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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

Chef Niven Patel and Mohamed Alkassar had a productive pandemic

We talk to a busy restaurateur and new dad who took the time to grow his own crops.

Listen to the episode

During the height of the pandemic, while the rest of us were Netflixing and baking sourdough bread, Niven Patel was busy. Really busy.

He became the father of twin daughters Ari and Aya, and he birthed two other “babies”—a pair of restaurants inside THesis Hotel Miami.

Mamey, which opened in August 2020, is an island-inspired eatery, with menu items like Jamaican short rib empanadas, Key West pink shrimp taquitos and key lime cheesecake flan. Orno, which opened in October 2021, focuses on New American cuisine; think wood-roasted summer squash, grass-fed ribeye and Alaskan halibut.

The seemingly disparate menus have something in common. Both feature ingredients from Niven’s two-acre Homestead farm, Rancho Patel. The land is tended by Niven, his father-in-law and one full-time farmer.

Why would a busy restaurateur and new dad take the time to grow his own crops?

“It all starts with quality and being able to control that quality,” the James Beard semi-finalist says. “That’s where the whole basis of the farm started.”

Niven grows a select few items at Rancho Patel, like okra. (We literally go through 200 okra plants a day,” he says.) He buys the rest from local suppliers.

“Our first year, we went crazy of course, right? I got the seed catalog. We had like 70 different varieties of things growing, and maybe 10 percent of it grew well,” the chef recalls with a laugh. “Leave something like an amazing heirloom tomato to the farmer who specializes in it.”

The extra effort shows up in the quality of simple dishes, says Niven’s business partner Mohamed Alkassar.

“It’s consistently the case for me, whenever Chef Niven creates a menu, it’s the simplest dish, the least one you expect to wow you,” says Mohamed, chief operating officer of Alpareno Restaurant Group, which includes Orno, Mamey and Ghee Indian Kitchen. “Everyday’s always looking at the steaks, the whole fish, the pastas—which are all incredible. But for me, it’s that simple, more often than not vegetarian dish that wows me the most because it’s more often than not the dish that’s least likely to impress you. It’s always that incredibly pleasant surprise on the menu.” Mohamed’s favorite menu items at Orno are the green chickpea hummus and charred sunchokes.

Located in a Coral Gables hotel, it would’ve been easy for both restaurants to target tourists.

“Unfortunately, hotel restaurants have a little bit of a negative connotation to them, and we wanted to ensure that the community knew that these restaurants are built for them,” Mohamed says. “We’re not trying to capture tourists. We would love for tourists to get a local experience, and you can only achieve that if your restaurant is actually tailored to the local community.”

As they work to make the new restaurants fixtures in the Coral Gables community, Mohamed and Niven show no signs of slowing down.

“Since the pandemic started,” Niven says, “I haven’t been able to process it all.”

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