KRIS WESSEL, CHEF/PARTNER
Kris Wessel, the award-winning Miami Chef, brings his decades of culinary expertise gathered across the globe to his position as Chef/Partner of Florida Cookery, in tandem with South Beach luxury hotel, The James Royal Palm. Florida Cookery features regional Florida fare and creates a platform for Wessel to share his hands-on, flavors-first culinary approach with a much broader audience.MORE C
A Louisiana native, Wessel spent his youth in 1980s New Orleans. At 8 years old, Wessel embraced the simple joys of cooking, whipping up omelets in a pan his grandmother had given him for his birthday. A few years later, he was voluntarily cooking dinner for his family of six, barring his three sisters from the kitchen. Wessel remembers the familiar flavors of his childhood fondly – both his father’s savory dishes, like Oysters Bienville and Daube Glace, and his mother’s mastery of sweets in the form of baked blueberry cobbler and mango pies. As a child exposed to the booming flavors of a tourist-driven town at a time when chefs like Paul Pruhome and Emeril Lagasse were beginning to take over as national personalities, all it took was a trip to New York for Wessel to fall in love with the restaurant scene and take the first steps toward his future as a chef.
Wessel received his first kitchen experience at a string of New Orleans tourist restaurants, including Court of Two Sisters and Pascale Manales. At 21, he ventured south to Miami to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Hotel Restaurant Management at Florida International University and immediately jumped into what was then one of Miami’s most popular restaurants – Mark’s Place. After three years, Wessel had earned himself the title of Chef de Cuisine, but the daily grind of cooking for celebrities and 300 guests per night in pre-South Beach Miami was beginning to take its toll.
In search of new culinary inspiration, Wessel traveled to Europe for six months to complete cooking stages at Michelin-starred restaurants in Austria, Spain, France and Italy, spending two to three weeks at each restaurant completing what he would later consider as the best education of his life. In 1994, Wessel returned to Miami to open the third Mark’s concept, located in Grove Isle. As the Executive Chef, Wessel worked closely with his sous chef, the now-celebrated Michele Bernstein.
After spending a year at Mark’s in Grove Isle, Wessel began searching for spaces on the iconic – and then un-renovated – Lincoln Road. His love of New Orleans-style sandwiches and the influence of the time he spent in Europe drove Wessel to launch Paninoteca, a funky Italian sandwich shop, in 1996 at 809 Lincoln Road.
His next venture, Liaison, opened in late 1999 at 500 Espanola Way. The restaurant achieved critical acclaim in both local and national press, but was at its core a locals-driven restaurant in the heart of glitzy South Beach. In 2002, when Espanola Way underwent massive reconstruction, Wessel chose to sell the restaurant and began work at Elia, a Bal Harbour Shops concept serving New Mediterranean cuisine. Ultimately, Elia would serve as a platform to earn Wessel a James Beard House dinner; a “Rising Star of American Cuisine” title from Star Chefs; and the Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2004.
In 2005, Wessel began to search for the ideal location for an offbeat restaurant concept he had conjured up during his time at Elia. One year later, as he was driving down Biscayne Boulevard with his daughters, he spied the Little River Bridge and was immediately inspired by the location. A Chinese takeout restaurant attached to the Motel Blu had experienced a kitchen fire years earlier, leaving the lunch counter space abandoned. The adjacent river front was overgrown with tropical trees and iguanas, as well as the ever-present manatee swimming around the debris that stuck out of the Miami River.
Wessel began cleanup of the site in September 2006, and opened Red Light Little River in May 2008 at 7700 Biscayne Blvd. In March 2009, the restaurant was featured in Bon Appétit, quickly followed by a
spot on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and several local TV spots. In 2010, The New York Times featured Red Light Little River as a “Top 5” destination restaurant in Miami and in that same year, the James Beard Association nominated Wessel for “Best Chef – South Region.” Months later, Wessel was featured on Food Network’s competitive cooking show, “Chopped,” and won. The episode aired April 24, 2012.
Red Light Little River became an underground local favorite and earned Wessel a reputation for being a “chef’s chef”.
Wessel currently resides in the Miami subdivision of Buena Vista, where he enjoys the area’s tropical fruit trees and Spanish-style architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. In his spare time, he spends quality time with his daughters and enjoys tennis, basketball, swimming, canoeing and fishing.