The recent Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, held last December at Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, The Breakers Palm Beach and select locations on the island, showcased some of the world’s most renowned chefs and wine experts alongside local foodie favorites. Between the Chillin’ N’ Grillin’, the Street Food Showdown and the late-night rocking, we caught up with one of Miami’s top toques Timon Balloo, executive chef of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, a much-acclaimed darling of the Midtown eating scene. Sugarcane, which is celebrating its five-year anniversary, was a James Beard Award semifinalist for “Best New Restaurant” in 2011. After firing it up on the grill at the food festival, the chef shared his thoughts on South Florida food fests, Miami’s vibrant dining scene, growing up in a food-obsessed household and more.
What were some of your favorite dishes served during the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival?
One of my favorite dishes was the Lowcountry boil by chefs Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope of Fig in Charleston, South Carolina, during the brunch at chef Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud. It’s such simple, classic Southern fare, but when done right, it is a true crowd-pleaser.
What sets the Miami dining scene apart from other cities?
Miami’s culinary culture has really grown since we opened Sugarcane [in 2011]. It truly is a melting pot of cultures. What started as a city that was synonymous with nightlife has really evolved into a place where people can think of food first.
What was the best food and wine trend that came out of 2015 in the Miami scene?
In 2015, we’ve taken inspiration from all culinary trends, from Nordic-style plating to high-end mixology bars.
And what trend are you most looking forward to in 2016?
For 2016, I’m looking forward to the continuation of the use and growth of Peruvian ingredients and techniques.
What is your all-time favorite cookbook?
Culinary Artistry, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It was one of my first cookbooks and talks about flavor profiles, pairings and the seasonal use of ingredients. It very much impacted me as young chef, and I still go back to it to this day.
What is your go-to place to eat in Miami?
Can’t go wrong with Pubbelly for food; their menu is filled with comfort classics that make it easy for all eating personalities. My favorite is their buffalo sweetbreads.
And for cocktails?
The Broken Shaker is one of my favorites. [Owners] Elad [Zvi] and Gabriel [Orta] are always pushing the lines of comfort. I’m a classic drinker, but I’m also down for some of their more inventive cocktails. I enjoy tequila so the Humble Mumble [Olmeca Altos tequila with cucumber vermouth and aloe vera gel] is always a good choice. If you are in to dark spirits — being the chef of Sugarcane, I always love a good rum — you should try the Scumdog Millionaire [Bacardi Superior with kumquat-infused brandy, lime and Zoco Pacharan].
What is your cooking philosophy?
I like to keep it simple and focus on the food. I am inspired by my Trini and Chinese roots, so you will find a lot of that influence in my cooking. I always seek to find unique interpretations of my food, so right now you’ll see a lot of Moroccan influence in my dishes.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
My parents are Chinese and Trinidadian, and I grew up eating a wide range of dishes from both cultures. While most kids spent their Saturday mornings watching cartoons, I was glued to the TV watching Yan Can Cook. My mother would always cook things like brown stew chicken, rice and pigeon peas, and steamed fish with ginger, scallions and soy sauce.
What chefs have inspired you most?
When I was at Azul at Mandarin Oriental, Miami, I worked under the leadership of Michelle Bernstein. She taught me to cook from my heart and, as such, I started to craft my own approach to food with Asian-Caribbean soul.
What’s your most memorable meal?
One of my favorites was at a small tapas restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain, eating a beautifully braised pig ear on top of a pureé of root vegetables with the local dried fruit.
What is your signature dish?
My duck and waffle dish — it’s an ode to my urban upbringing and my French culinary training. It’s a play on chicken and waffles. Instead of the usual chicken, we use a French-confited duck leg with a beautiful fried duck egg and an herb-and-mustard-seed maple sauce — all served on top of a buttermilk waffle. It’s crispy, salty and sweet.
What are some of Sugarcane’s must-have plates?
We do a whole section of crudos at Sugarcane. In keeping with the Japanese technique of using really pristine ingredients and serving them simply, we keep it simple using just soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and scallions. The second would be the roasted marrowbone. We use every part of the animal — all the organs and cuts, from cheeks to liver to kidneys. The marrowbones are served with decadent beef cheek marmalade that’s sticky and sappy.
What are you most looking forward to at February’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival?
I am looking forward to the food cocktail seminar that I will be doing with my friends Elad and Gabriel from The Broken Shaker. We have great chemistry, so the guests should definitely love the flavor and libation pairing.