Ask anyone with a glimmer of culinary consciousness about Florida cuisine and you’ll most likely hear a tale of Caribbean-Latin fusion that sizzles like the sands of South Beach.
Then ask Chef John Minas.
For one of his first dinners as Executive Chef at the Florida governor’s mansion, Minas served notice that there’s a new culinary accent in the Sunshine State: Armenian.
“I made grape leaves,” he said proudly.
Minas, who grew up in the deep-rooted Armenian community of Watertown, Mass., inherited a love of food from his Armenian and Assyrian family. He credits his paternal grandfather, Bashir Minas, with inspiring him.
“Every Sunday, we’d go to my grandfather’s house,” he said. “He cooked the best Armenian and Middle Eastern food I ever tasted. Dolmas, sarmas. And his fasoulia — oh my gosh! He made it all and he made it amazing. He wasn’t a trained chef, but he was a great cook.”
On weekdays, young Minas rushed home from high school to watch the back-to-back shows of Food Network pioneers Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. “Those guys were all about the food and the technique,” he said.
The idea took hold that he could meld the elegance and discipline of Western fine dining with the flavors and ingredients he grew up with.
After training at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Minas worked at several restaurants in the Northeast and was planning to open his own when he heard about the unique opportunity in far-off Tallahassee, Florida. He sent a resume and got a quick invitation for an interview on April 11, his 26th birthday.
The interview turned out to be an audition.
“All of a sudden I was cooking breakfast at the mansion,” he said. “That was followed by lunch and then dinner.” While he was at it, Minas volunteered an afternoon snack, “a real mezze platter” including feta cheese and pita bread. Nearly every dish in his day-long cooking marathon reflected Minas’ cultural connection.
“My dinner entree was a watercress tabbouleh with Chilean sea bass and grilled asparagus,” he said. “It was a French take on Middle Eastern. I’m very big on that.”
The fourth of six candidates to try out, Minas was barely back in Boston when he received news that he’d been hired. He started his new job in May and launched straight into an exciting yet demanding routine. Minas supervises all planning and preparation for a whirlwind of state dinners and charity events as well as daily meals for Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott.
Minas said he’s excited about Florida’s rich variety of fresh seafood and produce, but the job has kept him so busy that he’s had limited opportunity to travel around the state. “I’m really looking forward not only to getting to know the state, but to meet the Armenians here,” he said. “I want to get to Boca Raton and all the other Armenian communities.”
So far, Minas has brought not only Armenian touches to the mansion menu but other Middle Eastern favorites.
“I take our cuisine and try to make it relevant for a new generation,” he said. “I make a very refined hummus, with several variations on a plate. For example, a kalamata hummus served with traditional pita chips and a basil-pesto hummus with tomato pita chips. It’s no better than my mother’s hummus, but it’s my version.”
Gov. Scott has become such a fan that he appointed Minas and his sous chef, Carin Butler, to represent the state in the 2011 Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans. “John is a talented chef and cooks up some of the best food I’ve ever tasted,” the governor announced. “He’s going to give those other chefs a run for their money.”
Minas presented a Florida black grouper with avocado crème fraiche and spicy shrimp toast that he said “tastes like the state of Florida on a plate.” He didn’t win, but he wasn’t discouraged.
“I’m just getting started,” he said. “The job and the people here are wonderful. I plan to be in Tallahassee for a long time. Then, who knows?”