Career Path: From corporate chef to Wynwood restaurateur | Crain's

Career Path: From corporate chef to Wynwood restaurateur

Michael Lewis, the co-founder and head chef of KYU. | Photo courtesy of Micahel Lewis

Michael Lewis didn't always want to be a chef.

The co-founder and head chef at Wynwood's newest dining hotspot KYU said he took a job in a kitchen to put himself through school. After he realized he enjoyed cooking far more than his college courses, Lewis decided 'chef' would be his new career path.

But Lewis didn't want to work at just any restaurant – he wanted to learn from the best.

Lewis landed a job at Bouley under famed celebrity chef David Bouley and assisted him in opening Bouley Bakery in Manhattan before making a move to even bigger leagues. He became the head chef at Jean Georges Vongerichten's iconic New York restaurant Jean-Georges, Lewis earned his cooking chops there while getting a first-hand crash course in how to successfully operate a fine dining restaurant.

However, after nine years at Jean-Georges, Lewis was ready to take on a more corporate role. Working for the Zuma franchise in London, Lewis was responsible for designing menu concepts as Zuma expanded the brand. Constant travel began to wear on Lewis and so he decided to stay put in Miami as Zuma's head chef. There, he earned the respect of Miami's most discerning diners, and developed a passion for Asian fusion izakaya-style cuisine. He also got to know Stephen Haigh, who worked alongside him at Zuma and shared the same vision for how a restaurant should be run.

Together, Lewis and Haigh decided they would open up a neighborhood restaurant that didn't skimp on fine ingredients yet maintained a casual, unpretentious flair. In 2016, KYU debuted – tables are booked weeks in advance, and the restaurant is consistently hailed one of the city's most exciting new culinary destinations.

Here, Lewis tells Crain's Miami that his success is driven by dedication and teamwork.

Aim for the top:

I knew when I started cooking that I wanted to work with the best and do the best. I didn't want to end up at the local bar and grill down the street. I wanted to work for the best and see the best, even if it was a more simple style of cooking and dining. So that's what I did.

To put it another way, if I really wanted to become an auto mechanic, I would have done so for a Formula One team.

It's not just about the food:

I learned the business side of running a restaurant from Jean-Georges, who I opened about four or five restaurants alongside of. Being a corporate chef at Zuma allowed me to refine that knowledge. I already knew how to do it, but [during that time] I was doing it for six restaurants with 1,000 employees over and over again.

It takes two: 

While Stephen is more front of house and I'm more back of house, what makes us a good team is that we're great at communicating what the end result should be. We come up with concepts and flavor profiles, menu and style of service and its a finished product when it has input from both of us. We really don't divvy up the tasks and decisions, it's a collaboration between the two of us.

On choosing Wynwood:

I've been based here for about 4 years, and I just fell in love with the city. Stephen and I both always loved Wynwood, and it made me feel more at home. I really grew up in New York, I spent more time in Manhattan than anywhere else, and Wynwood feels like Williamsburg.

 

Stay in touch with KYU on Instagram.

 

Editor's note: This article was updated on 3/24/17 to correct an earlier version of this article that incorrectly named Lewis' former boss and the restaurants he worked at. His former boss is David Bouley and the restaurants he worked at were Bouley and Bouley Bakery. We sincerely regret the error.

March 15, 2017 - 4:54pm