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Miami chef Cindy Hutson

Miami is currently one of the most exciting cities for dining and innovation in the U.S., but it wasn’t always. Cindy Hutson became opening chef at the Caribbean-themed Norma’s on the Beach in 1994, before South Beach was synonymous with glitz and glamour. Hutson helped spark a culinary scene that consistently looks to the Caribbean for flavors and inspiration, and which now counts some of the country’s most respected restaurants and chefs.

Related: Cindy Hutson’s Cuban-Style Cod Fritters Recipe (with recipe and video)

Food Republic caught up with Hutson at her latest endeavor, overseeing the menu at a chic gastropub-like restaurant, Cerveceria La Tropical, a Cuban beer brand that dates to 1888. Watch the video to hear Hutson’s colorful culinary journey in her own words, also transcribed below.

Hey, welcome to Cerveceria La Tropical. I’m Chef Cindy Hutson. I started cooking many, many years ago. Some of you may be aware of my restaurants: Norma’s on the Beach, a restaurant on Miracle Mile for 21 years [named] Ortanique on the Mile (my baby!). And I’m here now doing executive chef work and consulting for La Tropical.

 I have written the menu here. So it’s a fun mix of Caribbean slash Cuban-inspired food. And it’s about me: I’m ethnically driven and what a better place to do it in except here in Miami.

I got into cooking and kind of a roundabout way. I didn’t go to culinary school. I’m self-taught. I never worked in another restaurant except for as a waitress. I just cook off the cuff, from my passion, from my heart. And I kind of taught myself.

 I used to be a professional fisherwoman here in Miami. I moved from New Jersey to Miami. In New Jersey, all I did is just cook for friends and family. My mom hated cooking. I loved it. So I would emulate shows that I saw on TV. Not to age myself, but the Galloping Gourmet days. I’m sure none of you know about that. And I would watch that during the week after school, tell my mom what to get for me at the grocery store. She’d buy it and I’d cook it. No one could have been happier. But my mom, who hated cooking. My dad taught me how to fish because my two brothers were seasick all the time. So I went out and fish with him. And lo and behold, I had this amazing fish at all times, fresh, delicious, and so I began cooking fish a lot. 

I decided I didn’t want to go to college, much to my parents’ dismay. From there, I said, you know, I’m going to move to Florida, and I want to fish. So I moved down here. I got a six pack captain’s license and began fishing. Well, I never dreamt of being a chef at all, just that I like to cook and I like to have friends and party and we did a lot of that. Met my first husband, got married and fished with him professionally, got divorced. I was young and stupid back then. I dated a Jamaican gentleman and started going back and forth to the islands. I fell in love with the islands, fell in love with Jamaica, fell in love with the cuisine. Fell in love with the fresh fruits, the vegetables, the things that grew there, and most of all the coffee: Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I  became an importer here in Miami for Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

 From there I took on other products from Jamaica, a line called Busha Browne’s, with 10 or 11 different condiments— jerk seasonings, marmalades, chutneys, all those things—and I imported them into the US. I brought them into the US to sell to stores like Zabar’s, Dean and DeLuca, Milam’s Market, to talk about local. How do you sell something unless you demonstrate what it tastes like? So I would brew coffee in these stores—Milam’s Market—and brew the coffee. And I’d make jerk chicken with the seasonings I was using. I’d hand out samples in the store and sell cases of this stuff. 

And then I became known as a Caribbean cook, but not a chef. I was not a chef. I was just a cook. Then I ran across a woman named Norma Shirley. And she was considered the Julia Child Of The Caribbean. She was an amazing chef. She took Caribbean Jamaican cooking to another level. I knew her quite well and I married the guy I was dating. That was my second husband and we had two children and Jam-Americans. And then we went back and forth to Jamaica all the time.

In the middle of divorcing I met Norma Shirley’s son, Delius Shirley. Delius Shirley then became my partner in business. He decided to taste the flavors I made. He had worked for his mother his whole entire life as a little kid—dishwasher on up—and he wanted to open a restaurant on Lincoln Road. Nothing was going on on Lincoln Road in 1994. He asked me to look for real estate on Lincoln Road. I did, I found it, he said, Do you want a job? I assumed I was going to be front of the house because—well, just because. About a month before we opened, we had gutted this place on Lincoln Road, we named it Norma’s on the Beach after his mom. And I assumed then who was going to be the chef was Norma Shirley. Well, that didn’t take place. He said where’s your menu, Cindy? And I said, What are you talking about? He said, We need a menu. We’re going to open in a few weeks. We’re ready. And I said I can’t write a menu. Never even worked in a kitchen. I said, Oh my god, you’re gonna lose every penny you borrowed to open this place. And he said, I have full faith in you. 

He took me by the hand and told me I could. He was my engine. I got rid of all the past anchors I had in my life. And I went forward. 

I cried every single day because I was going through a divorce at the time, I cried every day, burnt myself, cut myself, never bought proper uniform or gear because I thought I wasn’t gonna last very long at this at all.

After about four months, USA Today, back in the day when food writers came to your restaurant and did not announce themselves, I didn’t know USA Today was out there. The only thing I knew is when they wrote the article, they sent a copy to the restaurant, Norma’s on the Beach on Lincoln Road. And they called me the Jewel of a Caribbean on Lincoln Road. That day, I stopped crying. And I said, Well, I did this, they’re talking about me. So you never know where this career can take you. But it’s taken me now all over the world. And I really truly appreciate it. And I appreciate the fact that when you learn what your calling is, and you can go forward with it, man, there’s no better feeling than that.