Food, art, craft, and squaring creativity with building a viable business

Food, art, craft, and squaring creativity with building a viable business

Chef Mike Beltran talks about the ways he flexes his creative muscle as a chef and restaurateur and where business considerations place boundaries on the art and craft of food.

Episode image: Blue Shell Media


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Nicolás Jiménez: Welcome to episode 2. Second full episode of Pan Con podcast.

Carlos Rodríguez: ¡Tráeme un Pan Con Podcast!

Mike Beltrán: I don't think I'm going to get tired of that.

Nicolás Jiménez: I'm Nick Jiménez. I am the quasi host of this thing for a little bit and I'm here with the, the real star of the show here.

Carlos Rodríguez: Quasimodo.

Nicolás Jiménez: Yeah. Yeah. There you go. With the chef Mike Beltran. Carluba is here behind the recorder slapping his own knee at his own jokes.

Mike Beltrán: Take this guy's microphone away from him. Fuck. How did we let him in? Jesus. My name is Mike Beltran.

Nicolás Jiménez: Your name is Mike Beltran and we are at the courtyard adjacent to Chug's.

Mike Beltrán: Chug's Diner.

Nicolás Jiménez: @chugsdiner on social media

Carlos Rodríguez: Chug's courtyard.

Mike Beltrán: That'll be its own thing. Yeah, that's another, that's another Instagram handle.

Carlos Rodríguez: Chug's Cuban charanga courtyard.

Nicolás Jiménez: All right, here we go. So by the way, I just came from recording a radio show with Carlos and it was a lot like this.

Mike Beltrán: 1210 The Man

Nicolás Jiménez: We are on 1210 The Man because we're men.

Mike Beltrán: And I have to say before we jump into this... It's absolutely abysmal. The name of that entire radio show.

Nicolás Jiménez: I knew this was coming. The Draw is good. The Draw is a good name.

Mike Beltrán: Your show with Erik — and you're debatable — but I mean,

Carlos Rodríguez: I really am getting this from just all angles today.

Mike Beltrán: The name of the station, 1210 The Man, it's absolutely fucking horrible. You guys are great.

Nicolás Jiménez: It's not what I would call the radio station.

Mike Beltrán: Makes no fucking sense. I remember, cause you know Orlando Alzugaray, he's on that, right? Big O, that guy. I listened to his radio show for many years and I, uh, agreed and disagreed with many of his opinions. So when they took them off the radio...

Mike Beltrán: and then he had this big thing. 'I'm going to be able to say whatever the fuck I want and blah, blah, blah." I don't care. The name of the fucking station is horrible. I will only listen to that radio station because of you and Erik. I'm sorry. It's just fucking true.

Carlos Rodríguez: You can say whatever you want here because this is a podcast.

Mike Beltrán: And it's just, you know, like Big O, you know, I his opinions on the Dolphins, but he's just such a fucking gas bag half the time. Like, get the fuck outta here, man.

Nicolás Jiménez: I don't know if I'm allowed to...

Mike Beltrán: Whatever. I am allowed to say whatever the fuck I want.

Nicolás Jiménez: I will be honest, I've never actually heard Big O.

Mike Beltrán: Yeah. I mean his radio show about the Dolphins is, it's fine. His opinion is good and half the time.

Carlos Rodríguez: I think he's a great guy. You do. I mean, you know, I can differ with his opinions, but I think he's a good person.

Mike Beltrán: I mean you could be a good person, but he on the radio, he's like fucking gas bag. His persona on the radio to me is just so off putting sometimes.

Nicolás Jiménez: I really haven't heard him, so I don't have an opinion here.

Carlos Rodríguez: But what is it about the persona?

Mike Beltrán: I come from a hospitality background, so a lot of times just telling people that they're full of shit off gate without listening to half of their opinion is off putting. You know like there's people that have opinion about the Dolphins or sports. Not everyone lives and breathes sports, man. You know, like I come, I come from a sports background too. I played football for 10 years so I understand football.

Carlos Rodríguez: Who doesn't like sports?

Mike Beltrán: I mean, honestly, to be totally frank, I haven't really paid attention to sports in two years.

Carlos Rodríguez: I'd say it's been about that time for me.

Mike Beltrán: It's just because I'm like totally entrenched in restaurants.

Nicolás Jiménez: So the percent, the joke that is only making sense to Carlos is that Carlos has never in his life been much of a sports fan. I like, Carlos' quiet subversion of the radio show. What was the topic that... oh, we were talking about the, uh, what game was it that everybody came to play? You probably don't even remember. We were talking about some sporting event.

Carlos Rodríguez: Oh, it was the, it was the NCAA Championship game. Let me tell you. I can say one thing about that game. Everyone at that game showed up to play that day.

Mike Beltrán: That's good. Thanks.

Nicolás Jiménez: So Carlos repeats this line like five times over the course of the radio show. And Erik was visibly ... I wasn't even there, but I was picturing his face like Erik is not liking this at all, that Carlos has just jumping back in over and over. 'Everyone came to play. No. Listen, I think it's safe to say everybody came to play."

Carlos Rodríguez: Everyone came to really just give their all today.

Nicolás Jiménez: Yeah, 110%.

Carlos Rodríguez: 110%. It's not untrue. No, no. It's safe to say that every single one of those guys on that bench and on the court that day showed up with the intent to play the best basketball they've ever played in their life.

Nicolás Jiménez: This was the radio show and it was awesome. It was such, good radio.

Mike Beltrán: I'm actually thinking about wrapping this shit up now because I am just fucking over it. Holy shit.

Carlos Rodríguez: What's, what's wrong with that?

Mike Beltrán: Because you don't know what the fuck you're talking about! But it's true. It's like that same like, you know that, um, but it was a whole sports fucking analogy. That everyone says over and over again.

Carlos Rodríguez: It was appropriate for the time because they were talking about how well and how, just once in a lifetime performance one of these, uh, athletes...

Mike Beltrán: Is there any way to cut his Mike off? Because we can't continue like this.

Nicolás Jiménez: Well in fairness you did, you did a launch into the Big O gas baggery thing.

Mike Beltrán: I used to drive a lot because I went to school in West Palm for awhile, so it was like three hours of fucking sports radio everyday. I listened to LeBatard.

Carlos Rodríguez: There are other things to listen to though.

Mike Beltrán: Yeah, I know, but LeBatard is an exceptional show.

Carlos Rodríguez: There are other exceptional things to listen to.

Mike Beltrán: That's true. But at that time, podcasts weren't really a thing at that time. Am I dating myself by saying that?

Nicolás Jiménez: Podcasts are pretty recent. Where are the cutting edge over here. This is the first podcast sandwich.

Mike Beltrán: This is the first Cuban American podcast sandwich.

Carlos Rodríguez: There's three people here. So three is the number of parts to sandwiches so...

Nicolás Jiménez: We have now wasted close to five minutes. What we came into this intending to do... When we turned these things on, what we intended to do was get into the subject and maybe we can find a graceful way to segue here, of creativity. We're at Chug's Diner. Uh, and in the previous episode we got into a little bit about the creativity and your, uh, working from a foundation of traditional Cuban food with a twist. And of course that twist is the creative element or at least among the creative elements, cause you can get creative without really deviating...

I want to hear a little more about, uh, where it is that you draw or how you identify the line of, okay, I'm allowing myself to get creative to this point. Right? And once I moved beyond that point, maybe it becomes impractical. Maybe it starts to move against the concept, right. Where, cause the concept part of the definition of the concept of whether it's a restaurant or a magazine or a podcast or a podcast is that there, there is that line of, once you've moved beyond it, you've begun to undermine the original idea, right? What does that look like for you here at Chug's?

Mike Beltrán: Chug's is an interesting example because we're doing small curveballs on classics. You know, like, our pan con lechón is normal until you get to this, uh, sauce that's on the bottom bread. It's called tuna tonnato. Tuna tonnato is like a tuna mayonnaise. So that tuna mayonnaise is traditionally served with roasted pork as like a salad and like a little salad on top. So when I was thinking about that pan con lechón, it's like everyone, you know, there is a large portion of people that make pan con lechón and they're all good in their own ways. But you know, people know me to be a little weird and that's fine and I like that, you know? And the other thing was when you do a pan con lechón, and you do it like classic, then you're jumping into that arena of just like another pan con lechón on the streets. No, mine's going to be a little different.

And there's going to be people that fight me on it and that totally fucking fine. I don't care. This is how I want to do it. So, you know, creativity, there's a couple of ways to think about it from a chef's perspective. There's from a chef's perspective, there's from a chef-owners' perspective. When you're like ... let's look at the two concepts, which is Ariete and Chug's Diner. Ariete is a little more handsy. The food, you know, a little more touchy, you know, we uh, take a little more time pleading. There's a little more finesse. You know, chugs is a diner, um, and it's a diner with white rice and black beans and there's a pancake and there's a Taylor ham sandwich and you know, it's a little more like a grungy, greasy spoon kind of stuff. At Ariete you can get a little more finesse.

But even with that finesse in mind, as a business person, you need to rein yourself in because you cannot have things that have 25 touches — is what we call in the kitchen is how many moves dish takes — and 13 different components and that it takes three people at plate when you're trying to crank out a service of 250 and you only have three guys on the line. All that goes into play. So you're, when you're a creative in the kitchen you can, I mean there's days that I'll sit up reading and writing stuff till two or three in the morning or later and they'll never come to fruition because the dish is just too much. And in my mind it lives as what everyone likes to say, "Oh chef just said that's simple." And a lot of times it's not really. So that's why, you know, you've had me mention, I've mentioned people like Enzo and like Matt would be like "Dude that's not feasible. We can't do that." You know? And I was like, all right, you know, cause I at again, it's not technically me doing it. And a lot of times it's important to realize, you know, I understand the food in its entirety, but a cook doesn't. So you need to make it easily executable and from a business perspective to be able to put out that food in a timely fashion.

Carlos Rodríguez: I think that's part of the creativity though, is that boundary. You know, a lot of times creativity really has an opportunity to expose itself when there are boundaries, when there are constraints. And part of those constraints in this world and in your world is those logistical, practical constraints where, hey, you need to be creative. You need to do something different. You may need to take something that already exists and add something of your own and create something new. But they have to be within these boundaries, within these constraints. I think that adds to the creative factor. You know, you don't have this free reign. Not that that's a bad thing, but it's kind of cool that you don't have it.

Mike Beltrán: At the end of the day, you're running a business. It's very important to realize. And I think there's two good examples. Like we do vegetable dinners, and I really do that to push myself . It's like "How do we create this dish with no protein?" Cause that's how ... When I was taught to cook, you know, you work around the protein. So how do we, how do we work away from that? And one of the people that I respect the most in this industry, his name is Jeremy Fox and he's in California. The guy is un animal. The meal I had at his restaurant was forever life changing for me because it had the feel of the food that I really love, but a lot of the dishes were vegetable based and they were incredible. I had this idea of, you know, like ... Not many people highlight Miami vegetables. So we did this vegetable dinner and I said, "Fuck it, I'm going to do this and I'm gonna push myself creatively from a conceptual perspective, from a food perspective, from a service perspective. And I'm just going to do this completely fucking different. And honestly, with out money in mind, we didn't charge a ton. It was five courses and we did it in a courtyard of Ariete that had never been used. So we had to set up a different service standard. We had to do set up music, we had live music, we had to print different menus, we had to source all of our vegetables locally. We had to do different cocktails that were all vegetable based. Everything from top to bottom.

I worked on it for 90 days for the sum of three hours. And we executed wonderfully. It was to me, a feat. And I had just, and just speaking very personally, I just taken a, like a kick in the nuts a couple of days earlier about something that I was very much hoping to achieve. And I failed. So it was actually that day and I had to pick myself up and say, "We worked on this for months. We cannot fail because I took a kick in the nuts for something. We all worked very hard on this, so let's do it." And we fucking crushed it and creatively I felt great.

Carlos Rodríguez: What an accomplishment creatively, right? Yeah. You had an idea, you worked on it and he made it happen and it worked out the way you wanted it.

Mike Beltrán: I would say was 90 percent there of what I envisioned, which from a chef's perspective is so difficult.

Carlos Rodríguez: From a creative perspective, anyone who does a creative endeavor and it works out more or less to what exactly you wanted it to be, I think that's a success.

Mike Beltrán: It was one of my favorite services I've ever been a part of and I've been fortunate enough to cook with some great people and to be a part of some special nights. But that one for Ariete, I thought it was very special.

Carlos Rodríguez: Where did it come from? The vegetables, did you touch upon that already?

Mike Beltrán: I love highlighting local producers. So we wanted to highlight the farms that we use. We invited some of the farmers, you know, totally just to try their product and what we did with their product. So that was cool. So that's one example. And then the other opposite side of the spectrum is Chug's. This concept of can a ventanilla and an American diner have a baby? Which was what is Chug's Diner. Can we serve a pancake and a Taylor ham sandwich next to arroz, frijoles and rabo encindido.

And we did it and so far so good. You know, we're only 10 days in. It's one of those things that conceptually, as a creative ... I'll never forget sitting there with my fiance and I'm like, I don't know if people are going to fucking like this. This is a little, you know, it's not normal. Right. You know, you're always scared.

Carlos Rodríguez: Self doubt.

Nicolás Jiménez: Not only that, but you're not sure whether people are gonna like this. And what adds to the weight is that so much of you in that.

Mike Beltrán: Well, are people going to show up? How is it going to be received? Because every time creatively, you do something for the public, you're putting a little piece of yourself out there.

Carlos Rodríguez: You're vulnerable.

Mike Beltrán: Very, very vulnerable. For people that have heard previous episodes, this is a spin off of Tea Time. So in Tea Time we talk a lot about mental health and that vulnerability of a creative feeds into that mental self doubt and that mental kind of like brain strength. And it's like, man, it's invigorating when it works, but man, it could fucking crush you if it doesn't.

Nicolás Jiménez: When I began to sort of formulate in my head what I wanted this DADE thing to be, right, which is where this podcast lives, which is where I do some of my writing that doesn't really have a home or a logical home and Cigar Snob, one of the things that I was sort of wrestling with was, okay, "How do I do something that I hope will find an audience, but that is informed my, my own perspective, right? Like even though this is your thing, Pan Con Podcast is your show, I'm as enthusiastic as I am about it because I see so much about your perspective that, that I connect to. I always pointed to people and their work — me being a writer — Dan Lebatard and Dave Barry, who I grew up idolizing. I have very vague memories of my childhood, but my mom tells me that when people ask me when I was little kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn't tell them that I want to be a writer. I told them I wanted to be Dave Barry. And the reason was that those are two people who are so completely themselves in their work. You know who they are, maybe a column or two in. If you've never read them before and who, who they are and how they express themselves. Like there's, there's no massaging. What they've done is, at least the way that I perceive them, is that they figured out how to communicate what was there already. And that's kind of what I get when I eat at your, at the two restaurants of yours that have eaten that. Um, so I'm looking forward to that coming in wood fire form at Leña and all that. But were there people for you that you saw doing some version of what you were trying to pull off that you thought like, okay, there's, if not a model for how to do it, at least a model that some version of this is possible.

Mike Beltrán: There's plenty of inspiration out there. There's some really great restaurants around the country that are doing some ... I love New Orleans very much.

Nicolás Jiménez: I'll be there tomorrow actually.

Carlos Rodríguez: Oh man, that is exciting.

Carlos Rodríguez: Yeah, I lived there for five years. That's, that's the greatest place on earth in my opinion.

Mike Beltrán: So I went to Turkey and the Wolf. So good. That place, I was like, man, you know, it's fun. It's inviting. They do sandwiches, they do wedge salad, they do stuff that's like ... I loved it, and I was like, "You know, there should be like a Cuban version of this." So, you know, I also love diners and I love breakfast. So that's kind of where the idea of that whole thing kind of came to mind.

But I don't know, there's a lot of forms of creativity out there. And now I love guys like, you know, I worked for Norman [Van Aken] for many years, a Douglas Rodríguez, Michelle Bernstein. Those guys really paved the way for, for us the younger generation chefs. And what they did was say, it's acceptable to take a style of food outside of its box and to be who you are. Like Norman's food is totally off the map. So, you know, there's that, and the opportunity of working for him and the fact that he did lift me up so much and say, "You're a talented guy, you just need to stick with it and you know, believe in yourself" or whatever, that was huge. So I think the stuff that Norman did a long time ago, stuff that a Norman still doing stuff that Douglas did, the opportunity of creating relationships with people like Norman and Michelle that have really ... those relationships on a level of like asking them their opinion on things. And them giving me feedback was huge. You know, just in my growth. That, both creative and professionally, has been huge.

Carlos Rodríguez: You know? Going back to what you were saying, Nick, and to what exactly you are talking about right now, Mike, is especially going back to the creativity, is the fact that creativity requires vulnerability and that vulnerability innately requires authenticity and genuineness and that's where the person comes out. That's where they come out there, their creativity, their ideas come out. You know, when Nick says that's what they do, that it's innate to them, it's unique to them. It's that vulnerability that they show that requires them to be authentic and genuine in what they do because they're being creative and that's coming from them specifically, which is a very personal thing.

Nicolás Jiménez: But the creativity doesn't, doesn't mean a whole lot unless you're solving a problem. Right? And in so much of this, it's how do I take this, whether it's what I am or this idea that I'm trying to express and put that in this other person's head.

Carlos Rodríguez: But sometimes creativity is just for the sake of creating something. There's no, like, solution to be solved or problem to be solved. It's just sometimes creation for the sake of creation. Art for the sake of art. There's not necessarily a problem to be solved or a thing that needs to be thought of.

Mike Beltrán: In the world of food there's a big, I guess, argument, conversation, disagreement of whether food is art or craft. And I really do feel like the food that we do in my company is more of a craft. You know, will there be one day a restaurant that's more of an expression of art? Maybe. Not right now.

Nicolás Jiménez: It might depend on how you're defining art though. No?

Mike Beltrán: Right. But I also think that those people that say food is an art form, they're losing like that soulful aspect of the craft. You know, like for me the craft means so much like taking years to, you know, at least try to perfect something, whether it be a bread baker ... the final product isn't an art form like that beautiful loaf or beautiful charcuterie piece or whatever. But there's process getting there. It's becoming a craftsman. So there's a lot of that conversation.

Carlos Rodríguez: It's, it's both-and. I think that's part of that, part of the beauty is that it's both craft and art.

Mike Beltrán: That's one of the things that, uh, that question made me want to work for Norman a lot cause he was at a StarChefs conference and that was the question — whether food is an art or a craft. He's very thought provoking, you know, the way he observes things, et cetera, for me is very important. So I dunno, creativity, there's so many levels to it, you know, vulnerability, putting yourself out there for other people to judge. And how you take that is huge. You know, does it keep you up at night? Do you struggle with it?

Nicolás Jiménez: How has that aspect of a change for you over the course of...

Mike Beltrán: I mean, I don't, for me, I do it. But if people like it or not, like if people think it sucks and you know, maybe there's something to it, but I'm also my worst critic, so if there's something that I don't think is good, then I'm going to say that and I'm not going to do it. But, you know, someone comes and has a bad experience and they're kind of a douche about it or whatever, I'm not going to take that to heart. I've kind of learned to take ... you have to have a thick skin to deal with that shit. So, you know, it is what it is. The people who take it to heart, they're just reading into it too much. You know, everyone's gonna have their opinion. That's food, that's life. It's opinion. You know, like I posted a picture of the Cuban sandwich we're going to be doing at Chug's and you know, it's kind of a play on a muffaletta and some guy out of nowhere, it was like, "Well, I don't know why you called it a muffaletta," and started like fucking trolling me. And uh, I responded, I said something and then he called me an asshole and I told him to go fuck himself. But, you know, long story short was it's kinda my play on a muffaletta. I never said it was a fucking muffaletta you gotta learn how to read first, you know? But it's just like those things, if I would have taken that to heart, like, "Oh my God, why are you..." Fuck you. Whatever, man. You know? Have a little fun with it. You know, don't take it so fucking seriously.

Carlos Rodríguez: Play, guy.

Mike Beltrán: I love Muffalettas, fuck, you know, Central Grocery, that's my jam, all day. But creativity, is your expression on whatever it is that you specialize in or what you want to specialize in. So could be food, could be art, it could be a podcast, could be writing, it could be journalism, you know.

Carlos Rodríguez: We're all creatives.

Mike Beltrán: Yeah... But are we? From a journalism perspective, you know, is writing the 10-best list creative?

Nicolás Jiménez: Well, first of all, I don't make 10-best lists. But I think that there's always at least some creative element to it. And I think it depends on how you're approaching that, right? I think that certainly there are, uh, you know, listicles out there that are really more marketing tools that anything. They're just there to draw clicks in. But I think there's a way to do anything creatively. And, and I think that, and that's what I mean by, uh, creativity being part of the problem, solving a process. If creativity is just, well, I'm just doing a thing that wasn't there before ... well you haven't really done anything. I mean, I take a shit and there's a mojón there that wasn't there two minutes ago. To the extent that you're communicating something effectively, yeah, there are decisions there.

Mike Beltrán: I bring up the listicle because, from my side, is doing a tuna tartare with Wasabi aioli creative? It's not. It's cookie cutter. You're not challenging yourself. You're putting up layups because you know everyone's going to like it.

Nicolás Jiménez: I think that's where art versus craft comes in, right?

Mike Beltrán: There's a tuna tartare at Le Barnerdin which is one of the most legendary ... or the tuna carpaccio dish, I'm sorry. Which is legendary, right? But it's like, the creativity is in the pristine execution, which is a craft. So you know, like there's just so much that goes into it, you know, and there's, you know, you're also talking about Le Bernardin which is run by Eric Ripert, which is one of the legends of the world. He will go down as one of the culinary legends of all time. You know, so there's just so many facets to it and creativity I think is what you make of it. And I think it is how far you want to push your own boundary. And for me, I like to throw small curve balls to challenge people to try something a little different. That's where I'm at.

Nicolás Jiménez: Do we want to end there?

Mike Beltrán: I think we should end it there.

Nicolás Jiménez: Cool. I think we're going to go ahead an do the shameless plug thing again.

Mike Beltrán: Yeah, let's do it again.

Nicolás Jiménez: You can find Pan Con Podcast at @panconpodcast across all the social media things. Also on ... On Twitter we're @dadetweets, on Instagram, we're @dadeIG, and then DADEmag on Facebook. Give us all your, all your chug and pig things.

Mike Beltrán: Well, my personal, uh, is @piginc. You can find us at, @chugsdiner — there you will find our daily pastelito and croqueta flavors. Just so you're aware. And you can find us at @arietemiami for all the fun stuff that happens over there. So yeah... I think that's all we got.

Carlos Rodríguez: Toodles.

Nicolás Antonio Jiménez is the founder of DADE. When he's not working on this site, he's the senior editor of Cigar Snob Magazine, an internationally distributed lifestyle magazine.
Nick is also a Miami native, Cuban-American, and graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.