Chef Michael Beltran’s passion for The Magic City bubbles over into every dish the 35-year-old native Miamian executes.
After all, Beltran’s three restaurants (and bar) in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood have helped place South Florida’s dining scene on par with culinary hotspots like New York and L.A. Beyond exceptionally creative cuisine that recently landed him as a 2020 James Beard Awards “Best Chef: South” semifinalist, Beltran’s connection with food — and the gift of creating it for others — is not only intricately tied to his city, but to his family’s roots as well.
“My mother is like a saint, but she’s not an amazing cook, so my grandparents were definitely the cooks in the family…they taught me to love through food very young and that food essentially was this community-based thing. Food is that moment you get to spend with your family,” Beltran reflects.
A French-trained chef, he began his career at the iconic Casa Juancho in Little Havana before moving on to work for some of Miami’s culinary heavyweights: Norman Van Aken (an original member of “The Mango Gang” — a group of chefs from the 80s dedicated to spotlighting local, Floridian cuisine) and chef, restaurateur and James Beard award winner Michael Schwartz. In 2016 Beltran opened Ariete, exploring dishes through a personal, philosophical lens.
“My purpose definitely became Cuban American food, the journey of Cuban food — what is it really? [Cuban cuisine] kind of stalled for the last 60 years or so. In my mind, that journey became, ‘if the food was not stalled, if we as a culture were allowed to grow, if we were allowed to be creative and push the envelope as a culture, as a people — where would the food be? No one really knows but I just feel like the food would probably be kind of like mine!”
For those wondering what that translates to, Ariete beckons with offerings like Tamal en Cazuela with Sea Urchin and Pork Fat Foam, Snapper with Fish Head, Brandade-tomato Jam Ravioli, Sorel Veloute, Preserved Lemon and Watercress or Pastrami-style Wagyu Short Rib with Red-pepper-beef Jus, Shaved Vegetable Caesar and Oyster and Short Rib Croquettes.
His other two restaurants, Navé and Chug’s Diner have equally enticing items, the first with an Italian spin, the latter — which reopened last month after an impressive renovation and expansion — a happy marriage of an American diner with a Cuban-American abuela’s kitchen (be sure to sample the iconic peanut butter and jelly pastelitos or the life-changing pancakes). When pressed, Beltran confides his favorite “child” is Ariete, saying “you always love the one that was the toughest on you, for sure.”
With his near-celebrity status in Miami, Beltran remains grounded, humble, appreciative and extremely grateful, noting that even the trying time of the pandemic shutdown came with the silver lining of community and comradery among his team members and the industry as a whole.
If anyone went through that time and didn’t learn a valuable lesson, then they absolutely missed the mark.
As hectic as his life is, Beltran also finds time to run a local podcast, “Pan con Podcast” exploring a wide range of topics with a diverse guest list ranging from chefs to athletes to artists and politicians. When asked if there’s anyone he’d love to have on, he mentions the late Anthony Bourdain.
“He shaped so much the way that I am. His writing, his personality. His [stance of] ‘be who you are, if they don’t like it who cares?’ That’s so much of who I am and the way I am.”
Despite being a trailblazer in the kitchen, there are moments when Beltran is a simple Miami-Cuban kid at heart. Asked what his go-to meal is and he doesn’t hesitate: braised oxtail with white rice, black beans and “maduros” (deep-fried plantains). That being said, he thrives carrying his family’s origin story and blending it with his own.
“I want to be remembered as someone that helped continue to improve the Miami dining scene. Someone that was not scared to push the envelope. Someone that did it for the community.”