In all the great food cities there exist a handful of restaurants that define them — be it via historical and ecological contributions like Joe’s Stone Crab, which is two years older than Miami Beach (whose municipality turned 100 just last year) itself and its founder discovered the succulent claws they are named after off the Florida coast, or by planting a seed for what we are capable of transcending from a culinary perspective. These are the places that when asked by someone the proverbial question “what’s the go-to Miami restaurant?” you respond with, without thinking twice. Since opening May 2015, Alter has been the answer out of everyone’s mouth, and its chef-owner Best New Chef in America, as per Food & Wine.
What’s perhaps most surprising about this, however, is how a Kansas City boy like Bradley Kilgore winds up in sunny Miami. A dishwasher turned egg cook before he was a teenager, it was only a matter of time before perseverance and “realizing there was such a thing as cuisine, fine dining, and chef-driven restaurants,” he says drove him out of the Midwest to Italy and ultimately back to one of the country’s dining meccas. “I was living in Chicago and it was cold as shit so I decided to come to Miami for a week,” says Kilgore who spent two years at Laurent Gras’ shuttered L20. Thirty days later he was living down here and unemployed. “I felt like my resume was strong enough that I could walk into a place and land something.”
That something was a sous-chef position at the revered Azul, followed by an executive chef role at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Grill where in walked a hedge fund guy who eats around the world’s best restaurants as a hobby, who had heard about the toque that had staged at Grant Achatz‘ Alinea, and who in Nick Kokonas fashion made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Thus Alter was born.
“We wanted to eliminate that feeling of walking into a restaurant and feeling uptight but for people to be intrigued by the food and the flavors,” he says. Its hip Wynwood location, unassuming façade bearing no signage, and neon orange glow at night accomplish the former whilst creations that mimic and protect Mother Nature guarantee the latter. Exhibit A: Grouper Cheeks awash in shoyu hollandaise floating over black rice on a plate the color of the ocean with collapsing seaweed and nori dill nage spume. “I think I do something a little bit different,” he wits. Indeed, while every single Florida restaurant has grouper on their menu, Kilgore challenges the status quo by probing “why not make ours sustainable by utilizing and ordering the cheeks that would otherwise get thrown away or boiled in a head?”
It is this unorthodox approach that has Alter sold out every night, and in turn, its guests who have allowed Kilgore to fully be who he is as a chef that pushes the envelope and fuels the nonstop evolution of the ever-changing menu. Besides the Grouper Cheeks, only one dish from Kilgore’s debut menu can still be savored. “You know you’re on to something after someone who’s had an entire tasting menu orders another Soft-egg after dessert because they can’t come back tomorrow.” Concealed in a sea scallop mousseline that at the deep end has unctuous truffle pearls and is crowned with a delicately torched brittle Gruyere crisp, the impeccably cooked soft-egg looks and tastes like nothing you’ve seen or eaten before.
As does his latest masterpiece dubbed Fallen Tree, which he worked on mentally for six years. “I made it once and it wasn’t good enough but I kept it in my head and worked on it till I had Virgilio from Central here and decided to bring it back out,” he says nonchalantly about the chef behind the number one restaurant in Latin America who he brought to Miami for an eight-course collaborative dinner. While the stump of almond oil poached mushroom, trunk made from dashi seared heart of palm, shitake twigs, herb moss, and black garlic mud is something straight out of an enchanted forest, the best part is the fact that the vegan entrée replaced the archetypal steak gracing every fine dining menu. “The night I realized in 96 covers we didn’t sell a single steak and decided to never order steak again was a turning point for Alter, for Miami as a culinary scene, and a breakthrough within myself.”
“There is a time when you learn who you are as a chef and the identity of your restaurant.” For Alter, that’s “refined dining,” Kilgore says unapologetically. “It’s who I am.”