By Mae Velasco, Associate Editor
Miami is a hot city, but its restaurants, like Foodable Top 25-ranking KYU, are even hotter — and no, not just because KYU has an entire section of its menu dedicated to wood-fired dishes. This modern, Asian-style eatery featuring grilled plates, sashimi, unique cocktails, and more is nominated for the James Beard Foundation "Best New Restaurant" Award.
That's right, the nation's best restaurant of 2017 could be right here in the heart of Wynwood, adding another perspective to this iconic and vibrant neighborhood, aside from it being a hotspot for hipsters and colorful art, and what others across the country feared as being the breeding ground of Zika. Among other Miamian James Beard Foundation Award nominees, including Zak the Baker and Bradley Kilgore of Alter, KYU is more proof that South Florida is a growing food scene.
At just a little over a year old, and even getting its James Beard nomination on its first anniversary — talk about a birthday gift — KYU is drawing a lot of attention. With a diverse menu, professional but welcoming service, and a commitment to sustainability, founders Chef Michael Lewis and General Manager Steven Haigh opened the restaurant after being inspired by many rich adventures and rich flavors, particularly the Japanese barbecue grilling technique called yakiniku.
KYU, pronounced like the letter "q" or "cue," is a fitting name, considering it is based on a barbecue practice. But that wasn't the only Japanese influence that shaped the concept. KYU molds its story through the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which is the belief of finding perfection in imperfection.
"The name KYU kept coming back to us as we circled around the barbecue elements of the menu and especially the Asian and yakiniku influences. Wabi-sabi is something that we’ve woven into our fabric in aesthetic and practices. It’s the Japanese art of finding beauty in the imperfect," Chef Michael Lewis said. "We are located in Wynwood — a neighborhood best known for street art and spray-painted grit — next to an auto body shop and surrounded by all walks of life. Inside the restaurant, chipped bowls come out of service and become part of the décor, and we’re surrounded by concrete walls, books, plants, and people."
Still, KYU is changing its community with more than its artistic style of service, dynamic energy, and savory cuisine — Lewis, Haigh, and the entire restaurant have a commitment to Mother Earth. For every tree KYU burns using wood-fired grills, they replant five.
"Since conceptualizing KYU, Steven and I agreed that we’d like to be as environmentally conscious as possible in our business practices. We are both parents of young children and feel a responsibility, in an industry that has the potential to be so riddled with waste, to conserve and work towards a better future for our kids, ourselves, and our neighbors," Lewis said.
"Trees for the Future is a fantastic organization that plants trees around the world. Since a lot of our cuisine is centered around the wood-fired grill, we wanted to set up ongoing contributions. We are also adding an option to plant a tree to the menu so that our guests can get in on the fun," he explained, adding that they also use the ORCA Composter.
"The Orca Composter is a tool that reduces food-based waste, and in doing so, reduces methane and other gases in the environment, which are huge contributors to climate change and other environmental issues."
And ultimately, what is their mission and goals for KYU? What challenges did these partners want to overcome and what gap did they want to fill?
"My mission is the same now that it was over a year ago when we opened — to create a destination and menu that works for people like us. My business partner, Steven, and I are passionate about quality and service, but we’re not super buttoned up. This is a neighborhood restaurant above all, and we hope that our friends and neighbors feel comfortable and happy here," Lewis said.
Q&A With Chef Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis brings flavors from around the globe to the concentration of creativity that is Wynwood. From London to New York to Dubai, he fine-tuned his talents in restaurants around the world before calling Miami home. Lewis doesn't just clamor pots and pans — his accolades deserve loud fanfare, too. After graduating from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he grew under the wings of culinary legends like Chef David Bouley and Chef Eric Ripert, both of whom are winners of the James Beard Foundation Award for "Outstanding Chef."
When he was just 25 years old, he became chef de cuisine at the revered Jean-Georges restaurant on Central Park, which is one of the few restaurants in the United States to earn three Michelin Stars. Whether it was helping open locations in Paris or the Bahamas, or working in kitchens in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Bangkok, and others when he became executive chef at Zuma, Lewis has never stopped growing and truly living wabi-sabi.
1. When did you first conceptualize KYU? What made you say "eureka"?
Michael Lewis: There wasn’t so much a “eureka” moment as a collection of ideas strung throughout my career, life, and travels that came together. There was a moment when I finally stepped into the kitchen at KYU that I thought, “Wow, this is really going to work.”
2. So, we heard KYU received the James Beard nomination for "Best New Restaurant" on the concept's first birthday. Congratulations! How does it feel?
ML: That’s true. It was a great birthday present for KYU! It feels somewhat surreal to be recognized in such a way, but I never doubted my team and am proud to see the hard work pay off.
3. When it comes to the James Beard Awards, most people think of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles as some of the most prominent culinary cities. As someone who gets to represent Miami, how do you see the culinary scene evolving in the city?
ML: It’s amazing to be recognized in Miami along with my amazing neighbors, like Brad Kilgore and Zak the Baker. At the same time, I think it’s a little bittersweet to see Miami drop off the finalist list. Miami is a really special city and will always have a draw – I think as more local chefs continue to evolve and grow, the national audience will see that it’s worth a second look.
4. Any personal favorite menu items or something you'd suggest first-time visitors should try?
ML: Favorites are tough for me to name! I wrote the menu, so each dish that made it to print is really special to me. That said, there are some dishes that have become signatures of the restaurant. You can’t come in without trying the roasted cauliflower with shishito vinaigrette and goat cheese and the Wagyu Brisket.
5. What are the top three things you'd want your guests to know?
ML: A few things I’d like people to know are that we are a small business started by two friends with a passion for this industry, we are environmentally concerned, but we know we are not perfect and are always looking to improve and grow, and we hope that everyone feels as welcomed here as they are.