Chef Demetrio Zavala started cooking at the age of 15 as a prep cook in an Italian Restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida. He was able to bring his dream of owning a high-end pizza restaurant to fruition when he founded Coal Mine Pizza in Boca Raton. During his early years as a chef, he was nominated for a James Beard Foundation New and Up and Coming Chef award.
Now, Chef Zavala is much further north than his Florida roots would like to allow. He helms the ship at PRG’s Teddy & The Bully Bar and Lincoln restaurants and can be found creating innovative menus to incorporate ingeniously creative dishes made with the best local ingredients.
I chatted with Chef Zavala for quite some time, and his passion for his craft came right through the phone line. We talked about everything, from brunch to the Miami food scene, to what he’s making his kids at home on the weekends. Here’s what he had to say.
What is your brunch philosophy?
We have two different brunch philosophies. At Lincoln, we have a breakfast bar with unlimited waffles and omelets and it’s about $39 with drinks. But we also have an a la carte menu, with items like Croque Madam, a morning breakfast, scones, jams, a build-a-biscuit section. We give you a biscuit that’s literally five-by-five inches in diameter. We stuff it with everything from gouda cheese to avocado–it’s build your own biscuit sandwich! We have a benedict, chicken and waffles. Hash and eggs, French toast sticks, we also offer salad.
At Teddy, it’s the $40 unlimited brunch. The food doesn’t stop coming until you say stop. We just recently changed the menu again, and we will be changing it again in two weeks for summer. Tomatoes are looking really good. We’re getting okras in. The price of lobster is really great right now. So we’ll be featuring everyone’s favorite shellfish on our next brunch menu.
We try and source the best products to give you the highest quality cuisine. Yes, we’re a business, but we try to give the best product possible that we can find. I routinely go out every Saturdays to research new farms. A lot of work goes into what we’re doing. It’s not just buying from a purveyor. We’re trying to build relationships with people in our area to where we can use their products 365 days a year. We always look for value and quality as the key components of our culinary model.
What is your favorite brunch dish to create?
I’m a salad guy, to be honest with you. You think most men are meat guys, but I enjoy a great salad. Remember you only have four or five senses of taste in your mouth: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Mostly in a salad you’ll find you have vinegar, acid, lettuce. Most places are making a Benedict, scrambled eggs, but if you can make a rockin’ salad, that says a lot.
Right now we have a salad on the menu that we are warming people up to. It’s our pea salad. It has four different kinds of peas on it; we make beans and poach them and pickle them. We use French beans and fava beans. We make a hummus with the beans. We spread that on the bottom. We make our own fresh cheese, it comes with watercress. We char it a little, with French cheese and a little bit of hazelnut. It comes with everything, it’s like an early summer harvest in your mouth.
Where do you get inspiration for new dishes?
We may take some nostalgic food or comfort food dishes and we recreate them and make them more refined. Anyone can do a roasted chicken or a piece of fish on a plank, but what can we do to make it beyond that? Doing roasted duck a l’orange, we’ll take the duck, sear it, make sweet potato air, and put the orange in the caviar. There’s a new technique I just learned where I can make ice cream hot.
I’m serious. It’s ice cream, but it melts when it’s cold and stays in shape when it’s hot. I want to make a goat cheese one, and I put a couple pieces of eggplant salad on there. I can take the goat cheese ice cream and put it on the eggplant, and it won’t melt.
Food has transcended to a whole other aspect of cooking. Instead of doing a traditional watermelon salad, there’s yellow watermelon, green watermelon. To make salads diverse, we pickle one, make it sweet, spicy, then you take the rhine and pickle that. It gives you another aesthetic and a better crunch.
OK, so what makes a great brunch?
It’s the experience. You want people to come and enjoy themselves, so you give so many varieties of food. Founding Farmers, let’s go there, you have a plate of breakfast and you’re done. But with ours it’s an experience because you can get all that plus interesting salads, seafood dishes, an interesting meat dish, and still pay the same price you would have paid at a regular brunch and have more variety, different flavors, different styles. Everyone expects bacon, eggs, toast, but you’re able to get a Benedict, a steak and frites, beignets, and a watermelon salad.
GQ magazine took all their past restaurant reviews and they wanted to see what their readers thought about the restaurants. Eighty-eight percent of their readers were more about the experience in total. The food brought them to the restaurant, but it was the experience that they remember. We want people to feel like they’re at home. We do a couple homey dishes but we get crazy on a couple dishes.
What do you think of the D.C. brunch scene?
I’m a Miami guy. I’m from Miami. I work a lot, to be honest with you. The only places I’ve been—I have two kids—I’ve been to Estadio on a Saturday and it’s more like regular food. My kids said it was pretty good. Oyamel, was geared more toward lunch food. They definitely have great tacos there. Masa 14 with my kids, they did a good job—that was the first time I saw the small plates thing here.
Brunch is a big thing here in D.C. People go out on Saturday night and party and then they meet up on Sunday. Married wives, women who have kids, they will meet up with their girlfriends to have brunch. You will get a lot of large groups. I enjoy going to the tables and finding out what people enjoy and what they would like to see on our menus. A lot are going away brunches. It is a big brunch scene. A lot more than in Miami.
What could the D.C. food scene take from Miami?
People are very eclectic in Miami. People here are a bit more literal in their culinary thinking. But that is changing. The difference between Miami and here? It’s not so much pressure. It’s much more relaxed, there’s no schedule to keep. On Sunday, you want people to relax. Miami is a different entity; people aren’t as driven as here in the northeast. Miami is a destination for tourists who are looking to beach comb while in D.C. they are taking meetings with Congress. The food styles reflect that.
The food scene here is much stronger than when I visited 10 years ago. Miami has a lot of Latin flavor, because it is Miami, and a lot of the people there are Latin. Every restaurant in Miami has some kind of Latin dishes on there because you want to cater to everybody. Here, the food movement is much different. A lot of people don’t know it, but it’s going to change in the next year or two.
There are so many studies on sustainable fish, and they’re saying the grain fish eat has GMO products. People are sensitive to this because of the potential cancer threat; a lot of places you’ll start seeing are GMO-free. There’s a lot of research going on in food and fish and how salmon isn’t good for you unless it’s wild. I’ve heard a lot of chefs in New York that say the same thing.
The GMO-free vegetables and products are more expensive. People will continue to pay closer attention to this. They’ll stop going to the lesser expensive restaurants and go to restaurants that are GMO free. Everything has nitrates, who knew? I have a 15-year-old son that is almost 6’6” and some of it has to to do with the food. I’m not a scientist, but that’s what research is showing.
Yikes! Speaking of your son, what’s your favorite brunch dish to make at home?
When I have my kids, we cook a different ethnicity of food every Sunday. Sometimes we do Indian. My daughter loves this Indian dish where we take spicy rice and make curried lentils with a fried egg over the top. She loves it! I take little golden raisins and make sweet jam, she loves it. My daughter loves to make palachicas, which are crepes, and we make fresh jam. We rub it on the inside of the crepe. It’s very light.
There’s one thing is that we always eat–fruit–with our breakfast. We tend to make our own sausage at home. We always try to use chicken or turkey. We try not to eat so much pork. We’ll do an omelette with great yogurt. We do tons of things. Some days we do waffles. My daughter likes sweet potatoes so we sweet potato waffles instead. I’ll make a bacon maple butter. It’s the best.
Sounds amazing. Lucky kids!