ThePillars Hotel is an elegant property idyllically located on the IntracoastalWaterway. Complimenting the charm of this boutique hotel is its restaurantappropriately named, The Secret Garden. The restaurant hosts wine dinners andserves dinner nightly, however the only way to score a table is to be a guestof the hotel or to be a member of The Secret Garden Society. This clandestinedining experience is hosted by veteran chef,Youssef Hammi who focuses on seasonal menus with a blend of cross-cultural ingredients,elegant presentations and clean bright flavors. Let’s find out a bit more aboutthe man behind The Secret Garden; this week’s Chef inthe Spotlight is Youssef Hammi of The Secret Garden at The Pillars Hotel inFort Lauderdale.
South Florida Food and Wine: Where do you get your culinary inspiration?
Youssef Hammi: Many times, people ask me this very same question, personally, I get inspired by the seasons and my surroundings. Also, the fact that I go shopping every day, and see what’s fresh in the markets is in itself a blessing that many chefs don’t get to enjoy.
South Florida Food and Wine: When did you realize that cooking was your passion?
Youssef Hammi: I remember, a long time ago, my whole family took a trip, except for me I was about 16 years old. My grandparents wanted me to come over and eat with them. But as a teenager obviously that didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to be with my friends. So I decided to go to the market and shop for my meals. I bought a whole chicken and a whole snapper. I roasted the chicken and I steamed the fish, with herbs and rice pilaf; and the rest is history. Afterwards, I started experimenting with eggs I like them cooked with cumin and extra virgin olive oil, always over easy.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your favorite item on your menu?
Youssef Hammi: It will have to be the meatballs, I don’t always have them on the menu but I like them for 2 reasons.
1- They are very tasty and moist, I never liked them before when I ordered them at a restaurant, to me they were always dry and dull flavors.
2- It was the first dish that my daughter and I ever cooked together. And it’s the only non-vegetarian dish she would eat.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your favorite dish to make at home?
Youssef Hammi: Couscous, I grew up eating it, I don’t make it quite as good as my mom, but it’s work in progress. I am not sure if I want to make it as good as my Mom. It lets me get homesick, and I end visiting every so often.
South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your last day on earth, what would your final meal be?
Youssef Hammi: My ultimate menu:
Oysters on the half shell
Squab with Moroccan spices and onion confit
Jarret d’agneau tajine
Prunes, toasted almonds, natural jus
Napoleon and chocolate truffles
Alvear sherry wine
South Florida Food and Wine: Who is the one person you would love to cook with and why?
Youssef Hammi: You know many names come to mind, but I have to say I almost overlooked what is in front to me, it will have to be my lovely wife and our beautiful daughter. The reason why, is because they are as appreciative as they are critical about what I cook. I always get an honest and educated feedback from them. And of course, we all enjoy it very much.
South Florida Food and Wine: What is your one guilty pleasure food?
Youssef Hammi: A well iced cake, I can’t have enough of them. Now, we only get cupcakes for birthdays in my house. They know I have no will power against them.
South Florida Food and Wine: What was the last restaurant you ate at?
Youssef Hammi: The restaurant that comes to mind hands when I read this question was “Chez Panisse”, in Berkley California. The food was extremely simple, but the flavors were not. My favorite dish was berries, nothing was done to them, just berries they were nothing I ever tasted before.
South Florida Food and Wine: Who would you most like to cook for? And why?
Youssef Hammi: Alice Waters, she is my idol as far as the food scene is concerned. She really had a hand in bringing California farmers and others to appreciate and respect food from a quality point of view as opposed to quantity. Respect of the land and sea became very important to a lot of chefs and consumers.
South Florida Food and Wine: It’s your day off, what do you do for fun?
Youssef Hammi: One word, FISHING.
Want to have dinner at The Secret Garden? Call to make your reservation, mention this interview and you will receive a complimentary trial membership into The Secret Garden Society.
Click here to view previous Spotlight Interviews
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The Pillars Hotel 111 North Birch Road Fort Lauderdale, 33304 954-467-9639