As told to Nila Do Simon
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
Artisan Beach House is such an extension of me. I’ll start with the decision to put some Brazilian dishes on the menu. I never did that at any of my other restaurants, from 3030 Ocean to 1500 Degrees. I always feared that if I included any Brazilian dishes on the menu, I would be labeled as the “Brazilian chef with a Brazilian restaurant” and diners would be disappointed to find it wasn’t a Brazilian restaurant after all but a seafood restaurant or steakhouse.
This time, I said, “I don’t really care anymore.” Being Brazilian and being born in Brazil, I have a love for my food. When Artisan Beach House opened in January, I didn’t want to have any fear about what was going on this menu. I decided not to label this restaurant. It’s not going to be a seafood restaurant or a steakhouse; it’s going to have a globally inspired menu with food that I have either learned about through my travels or remember from some part of my life and want to recreate in my way.
One dish on the menu, the tempura wahoo, came from the depths of my memory. At 3030, this Vietnamese guy, Nan, taught me how to use Asian spices and ingredients like soy sauce, chilies and nori. We made this chili sauce that had all this stuff in it, including fish sauce, which is the stinkiest thing ever. I was like, “How is this going to work?” The funny thing is that it does. So we wanted to bring that back here. We have a beautiful tempura wahoo dish with a beautiful chili sauce that I still remember how to make. And this was a memory from 18 years ago. It’s a taste that’s forever embedded in my head.
We have this seafood stew that was inspired by Tony’s recent travels to France, where he remembers having the best bouillabaisse of his life. I said, “I love doing bouillabaisse, so let’s put it together with a moqueca,” which is a Brazilian bouillabaisse. So now we have this beautiful, light seafood stew with amazing Carolina rice grits that was inspired by France and Brazil.
The restaurant’s name is something I put a lot of thought into. Coming up with a name for a restaurant is never easy because you want a name that defines what that place is—the culture and the atmosphere. I knew I wanted to include the word “artisan” because to me, that is what our restaurant is all about: handcrafted food. Whenever I think of something artisan, I think of something that’s been cared for and made with a lot of thought. I wanted to emphasize to our diners that we’re doing something really special here, and we’re putting a lot of effort into making our food.
The other part of the name is “beach house.” Obviously we’re right next to the ocean, and the view of it from the restaurant is incredible. We want people to feel like they are in their home or their friend’s home or their family’s home. The décor here is chic but low-key, plus we have some artisanal wares with tables that are handcarved and handmade.
I spent some time in Italy in a little village called Norcia, which is apparently known for its salumi (the Italian version of charcuterie) and the best mortadella in the world. You walk into all these little shops and you see meat hanging everywhere. The people in these towns have such a love and passion for food. You just take it in, and you’re so inspired and invigorated to come back home and do the same thing.
That got Tony and me thinking about curing our own meats at Artisan Beach House. We knew curing meat is an art. Families in Italy have been doing it for thousands of years, and for you to get the perfect coppa or the perfect prosciutto, it takes so much practice. You can easily throw $1,000 down the trash if you don’t cure the meat correctly.
Tony wanted to make this his project. He has to literally weigh every piece of meat that’s hanging and write down how much moisture was lost, how long it’s been in the chamber, how long it’s been out of the chamber and when it reaches a certain weight—that’s when you know it’s ready to be sliced. It can be a full-time job, which is why a lot of places don’t do it. I have to admit, we have some pretty good stuff. For example, if you put the lardo on a piece of bread and torch it a little bit, it just melts like butter.
We have some things on the menu for selfish reasons, and the charcuterie is one of those things. People are going crazy over it. Another selfish menu item is the oysters. I love oysters. They do well, but they aren’t the biggest seller. I know people aren’t coming here for my oysters, but I like having them.
I was 19 when I got my first job in a real American kitchen, which means I’ve been cooking for almost 20 years now (even longer if you count the time I spent working at my parents’ Brazilian restaurant when we lived in Massachusetts and then when we moved to Florida).
I started at the pantry station at Sea Breeze Grille and Sheffield’s, which were the predecessors to 3030 Ocean at the Marriott at Harbor Beach. Sheffield’s was the epitome of fine dining, complete with white-glove service. There was a great chef at the hotel named Oswald Kaufmann. He wore the tall chef’s hat and a neckerchief and had this thick German accent. He was always pushing me and saw that I was somebody who was busting my ass to make it in the culinary world.
You can never have too many mentors, and I count Dean James Max as another one. I met Dean when I was 20, when he was taking over the newly created 3030 Ocean. Dean was from California, which was lightyears ahead of us when it came to farm-to-table dining. I think that’s where I started to learn about local and seasonal vegetables, something I carry with me to this day.
“Whenever I think of something artisan, I think of something that’s been cared for and made with a lot of thought.” —Paula DaSilva
I like to think that as much as my meals have stories behind them, so do my tattoos. I have a tattoo of a spoon on my arm. The spoon is the tool I use the most in the kitchen, and to me it means finesse. The food goes on the plate with my spoon, like it’s an extension of my hand.
I also have an arrow on my other arm. When you pull back an arrow, the only direction it can go is forward. To me, that means no matter where you are eventually you need to shoot yourself forward. Always go forward.
Originally appeared in the Summer 2017 Issue.