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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Chef Sean O'Connell brings a global outlook to the landmark Fontainebleau hotel in Miami, which operates 11 restaurants and lounges after a $1 billion makeover more than three years ago.
O'Connell, who grew up in Europe and worked extensively in Asia, is in charge of operations for all the restaurants at the hotel. The 41-year-old, who wanted to be a forest ranger, spoke to Reuters about his overseas experiences and giant fish tanks.
Q: Where did your love of cooking comes from?
A: "Actually, I was an army brat. I grew up in Europe until I was 14 in various different countries and different bases. My father didn't have a lot of time, but one of the things we would do on Saturdays is pop into a car and drive into the different villages and towns.
"He would take me with him and we would go to all these different restaurants and chateaus to experience them and the different cuisines. He would force me to eat these different foods, and at the time, I really hated it and resented it. But as I grew older, it really sparked an interest and a passion within me."
Q: When did you know cooking was going to be your career?
A: "At that time, I wanted to be a forest ranger. I really like naturally beautiful places. When I was living in Germany, I saw the Alps. I really loved nature and all these pristine places. I worked at a restaurant in the evening after high school. Going to the counselors, they said there is not much of a future in forestry. What other things do you like to do? What's passionate for you?
"I started talking about cooking and traveling with my father and my sisters. They said why don't you decide to be a chef? Then you can make a decent living and most of the resorts you work at are next to those beautiful places so you'll have the best of both worlds. That was when my mind was made to go down that route."
Q: You spent a lot of time at some high-end resorts in Asia. Have those experiences shown through in your food?
A: "I did spend a lot of time in Asia and the hotels there. It's not only the quality of service and the quality of products you deal with but also the simplicity of the cooking techniques and crisp, clean flavors that show off the products. They are really some of the things I learned well in Asia."
Q: How do you get the fresh seafood for your restaurants?
A: "We have a series of 200 gallon aquariums. I have a marine biologist who is on standby for us and he comes twice a week to check on the salinity and the bacterial counts. We position each aquarium to take of the seafood we are purchasing like the Maine lobster. We bring them down in the same water in the same temperature as the sea off the coast of Maine.
"They are flown out and they get distressed. To put it back in their environments, it really brings them back to their freshness. By having these aquariums, we can bring them back to the peak of their freshness, which is incredible."
Q: What is your take on Miami's dining scene right now?
A: "There is a good balance between the hotels and free-standing restaurants ... You are starting to see more refined concepts and more original types of cuisines."
Bruschetta Marinated Tomatoes with Capers and Olives on Grilled Farmer's Bread (Serves 2)
2 each good quality ripe tomatoes
2 each basil leaves (sliced)
1 oz extra virgin olive oil
0.5 oz capers
1 tsp chopped garlic
2 tsp chives
To taste sea salt
To taste fresh cracked pepper
Remove the core from the tomatoes and score the bottoms with an "X." Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 20 seconds to loosen the skin. Plunge the tomatoes into ice water to cool immediately. Peel the tomatoes, remove the seeds and cut into half inch dice. Combine the diced tomatoes with the remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.
4 oz balsamic vinegar
4 each star anise
1 each cinnamon stick
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a sauce pot and allow reducing to syrup consistency. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve to remove spices. Allow cooling to room temperature.
2. Brush the farmer's bread slices with olive oil and grill both sides until golden brown and slightly crisp. Top the grilled bread with the tomato mix. Garnish with cut chives, sea salt, cracked pepper and drizzle with balsamic syrup.
Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney