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THE MIAMI HERALD
BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
October 23, 2003
PHOTO: PATRICK FARRELL/HERALD STAFF
Like many a Caribbean love affair, hers began by the sea.
Carmen González grew up in the Puerto Rican coastal town of Aguadilla, savoring the daily catch of a family friend, a fisherman who brought snapper and grouper for his wife to cook on a fogón, an outdoor stove, by the beach.
González remembers a huge kettle with oil, the aroma of fried fish and its earthy accompaniments -- plantains turned into crispy, golden tostones; luscious avocados; breadfruit and fresh lemon wedges.
''I grew up smelling the food, living the food,'' she says.
That little girl on the beach whose love of cooking prompted her mother to give her a pasta machine for her 13th birthday is now a star chef in Coral Gables.
Inspired by the seafood and traditional fare of her native island, González reigns in the kitchen of Carmen The Restaurant, a fine-dining oasis housed in the boutique David William Hotel.
At Carmen, just proclaimed one of America's best new restaurants by Esquire magazine, González, 45, is doing for Puerto Rican cooking what Douglas Rodríguez did for Cuban -- taking it to glamorous heights of gourmet.
The countryside cuisine of La Isla del Encanto, The Isle of Enchantment, has never looked more gorgeous.
''We are ambassadors for our countries,'' González says. ``How many people who are not Latin know what gandules [pigeon peas] are, what piononos are? Yes, we have taken our cuisine a step up. We are part of a cultural revolution with our food and I'm very proud to be a part of it.''
Watch her one night serve a seven-course meal to introduce a new line of Rodney Strong wines to South Florida. A wee bit under five feet tall, she's a white-suited dynamo in perpetual kitchen-to-dining room motion, a tiny bottle of Diet Coke in hand.
''I don't sit down very well,'' she explains.
The first item on the menu is her grilled Key West shrimp pionono, beautiful plantain pinwheels filled with shrimp and simmered in sofrito, the melange of garlic, onion and bell pepper that is a foundation of Spanish Caribbean cookery.
Traditional pionono -- stuffed with picadillo, coated with egg and fried -- is ''too basic an idea,'' says González, who enriches her sofrito with fish broth and butter.
In course after course, she infuses traditional ingredients with modern elegance and imagination: sliced duck breast enhanced with a sweet corn flan; pork tenderloin crowned with a pancetta croquette and redolent of an adobo marinade that is anything but typical.
''I like bold and strong flavors, but I want food to taste like it's supposed to. I don't want to overwhelm with sauces. I want the snapper to taste like snapper,'' González says.
The red snapper filet on her regular dinner menu comes in a fish broth with farm-raised White Water clams, Spanish chorizo and fingerling potatoes.
''It's, to me, the biggest example of what I do in a plate because of the marriage and blend of everything that's in there,'' she says. ``I worked on that dish for three months until I decided this is the way I wanted it.''
A 14-year veteran of the Miami restaurant scene, Gonzalez opened her namesake restaurant in March after seven low-profile years as a caterer and private chef.
''She's a great chef. I really admire her food,'' says Alex García, the Cuban-American Food Network host and chef-co-owner of Babalú in New York City.
González's culinary adventures began at Café San Juan in Puerto Rico's capital. She was 20 years old and had found the restaurant for sale in the classifieds.
''I had no money but I had a willingness that I think is very strong and has gotten me to where I am today,'' she says. ``This is all I ever wanted to do.''
She talked a widowed neighbor into financing the venture. González worked seven days a week making exquisite sandwiches, salads and piononos. The restaurant was packed but only lasted a year. ''The partnership didn't work out,'' González says.
Then she went to New York City with her mother to check out the New York Restaurant School.
''They gave us a tour, the whole song and dance, and when we went upstairs and they opened the kitchen and I saw the chefs in white aprons, I fainted from the emotion,'' González says.
She completed her culinary training, prepping at Manhattan's Quilted Giraffe. With Miami emerging as a hot destination, she moved here in 1989 and opened Clowns in Coral Gables.
''I didn't have anything, but I had my food, my own flavors,'' González says.
Her inventiveness won praise -- ''Patent it,'' Herald critic Geoffrey Tomb said of her potato and black bean pancakes -- but the poor service and storefront decor earned frowns. She soon closed.
After a stint at the Miami Club, González became executive chef at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel near Miami International Airport and opened Tamarind in 1996. Handling all the hotel's food operations in addition to the restaurant proved daunting, and González left after three months.
At the same time, she created a foundation, Feeding the Mind, to provide battered women with culinary scholarships, but the project never got off the ground. González hopes to revive it.
Since March, she has worked tirelessly, ''without a single day off,'' to see Carmen The Restaurant take off.
Reviews have been stellar. The Esquire distinction is ''what everybody dreams of in this business,'' González beams.
But will she have staying power this time around?
''I am dedicating myself only to doing the restaurant,'' says González, who is single. ``I found my home. The other restaurants were my schools to get here. . . . I didn't feel ready to have a restaurant that had my name. Now I think I'm ready, and with what we are doing, we are showing we're ready to do this.''
Yet, as the wine dinner winds down and the kudos fade away, González slips into the bathroom for a respite. She leans against the sink, takes a sip of wine and says, ``You would tell me, wouldn't you, if it wasn't wonderful?''
The veteran chef seems more like the young apprentice who fainted at the sight of white aprons in the big city, more the little girl on the beach.
By the next day, she is once again exuding confidence.
''When I tell you that this is the love of my life, I am not kidding you,'' González says of her culinary career. ``I love what I do. I don't know if this is a sickness, but it's more than a job to me. It's my passion.''
Place: Carmen The Restaurant
Address: 700 Biltmore Way (David William Hotel), Coral Gables.
Contact: 305-913-1944, carmentherestaurant.com.