Chef Paula DaSilva grew up working in her family's Brazilian restaurants. She went to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale, and worked with Dean James Max at 3030 Ocean. She was even a finalist on Hell's Kitchen. Today she's drawing on all those experience to rock the Eden Roc Renaissance in Miami Beach with her new restaurant, 1500 Degrees. "Coming here felt like the right move," she says. "It gave me a good feeling in my gut."
Though slender and petite, DaSilva, 31, conveys a sense of strength, and her manner is as controlled as the dark hair she wears tightly pulled back. "I am controlled, but in me is a passion that I try to portray," she says. "Whatever you do, you have to have passion for it or you won't do your best." A native of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, she moved with her family in 1994 to South Florida, where they opened Panoramica Restaurant in Pompano Beach and later the Brasil Tropical in Delray Beach.
"I helped in the kitchen a lot," says DaSilva, who cut meat, pounded chicken breasts and cooked rice, among other tasks. Her parents were careful to keep their heritage alive. Her mother, "a great cook," prepared dishes such as feijoada, a black bean and meat stew that's the Brazilian national dish, and they spoke Portuguese at home. After graduating from Boca Raton High, she enrolled in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. "I needed the chaos and adrenaline rush of the kitchen," she says. "And I wanted to learn about other foods and cuisines."
She went to work at the Harbor Beach Fort Lauderdale Resort. In 2001, Max became affiliated with the hotel, and DaSilva began cooking for him at its 3030 Ocean restaurant, rising to sous chef. "She was like a partner who worked with me from the ground up," says Max. "She stayed with me for 10 years so I got to watch her blossom into her own. She became a leader." He sees a bright future for DaSilva. "She's strong in willpower and focus. She'll ge where she's going and bring others along."
DaSilva felt confident enough in herself and her skills to answer a casting call for Hell's Kitchen, the Fox reality show hosted by Gordon Ramsay, enduring the British chef's rampages long enough to become one of two finalists. "Gordon taught me you can set your standards higher than you think," says DaSilva who found the show more physically and mentally challenging than she'd expected.
After a decade at 3030 Ocean, she was named executive chef at the recently renovated Eden Roc's new steak house, named for the temperature at which they cook steaks. "Actually, the Montague broiler I helped design cooks them at 1,800 degrees," she says. "But the restaurant name had already been decided, and I wasn't going to go there." The extensive menu lists the usual beef tenderloin, Kansas City strip and even Florida grass-fed Wagyu rib-eye, but DaSilva keeps true to her roots by offering picanha, a popular Brazilian cut. (At $25, it's a relative bargain on the pricey, a la carte menu.)
Her creativity comes through in side dishes that go well beyond the the usual baby carrots and herb-roasted potatoes (though you can get those, too). Vidalia onions stuffed with potato gratin starts with fairly traditional layers thin-sliced potato baked in cream with Gruyere. Then she stuffs it into sweet onions that have been cooked in milk to make them mild. When it's served, all you see is the onion on the plate until the waiter cuts into it and exposes the potatoes within. "I like to show the finesse of technique in plate presentations," she says.
Brussels sprouts with mustard sauce are based on a dish DaSilva had while traveling in Germany. "I knew I wanted to serve Brussels sprouts and liked the flavor combination." She added a bit of crème fraiche to make the sauce creamier and a splash of sherry vinegar for flavor. She garnishes the dish with chives for "their subtle onion taste." DaSilva likes to use sustainable ingredients from small, family producers like the Carolina rice grits featured in her rice side dish. Far different than corn grits, they are broken rice grains that are a byproduct of threshing and milling Carolina Gold rice at Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.
When cooked, the grits become creamy like risotto but still have some texture and nutty taste. DaSilva flavors them with chorizo. "I'm Brazilian, and I love rice and chorizo."
DaSilva sees such Latin accents as an integral part of her menu, "not only because of my own background, but because we are here in Miami."