Chef Allen’s closes its doors

 

Easter Sunday marked the last day of business for Chef Allen’s.

By ELAINE WALKER | ewalker@MiamiHerald.com

Chef Allen Susser, who helped put South Florida and New World cuisine on the culinary map, has closed his namesake Aventura restaurant after 25 years.

Easter Sunday marked the last day of business for Chef Allen’s. Susser plans to focus on consulting, restaurant development and teaching.

One of the 1980s tastemakers known as “the Mango Gang,” Susser helped popularize the use of tropical flavors and local seafood. While fellow Mango Gangsters Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Douglas Rodriguez and Robbin Haas moved around to various locations over the years, Susser’s long run at a single restaurant was unmatched in transient South Florida.

The current decision was fueled by a downturn in business suffered during the recession and a desire to pursue other opportunities, Susser said. He is already working on a variety of partnerships, including the Burger Bar by Chef Allen at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Books & Books Café by Chef Allen in Coral Gables.

“It’s time to move on,” Susser, 54, said. “I’m proud to be one of those chefs that established the food scene in Miami. Now, we are one of the most exciting food cities in the country. I’m looking for new opportunities to be involved in food in a new way. I want to help other people be successful. I want to share my knowledge. I’ve done everything I wanted to do at Chef Allen’s and been very successful with it.”

Susser will keep some of his 20 employees to work on his other partnerships and hopes to help the others find work at area restaurants.

The news came as a shock to many in the industry. Chef Michelle Bernstein, who learned the news of the closing from a reporter, was virtually speechless.

“He’s an icon,” Bernstein said. “He’s one of the main reasons why South Florida is the culinary destination that it is today. His sense of neighborhood and of keeping up with what is right is something I wanted to emulate.”

For the past 24 years, Susser has chaired the Miami Taste of the Nation event, which raises money for childhood hunger with Share Our Strength. Throughout the years, he has been one of the region’s most charitable chefs, supporting numerous causes, including cancer and homelessness.

The Brooklyn-born Susser moved to Miami in 1980 to become executive chef at Turnberry Isle Yacht & Country Club, after working at Hotel Le Bristol in Paris and Le Cirque in New York. From the time he opened Chef Allen’s in 1986, Susser’s focus was on fine dining.

Distinctive dishes and Susser’s congenial personality kept patrons coming back to Chef Allen’s. As tastes and the marketplace shifted, his restaurant kept pace. The most dramatic change came in 2008. As the recession hit, Susser overhauled both the look of his Aventura restaurant and the menu. Dishes were lighter and so were the prices, about 30 percent lower than before.

“People are looking for different things in fine dining than they used to,” Susser said. “People want fine dining with a lot more casual approach to it.”

While Susser says business has rebounded with the economy, the competition has also increased substantially. Within a few minutes’ drive of Susser’s restaurant are a slew of newer restaurants at the Aventura Mall and at the Village of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.

For Susser, part of changing with the times means focusing on casual dining concepts. He plans to spend much of his effort on growing existing partnerships, including Brooklyn Water Bagel Company and Brickell Bridge Bistro & Bar (he’s consulting chef at both).

He also oversees all the food and beverage at Jade Mountain, a luxury boutique hotel on St. Lucia. At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he operates Chef Allen’s 2 Go and Burger Bar by Chef Allen.

The upscale burger concept, which opened in December, is already projected to generate $1.5 million in sales. Susser sees opportunity for expansion in airports around the country and free-standing locations in South Florida.

At Books & Books Café by Chef Allen in Coral Gables, Susser will continue the work he started a year ago, handling the operation from menu development to restaurant management.

“He has brought his vast years of experience to helping us,” said Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan. “Hopefully this means he can spend more time with us.”

Speak Up!