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Kris Wessel, Owner and Chef Red Light Little River, Miami, Florida

Kris Wessel is owner and chef of Red Light Little River in Miami, Fla. Opened in 2008, Red Light is on the leading edge of the newly revitalized MiMo district. Red Light is a funky, casual eatery along the Little River. The menu is full of fresh, local products prepared in Kris's unique style inspired by his native New Orleans and the mix of cultures in South Florida. On the day of our phone interview, Kris spoke to me first from the docks of the Miami River, where he was picking up the first of the season spiny lobster, and then from a local bakery.

Southern Hospitality Magazine-Traveler: What early life experiences shaped your interest in being a chef?

Kris Wessel: I think it was probably growing up in New Orleans and eating out with my parents and aunts and uncles at some of the older restaurants, like Commander's and Antoine's, as well as the real local favorites that are all over New Orleans, even in the grocery stores and the po-boy stands. I think it was the fun of that. It was just being around a family that cooks and being in a city that has both the very old traditional restaurants as well as the casual grocery stores and sandwich shops. It was just a whole culture of eating and cooking from inside the house to going out to a restaurant. It was a great environment to want to be a part of it at a professional level. I would always listen to the criticisms by my family on the very high-end restaurants. Those high-end restaurants, like Commander's and Antoine's, always did everything so well that I aspired to do the same thing.

SHM-T: What was your first job in a restaurant?

KW: In New Orleans, I worked at Court of Two Sisters and some tourist-type restaurants there.

SHM-T: When did you decide to become a professional chef?

KW: It wasn't until I was at Florida State University that I decided I wanted to strictly be a chef. I was working in catering and doing the sky boxes at the FSU games and other events on campus. I would take over the cooking duties at whatever event we were doing. I realized that a control freak mentality is a perfect fit if you want to be a chef.

SHM-T: Where did you train?

KW: I got my degree in hotel restaurant management at Florida International University, which turned out to be the number three program in the country. It was a really great program, and that was my formal training, but I never went to a culinary school. I did go to Europe for a year, and that proved to be a really big influence on everything I did. Prior to the year in Europe, I had been in a restaurant called Mark's Place in South Florida in the early 90s. It was the number one restaurant in Florida at the time, and we had a 30-item menu that changed every day. To keep up the pace of a 30-item menu that would change every single item every single day was intense. We were flying in scallops from Maine and caviar and truffles from Europe. It was just crazy at the time, and at the door were people like Madonna and Sylvester Stallone. I was 23 years old, I had just gotten to South Florida and it was just a real intense incubation into the restaurant business. Mark's Place was a very New York and California-style restaurant, and that is why it was the number one restaurant in Miami at that time.

SHM-T: Did the intensity of that early experience influence how you operate your restaurant today?

KW: It just exposed me to a different way. I mean we were rolling our own sushi back then in '91 and '92, and that was really before sushi had taken off in the mainstream. It also showed me the importance of using great products. I mean anytime you fly scallops in from Maine and caviar from Europe, you are using the best products in the world. It forces you to highlight the product in the best way, and you can't beat that. It's rare that you would get that in a culinary school.

SHM-T: Red Light's location and history make it a bit unique, wouldn't you say?

KW: Red Light is located in the back of a motel on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. The area is a historically notorious prostitute district, but it is also on a beautiful freshwater river that leads out to the bay and the ocean. It is kind of a two worlds' location. The area is really coming back now, though. Three years ago when I was building, it took the sheriff's department and my will to get rid of the drug dealers and prostitutes who were actually in the restaurant I was building and in the motel I was building out of. Today, the area is full of single family homes and young professionals who have moved in. There are cafés and different concepts that are springing up all over the place. It's a great area now.

 

Red Light Little River
7700 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami, FL 33138-5132
305/757-7773
www.redlightmiami.com




Southern Wine Facts

NORTH CAROLINA

  • North Carolina is the home of the nation's first cultivated wine grape and was the leading wine producer in the country before Prohibition.
  • North Carolina is home to almost 100 wineries. The number of wineries has more than quadrupled since 2001. The industry focuses on both the native Muscadine grapes and the European-style vinifera grapes.
  • Commonly planted vinifera grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier. They are planted in the Western and Piedmont regions of the state.
  • Plantings of native Muscadine grapes, also known as Scuppernongs, are relatively pest resistant and thrive in the hot, sandy conditions of the Coastal region. Muscadines contain high levels of resveratrol and other health-enhancing antioxidants. Some wineries even sell grape skins to nutraceutical companies.
  • North Carolina ranks seventh in wine production in the United States and 10th in grape production. The state is home to the most visited winery in the country, Biltmore Winery, and the world's largest Muscadine wine producer, Duplin Winery. North Carolina wine and grape industries account for more than 5,700 jobs, with an annual economic impact of nearly $813 million.

Source: North Carolina Department of Commerce website, http://www.nccommerce.com/en/TourismServices/NurtureWineAndGrapeIndustry, and http://www.visitncwine.com

VIRGINIA WINERIES

  • Virginia has162 wineries spread out in Blue Ridge Region, Central Virginia Region, Chesapeake Bay Region, Eastern Virginia Region, Hampton Roads Region, Heart of Appalachia Region, Northern Virginia Region, Shenandoah Valley Region and Southern Virginia Region.
  • A Virginia Norton wine was named "Best Red Wine of All Nations' at the Vienna World's Fair in 1873, plus it won a Gold medal at the Paris World's Fair of 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was constructed. The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted gave Virginia's nascent wine industry a lift—but in the early 20th century, Prohibition promptly brought it to a standstill. The industry was slow to bounce back. Some 17 years after Prohibition's repeal, Virginia had all of 15 acres of commercial wine grapes.
  • In the late-1950s, experimental plantings of vinifera showed promise. With the establishment of six new wineries in the 1970s, the recovery was officially underway. A renewed effort to grow a European Chardonnay succeeded at the Waverly Estate in Middleburg in 1973. By 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. By 2005, 107. At 162 wineries and counting today, only California, New York, Oregon and Washington have more wineries than Virginia. The persistence of generations of winemakers is paying off.
  • Virginia Viognier, now an accepted term among wine fanciers, is already on its way to being one of Virginia's most notable wines. Also getting national recognition are Virginia Cabernet Franc and Virginia's native Norton.

 

Virginia Wine Varieties

Whites: Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Viognier and Vidal Blanc

Reds: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Chambourcin and Norton

Norton is the oldest native North American varietal and was being cultivated and made into wine in Virginia prior to the Civil War. Nortons are deeply colored, age-worthy wines with rich, fruity aromas and flavors. They complement red meat, smoked meat, wild game and cheese.

For more information, visit www.virginiawine.org and www.vawineclub.com.

 

Where to go?

Visit Hillsborough Vineyards (www.hillsboroughwine.com) for award-winning vintage wines. Located just 40 short minutes outside of Washington, D.C., Hillsborough Vineyards is a welcomed escape from the ordinary. Hillsborough Vineyards handcrafts a limited selection of wines with old world character. Try its 2008 Moonstone, a 100 percent Viognier and the 2008 Opal, a blend of Petit Manseng, Viognier and Chardonnay.

Located between Fredericksburg, Culpeper, Charlottesville and Richmond, Lake Anna Winery (www.lawinery.com/wines_awards.shtml) can be easily reached from Washington, D.C. (http://). Try its Énigme, the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition (2008) Gold medal winner, or its Merlot, winner of the Silver medal of the same competition.

Editors Note: To learn more about the wine in North Carolina and Virginia and read about our visits to several wineries, please check out our digital or print edition. You can subscribe easily by clicking the link below.

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