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]

A Delectable Experience at Art Basel Miami Beach, Courtesy of Jennifer Rubell

At Art Basel Miami Beach this year, there were many contenders for top culinary attraction. The Dutch’s new Miami outpost was a major draw, booking up well in advance by New Yorkers eager to get their hands on their favorite little oyster sandwiches. Cecconi’s at the Soho Beach House was crammed with brunch-going scenesters sipping bloody mary’s and basking on the olive tree lined terrace. Pubbelly and Yardbird earned the foodies’ attention, while classics such as Mr. Chow and Casa Tua remained packed throughout the event. But the real draw for food-loving art-goers was Jennifer Rubell’s 11th annual breakfast installation at the Rubell Family Collection.

I arrived to find a fascinating two-part installation, each side exploring the creations of life, art, and food. The first was an incubation gallery where yogurt was being made and served by sterile and expressionless women in nurse uniforms. The second was an observation gallery where both gallery-goers and local bees feasted on honey being dripped from the ceiling. Spectators were encouraged to scoop up spoonfuls of the honey to mix with yogurt for a sumptuous breakfast.

Rubell, yet again, created a successful conversation starter that infuses food, art, and social gatherings to create a consumable sensory experience. Beckoning onlookers to participate and engage, Rubell’s large-scale installations form a shared experience, where gallery goers can eat, touch, and deconstruct the piece’s edible goods, breaking the traditional boundaries of art. Rubell’s past projects have included constructing a gargantuan size piñata of Andy Warhol’s head for Icons at the Brooklyn Museum’s 2010 Brooklyn Ball, creating a performance piece called The de Pury Diptych at London’s Saatchi Gallery – which involved thousands of edible props–and producing an installation at the former Dia Center for the Arts called Creation, wherein Rubell pulled from biblical inspirations to create an enthralling installation involving honey being dripped onto a ton of ribs (she must have a thing for honey).

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As with most provocative artists, Rubell’s craft is difficult to define. Performance, installation, and food artist don’t quite suffice in describing her dexterity. In addition to working as a vegetable butcher at Mario Batali’s Eataly, producing wine in Puyloubier, Provence, and raising her daughter, Stevie, the Harvard grad is a seasoned hostess. Her book Real Life Entertaining was published by HarperCollins in 2006. As the niece of Steve Rubell, famed co-owner of Studio 54, Rubell has been surrounded by artful and creative minds from an early age. She learned her love of entertaining from her famous uncle as well as her art-collecting parents, Don and Mera, whose legendary Whitney Biennial parties were frequented by the likes of Liza Minnelli, Ryan O’Neal, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol.

While restaurants in Miami’s dining scene come and go, Rubell’s bona fide expertise in hosting social gatherings has led her breakfast installations to remain a hit for 11 years and counting. Make sure to check out what artful and edible treats she conjures up for 2012.

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