For Michael Mina's ninja-chef, freaking out is not an option

Like a culinary ninja, Gary F.X. LaMorte stealthily swooped in to Miami several weeks ago, his bag packed with kitchen knives, camera equipment, crisp whites, checklists. 

His mission: Get Stripsteak, the new Michael Mina steakhouse in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, ready for its first paying customers this week.

As he has done dozens of times in his four years as the Mina Group’s corporate chef, LaMorte, 36, set out from his home in Las Vegas (“I’ve slept there about 20 days this year,” he said) to lead a task force of corporate sous chefs and front-of-house managers in training a new team of Miami cooks, dishwashers, bussers, servers, sommeliers and hostesses in the Mina way.

The scenery should feel familiar to him: LaMorte was here almost exactly a year ago, when he opened Michael Mina 74, also in the Fontainebleau. 

“The thing is, when you open a restaurant, something bad, something unexpected will happen — that’s just a given,” said Thomas Griese, the youthful chef de cuisine at MM74 who trained under LaMorte. “Chef Gary leads by remaining calm, cool and collected. He helps push you to figure out a solution without freaking out.”

Not freaking out is a tall order for a guy tasked with overseeing the culinary operations of the San Francisco-based Mina Group’s two dozen restaurants in seven states and Washington, D.C., with more in the pipeline.

“The most important thing is instilling strong leaders in every kitchen of ours,” LaMorte said. “That vastly reduces the number of 911 calls I get.”

As part of his job, LaMorte, who now sports a handlebar mustache, tight ponytail and lace-up dress shoes in the kitchen, helps maintain a recipe exchange on the company’s intranet. Mina’s chefs use the exchange as a reference guide, to help spur new dishes, and to perfect existing ones.

And to help employees visualize the dishes, LaMorte began snapping photos of finished plates and uploading them to the site. He now travels with a Canon 60D and professional lighting equipment. And he has started posting them on Instagram, giving his (at presstime) 2,100 followers a glimpse into his behind-the-scenes world as well as some of the most beautiful food photography on the Internet. 

“I think my tendency to obsess — about photography, about organization, about precision — is what makes me good at this job,” LaMorte said. 

Another obsession of his: Star Wars. 

Just before Stripsteak’s successful opening this week, before he flew off to his next mission, LaMorte taped an inspirational-quote Yoda poster to a prominent spot in the kitchen:

“Do or do not. There is no try.”