Long-time South Florida restaurateur Dennis Max is back on the scene with his first opening in five years; and first “new” concept in more than a decade. Max’s Harvest is scheduled to open in mid-June in the former Taste Gastropub space in Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove. I to Max about the new place, old restaurants, and a decade-long introspection.
Jan Norris: Tell me about Max’s Harvest.
Dennis Max: We’re very excited about it. We’re going into Pineapple Grove, and going back to our roots. The menu is going to be farm- and fresh-to-table to whatever extent we can make it.
JN: But in essence, you’ve been doing that since you opened Max’s Place more than 30 years ago.
Max: Ah, we do go back a while, don’t we? Ironically what goes around comes around. When we did Cafe Max in 1984, (in Pompano Beach; now Cafe Maxx), the whole foods movement, if you will, was a state of mind. People getting back to natural foods, and moving from pre-made foods to cooking fresh and using natural foods. We billed it as California cuisine. I was born and raised there – and just bringing influences in from my home state. I didn’t understand at the time that people like Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters were doing the same thing and that it would become a movement. After we opened Cafe Max, I went to California and saw what they were doing. It reinforced that we were on the right page.
JN: How did it switch from California cuisine to Florida — or what they called Floribbean foods?
Max: We realized in Florida we had fresh seafood, wonderful things like tropical fruits and vegetables, and expanded our menus and utilized locally produced foods. The New American, Floridian and Floribbean – it all came out of that whole foods bit – contributed to by a lot of people.
JN: Speaking of which, you helped launch the careers of a lot of chefs down here. Mark Militello, Oliver Saucy, Charles Saunders and several others.
Max: I have been very lucky at having some great talent working for me and get a great deal of pleasure from watching them go out on their own.
JN: So tell me about Max’s Harvest and how you decided on this concept for this time and place.
Max: Our theme is California country. A clean and simple decor – with woods, leather and fabrics, straightforward. It’ll be comfortable and contemporary that speaks to this era. People are realizing how important it is to get the freshest food, not trucked across the country and days or weeks old, and not sprayed with harmful chemicals. It’s become more of a concern in America, but it’s something Europeans have done forever. They go to the market every day to shop for their food for that night – Italians, especially. So we’re trying to follow a similar model.
JN: Doing all organic is extremely hard, especially in South Florida where our growers have an uphill struggle to grow organically and produce enough to satisfy demands. How can a restaurant do it and not charge sky-high prices or avoid shipping it in, creating the quandry of a big carbon footprint?
Max: The menu will be a little more expensive than Max’s Grill. But we’re going back to our roots. Back in the early days, we wanted great fresh foods, but weren’t so concerned with our carbon footprint as we are today. We flew things in from Australia, France and California and across the country. Now, we understand that that’s not always best. People are trying to set new standards for using local foods. We’re trying to support that as much as possible and using farm to fresh to whatever extent we can. So many people are starting small farms – we want to encourage them whenever we can. It’s not always possible in every instance, but we’re trying to be much more conscious. We’ve forged partnerships in dairy farmers, produce growers and all kinds of small farmers.
JN: More to the point, will your diners support that – do they really care where their foods come from or is it just lip-service?
Max: I think they do. I’m very pleased that young people are so aware. A few years ago, I have to say I was really nervous about it. Mothers and parents don’t have the same time as they once did for cooking and shopping; everything was fast and convenient. It was a scary thought as to where that might lead. But I think there’s a new movement with the young people – a whole essence of purity, clean living styles they’re wanting. They’re willing to support an authentic way of life, if you will.
JN: You’ve mellowed a bit, too, it seems.
Max: Yes, I’ve mellowed — a bit. I’ve spent the last 10 years reflecting on what we want to do, where we’ve been as a company. I spent a lot of time being introspective – understanding my odyssey. I feel I’ve been blessed. I love the process, from the business standpoint to the the creative process. And I love that most of the people who work with us fall in love with the process, too. What we do is important. This is the fourth quarter of my business career – and it’s the last 10 years I want to be active in the business.
JN: So you evolved.
Max: Definitely. We live in a different time and era. We don’t work as hard physically – our lifestyles are changing and we’re continuing to evolve. Our new lives are supported by pure, good food. Today, I’m interested in doing something pure and simple and authentic. I’m not trying to dazzle anybody. The statement I’m trying to make is things don’t need to be convoluted and complicated. Good taste, good wine and good food – that’s what it’s about today.
Max’s Harvest is scheduled to open in June for dinner only at first, with Chef Chris Miracola at the stoves.