50 Eggs CEO John Kunkel Is Reigniting Miami Food Culture, One Animal at a Time

John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs restaurant group, is killing it in Miami these days. Buoyed by the $24 million sale of his Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain, Kunkel’s unfussy, crowd-pleasing food concepts like Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and the new Swine Southern Table & Bar have him joining celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein (Sra. Martinez) and the glitterati-loving restaurateur Myles Chefetz (Prime 112) as part of the Magic City’s premier culinary troika. We caught up with Kunkel to chat about money, chicken, and cooking with water bugs.

Yardbird, 50 Eggs … you must be a fowl fan.

50 Eggs is a line from an old Paul Newman film entitled Cool Hand Luke. There’s a scene where he is dared to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs, even though his stomach might explode. But that’s, of course, exactly what he does. And that’s my personality in a nutshell. As for the yardbird, it’s an homage to my Southern roots.

So when that $24 million check from Ruby Tuesday’s check hit your account …

Actually it was a wire, and it was definitively a life-changing moment. I took two days off and was right back to work. I always dreamed big, so when I started in this business, with my first café, every step was calculated. I kind of ran a Ponzi scheme on myself by maxing out credit cards and remortgaging my house to get my first places up and running. It was hard.

What did financial security mean for your business?

The sale of Lime allowed us to be independent of anyone or anything. From a creative perspective it was an amazing feeling. As for the money, I put it away and never touched it. In terms of everyday operations, that sum hasn’t changed how I go about things. I still operate from that old standpoint of how in the world am I going to make my car payment this month.

Yet here you are, with the new Swine Southern Table & Bar and few other concepts on the horizon.

Swine is like Yardbird’s tougher younger brother. It’s a southern food concept that will operate in a predominantly Cuban area. And I’m booked solid for the next two months, proving that just about any concept executed well does great here.

Dare we say that the local palate is evolving?

Miami has a food-driven audience. Just few days ago we did a chef’s dinner at Khong River House, where the chef prepared water bugs and some other out-there things. The tickets sold out in 20 minutes. People are willing to go for it.

Excuse me, did you just say water bugs?

We did this dinner for the Cobaya foodies, a local underground dinner club whose motto is to try whatever experiments South Florida chefs are cooking up. And our Thai chefs, who are used to working with frogs, eels, and bugs, were more than happy to do it for them.

Any plans to take your 50 Eggs out of state?

Absolutely. But for the moment I am focused on doing it right down here. This year we will open Khong Fuzi, a late night noodle and bun shop, and the Test Kitchen, a community outreach and partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Johnson & Wales University, and Common Threads, a charity organization that teaches low-income kids to cook wholesome and affordable meals. The Test Kitchen is going to be open for free to local chefs to come in and work with other chefs and have a little sense of community.

Speaking of local chefs, any that you are particularly fond of?

I love what the Pubbelly guys are doing. They are really elevating the level here. So is Giorgio Rapicavoli at the Eating House. All these guys down Biscayne Avenue, like Blue Collar and Federal, are hanging out their shingles, risking it all, and turning out amazing food.

To what do you attribute your success?

I’ve had a ton of people supporting me. It’s not a one-man show. We put a lot of emphasis on the staff. Otherwise, having lived in Southeast Asia, I was the odd man out, which prepared me to carve my own way in this business. That and martial arts, where I learned all about discipline and focus.

What’s John Kunkel’s place in this culinary landscape?

I hope we are moving the needle. As the largest privately-owned operator here, I feel it’s our responsibility to create an environment that fosters young, local talent. By embracing these young chefs and restaurants we do nothing but better our local culinary scene. If there is one thing I would like my company to stand for, is that we are a resource to those who are aiming to set up successful culinary businesses here.

So a hopeful restaurateur can just call you to shoot the breeze about building permits and knife sets?

Sure, why not? Call me the custodian of the scene.

[Related: BlackBook Miami Guide; Listings for Yardbird, Swine, Khong River House; Subscribe to the weekly BlackBook Happenings newsletter; Read Winter 2012/2013 in Miami: So Hot it Burns and more by Anetta Nowosielska; Follow Anetta on Twitter]

This Week’s NY Happenings: Taste of Greenwich House, Aska, XL

TODAY (Monday): Taste Of Greenwich House
For over a century, Greenwich House has been uplifting New Yorkers with social programs, from music schools to senior centers. Pitch in by ponying up for the annual Taste of Greenwich House tonight, Monday the 11th, and you’ll graze from a greatest hits package of neighbor restaurants. Anita Lo and Annisa will be featured, joined by fresh blood like BarracaMarble Lane, and Swine. Live music and an open bar will keep the Metropolitan Pavilion swinging.

General admission for Taste of Greenwich House at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W. 18th St., Chelsea) begins at 7:30pm tonight, Monday the 11th. Tickets are $150 ($100 is tax-deductible). To learn more about the event space, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides. Photo by Ebbe Sweet Photography.

FRIDAY: Scandi Man Can
Fredrik Berselius’s smash Aska continues to evolve, with an upgraded tasting menu kicking off this Friday. Ten courses tour through Scandi-inspired innovations, with drink pairings to match (weekend nights only).

Ten-course tasting menus start this Friday at Aska (90 Wythe Ave., Williamsburg). To learn more about the restaurant, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

SUNDAY: Saint Patrick McMullan
Irish eyes will be smiling when Patrick McMullan kicks off his 30th annual St. Patty’s Day party at XL. Irish dancers, DJ Lady Oh’Bunny, and Stoli Shamrock martinis highlight the bill.

St. Patrick’s Day at XL (512 W. 42nd St., Midtown West) starts at 10pm on Sunday the 17th. To learn more about the bar, check out the listing at BlackBook Guides.

Be the first to know about the latest openings & events in NYC by signing up for the weekly BlackBook Happenings email & downloading the BlackBook City Guides app for iPhone and Android.

Kick Off 2013 With a Killer Meal

Sure, the holidays came and you ate, and drank, and ate again, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge on the last night of 2012. What better way to go out with a bang, than with a feast to ring in the New Year. 

Celebrate with South American flare at La Mar Cebichería Peruana, where the swank Peruvian eatery hosts a New Year’s Eve pisco party. For $40, slug pisco sours from the open bar in the upstairs lounge from 7pm to 2am, and dance to the live DJ. If you want to go for a ceviche-laden, four-course dinner, $135 gets you that, and the open bar.

For a French-themed New Year’s, the West Village brasserie La Villette offers four-course ranging from $49 to $185, depending if you want the early dinner seating or the Champaign fueled 9pm seating. Either way, you get lobster and scallop tartare, foie gras terrine, house-made tagliatelle with truffles, and filet mignon. They have an all-night liquor license so the party doesn’t end until 8am.

You can also get French in Brooklyn at the Vinegar Hill House. There, $80 gets you a four-course meal with choices including blood sausage with apple, wild boar with chestnut puree, pear salad with truffle, and crepes. For $100, you can have a Champaign toast and late dinner—DUMBO style. 

Carnivores rejoice, at Back Forty West you can get a meat-laden table with four-courses done family-style for $75. Try the 12-hour smoked lamb shoulder, cowboy steak, and whole baked sea bass.

If Thai is how you want to ring in the New Year, Harold Dieterle’s Kin Shop has an $85, three-course tasting menu with options including seared diver sea scallops with Szechuan peppercorns, braised beef short ribs with curry, and butter poached lobster with kaffir lime buerre blanc. Drinks not included.

Starting at $95, you can dine on a six or eight-course Mexican tasting menu at Empellon Cocina. Feast on chef Alex Stupak’s smoked chicken with Earl Grey mayonnaise and caviar or wild Norwegian Steelhead trout with mezcal butter, and be glad you can celebrate the New Year every year, and not just when the Mayans calendar claims it’s an important date.

Finally, for some party with your dinner, Swine in the West Village is hosting a glam rock and hair metal bash from 10:30 to 2am. The party features an open bar with era-appropriate punches, hors d’oeuvres, and a buffet. Naturally, pork will be the main star of the menu.

This Little Piggy: Swine Opens in the West Village

There’s a new pig in town that has taken up residence in the bustling land of the West Village. Enter, Swine, a rustic-American restaurant partially owned by Cris Criswell and John McNulty, formerly of Perilla and Joseph Leonard, with chef Phil Conlon heading the kitchen.

“Swine is a happy middle ground for people who want a good glass of wine in a lively, unpretentious environment, along with snacks or a full meal,” said Conlon, who used to cook at Café Cluny and Extra Virgin. “The menu has a fair amount of pig, like the house-made charcuterie and the 16-ounce Swine Chop, but we really wanted something for everyone. So consequently there are plenty of vegetarian, gluten-free, and pork-free options on the menu.”

Swine also offers a late night haven in an area that lacks eateries open past midnight. Until 3am Monday through Saturday, it will dish out plates like duck fat cashews, pig’s head terrine, and house-made ricotta, with beer, wine, and cocktails, including the appropriate bacon-infused Old Overholt drink called Pig in the City. Inside, Swine channels a classic, rocker dive bar with messy-plastered walls, exposed brick walls, rustic shelving and bare-bones light fixtures. Of course, given it was designed by Jason Volenec who did Tertulia and La Esquina, it has sleekness to the grime. In case eating pork off a refurbished-ping-pong-ball table in a trendy new spot wasn’t enough, they also have a vintage pinball machine upstairs.