dishes and create great experiences for our guests.