Niven Patel, a Miami Chef, Is Not Giving Up on 2020

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The last week in July was an especially stressful one for Niven Patel, and for Floridians in general.

It began with Mr. Patel’s decision to permanently close one of two locations of Ghee Indian Kitchen, the Miami-area restaurant that brought the chef national acclaim. The week ended with South Florida bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias, just as the state recorded its fourth straight day of record reported deaths from Covid-19.

In the midst of all of this — while still adjusting to having become a father to twin daughters in June — Mr. Patel was busy with final preparations for the opening of a new restaurant called Mamey. Doing so in a pandemic, he conceded, is “pretty insane.”

Mr. Patel, 36, is one of Miami’s best-known and promising young chefs — in May, Food & Wine magazine anointed him one of the country’s 10 Best New Chefs. At a time when many high-end restaurateurs are putting their careers and businesses on pause in the face of spiraling health and economic crises, Mr. Patel is forging ahead — in his quiet, cautious way — with Mamey, in an attempt to salvage what was shaping up to be a banner year.

The new restaurant, which opened last Wednesday in Coral Gables, serves food and drinks only for takeout, delivery and limited outdoor dining, in keeping with Miami-Dade County’s ban on indoor service. But even with those restrictions, Mr. Patel was eager to act.

“It’s honestly been very mentally refreshing, to get into the kitchen and start creating new dishes that we’ve envisioned now for a year and a half,” he said. “Where at Ghee it’s been about survival, this is new.”

Mr. Patel has had big plans. Mamey, which takes its name from a fruit popular in Latin America and South Florida, was originally scheduled to open in the spring, along with another restaurant, Orno, both of them in Paseo de la Riviera, a new development in Coral Gables that includes apartments and the THesis Hotel.

The openings were put on hold in March, when city and county officials shut down Miami-area restaurants; so was that of a permanent location for Erba, a pasta restaurant owned by Mr. Patel that had a popular run as a pop-up in 2019. The photo shoot for a Food & Wine article on the top chefs was also in March — a day after Mr. Patel laid off all 64 of his employees. “It’s why I’m not smiling,” he said.

Two of those workers were farmers who tended to Rancho Patel, the two-acre farm that surrounds his family’s house in Homestead, about 30 miles south of Coral Gables. Weeds have since taken over the swath of tilled land in the backyard where he grew produce and herbs for Ghee Indian Kitchen.

“We can do some serious damage with this plot,” Mr. Patel said as he kicked at rocks in the soil one evening. He recently hired Roberto Grossman, a farmer in Homestead, to revive Rancho Patel. “We just need to put some love back into it.”

A bright spot at Rancho Patel has been the tropical fruit that flourishes in the blazing-hot Florida summer and that Mr. Patel harvests, with the help of his father in-law. Much of it — including mangoes, lychees and guanábana — will show up in the food and cocktails at Mamey, whose opening is the first step in providing the chef a larger canvas to showcase the full range of his talent.

The cuisine at Ghee, which opened its first location in 2017, reflects the chef’s Indian roots; both his and his wife’s families hail from the Indian state of Gujarat.

But Mr. Patel was born in Valdosta, Ga., and raised in Jacksonville, Fla. He made a name for himself locally while cooking New American food as chef de cuisine at Michael’s Genuine, the flagship restaurant of Michael Schwartz, a star Miami chef, after working in a restaurant on Grand Cayman, in the Caribbean.

“My whole background doesn’t have anything to do with Indian food,” Mr. Patel said. “I get most excited about exploring all this other kind of food.”

Mamey’s menu combines ideas from the cuisines of island nations — “We don’t want boundaries,” Mr. Patel said — but with an emphasis on the Caribbean.

At a menu tasting for his corporate partners in Mamey’s dining room a week before the opening, the chef introduced a dish of plantains as a personal favorite. Brown and custardy, they had been roasted in ghee, and finished with pickled onions and fresh cilantro. The chef noted how the flavors of Jamaican jerk were subtly expressed in the spiced yogurt beneath the fruit.

Mohamed Alkassar, director of operations for Nolan Reynolds International, the company that developed Paseo de la Riviera, sat at the end of a long table in a room behind Mamey’s bar. “What I like about Chef’s food the most, it’s the simplest dish on the menu that ends up surprising me the most,” he said.

Mr. Alkassar, 33, had his laptop open to renderings of what the restaurant will look like by next week, after all of the design elements are in place: Foliage covers the ceiling above low-hanging light shades in the two dining rooms, and potted palm trees appear where boxes of takeout containers were stacked chest-high.

“It was a big investment — a couple hundred thousand dollars — when we were making the last finishing touches on Mamey,” Mr. Alkassar said. “One of the conversations we had to have is, do we make that final investment? When we’re not even going to open for inside dining?”

He said the company’s decision to proceed with Mamey and Orno, which is now scheduled to open early next year with a menu focused on local ingredients cooked in a wood-burning oven, was a vote of confidence in Mr. Patel, as well as in the hotel. The development is across the street from the University of Miami, which begins in-person classes on Monday.

The school’s students and faculty, Mr. Alkassar said, “are a big part of our revenue model, for both the hotel and the restaurants.”

Mr. Patel runs the hotel’s food and beverage programs in partnership with Nolan Reynolds. The team developed multiple business plans for Mamey over the spring and summer, as Miami-area restaurants struggled to navigate changing government restrictions.

The menu was rewritten with takeout in mind. Mr. Patel and his staff tested how dishes would perform by putting them in cardboard to-go boxes and waiting 15 minutes.

“Has it lost temperature? Has it lost taste? Does it travel well?” said Mr. Patel. “There are all of these factors you have to consider that before we wouldn’t have even thought of.”

The test included a coconut-lime ceviche of Florida wahoo, summer rolls filled with pickled shiitakes and fresh avocado, and a jerk chicken sandwich with jackfruit barbecue sauce.

Tim Piazza, the executive chef for Mr. Patel’s restaurant company, Aya Hospitality, still worried that some dishes were less suited to takeout than others.

“You want to be eating ceviche five minutes after you made it, not 45 minutes,” he said.

Mamey’s playful, bright-flavored food is reminiscent of the culturally omnivorous, fruit-forward cuisine championed in Miami by chefs like Norman Van Aken, Cindy Hutson and Douglas Rodriguez in the 1990s and early 2000s. That often busy, Latin-Caribbean-inspired cooking was a dominant style in local fine dining in the 2010s, when chefs like Mr. Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein grabbed attention with simpler dishes at more modest, bistrolike restaurants.

With Mamey, Mr. Patel joins a new generation of chefs — Michael Beltran, the 34-year-old chef-owner of Ariete, is another prominent example — who are reorienting Miami fine dining around cuisines brought to South Florida over the years by immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. They’re doing so at a moment when others are looking at the cooking of Miami’s recent past with fresh eyes.

“When I started, I said, ‘I’m not going to put fruit on anything,’” said Ms. Bernstein, 51, a Miami native whose restaurant in Little Havana, Café La Trova, is temporarily closed because of the coronavirus. “I’m old enough where I’ve come around. Now I can’t wait to brown butter and put mango in it.”

Mr. Patel describes Mamey’s menu in practical terms. “The food fits in with the demographics of the area,” he said. “Plus, I spent two-and-a-half years in the Cayman Islands. I really love that cuisine.”

His colleagues invariably bring up his calm demeanor and lack of ego as defining characteristics. Mr. Patel speaks quietly. His taste for brightly colored socks — one afternoon at Racho Patel, he wore a green, avocado-themed pair — may be the loudest thing about him.

“He’s very collected,” Mr. Schwartz said. “That struck me the first time I met him. A lot of young chefs are kind of frenetic and chaotic.”

Mr. Patel’s even temper has certainly been tested during the pandemic. In June, after seven years of trying to start a family, he and his wife, Shivani, welcomed twin daughters into their home. Ms. Patel, a co-owner of Aya Hospitality, stepped away from the restaurants to care for the newborns, who were carried by a surrogate.

The babies’ arrival also raised the level of concern that Mr. Patel could be exposed to the coronavirus through work — and could bring it into the house he shares with his in-laws.

“We’re trying to create a culture of being safe,” Mr. Patel said. “One person not being safe outside of work could affect the entire enterprise.”

Brenda Perez took a job as a server at Mamey in part, she said, because of the cautious way Mr. Patel has managed the original Ghee. The chef ended indoor dining at the restaurant in early July, just before the county mandated it.

“The way they responded to the virus this entire time has been very responsible,” said Ms. Perez, 37, whose boyfriend works at Ghee. “They care about their employees and how they feel.”

In June, as the coronavirus outbreak in Florida grew more worrisome, Mr. Patel and Mr. Alkassar asked Mr. Piazza, the restaurant group’s executive chef, to quarantine at home. Mr. Piazza’s wife had just tested positive for the coronavirus, as had their nanny and the nanny’s husband.

“When this happened, Niven was like, ‘Stay home,’” Mr. Piazza said.

Even after tests for his wife came back negative, though, the team insisted that Mr. Piazza remain home, to guarantee a healthy chef in case others fell sick.

Mr. Piazza, whom Mr. Patel refers to as “my right hand,” has spent the time testing recipes and writing (and rewriting) menus for Mamey.

“‘The hotel is a big deal for a lot of people,’” Mr. Piazza said Mr. Patel told him. “‘You’re the only guy who I would trust here if something happened to me.’”

Mr. Patel’s team was still making adjustments on opening night. Salsa verde was added to the piri piri roast chicken. At the last minute, Mr. Patel decided to tuck a gerbera daisy into every branded takeout bag. With the THesis Hotel booked to over 60 percent capacity in its first week of business, there was even talk of growing Mamey’s staff of 34 employees.

Mr. Alkassar stood near the outdoor pool bar on the hotel’s third floor, where diners ate protected from the rain. He has opened more than 20 restaurants, he said, and despite all the challenges, he can’t remember another opening that went as smoothly as Mamey’s.

To prove his point, he pulled up a string of texts between Mr. Patel and himself on his smartphone. One from Mr. Patel read, “Thanks for letting me always just be who I am.”

Mamey, in the THesis Hotel, 1350 South Dixie Highway, Coral Gables, Fla.; 888-304-5055; thesishotelmiami.com/taste/mamey.