By Charlie Crespo
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
It’s a scene from a postcard. Weightless waves brush up between toes snuggled in the sand. Ice clinks softly in sugary tropical drinks, which are absentmindedly stirred by a miniature umbrella. Far off, there are faint sounds of wind chimes and someone slowly warming up on a steel drum.
A short walk from the sand on the Florida Bay side of Islamorada near Mile Marker 82, a different scene entirely is unfolding.
Inside the restaurants at Morada Bay, pots and pans clank and clamor. Cooks hurry to complete their mise en place as they keep a watchful eye over simmering stock. Busboys scurry to and fro with stacks of dishes and flatware. Servers hurriedly roll silverware as they memorize the evening’s specials.
If a guest were to mistakenly wander into the kitchen area in search of another mojito, the controlled chaos would be jarring in comparison to the paradise just outside. However, for Executive Chef Ishmael “Ish” Toro, who oversees it all like the conductor of a classical orchestra, the cacophony, disparate smells and nervous energy of the kitchen are paradise.
For as long as Chef Toro can remember, he’s been at home in a kitchen.
“I was always in the kitchen with my mother, either cooking breakfast or traditional Latin-style food,” the 37-year-old remembers. “By a young age, as soon as I could reach the counter, I could make scrambled eggs and sandwiches.”
At age 15, he got his first taste of working in a restaurant, when he began a job at Schooni’s Italian American restaurant in central Florida in order to save up money for his first car. A few years later, he began to seriously think about the possibility of becoming a full-time chef.
“I started college, and I was still always cooking. The Emerils and the Bourdains were starting to get on TV, and it seemed like you could make it a career,” says Toro, who attended the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University.
After graduating, he worked in the kitchens at the popular Perricone’s Market Place & Café and Novecento in Miami. It was the former, and especially proprietor Steven Perricone, that Toro credits for helping him develop the confidence and ability required to become an executive chef.
That confidence was certainly a required skill when Toro decided to take on a new challenge further south in Islamorada at Morada Bay. Not only would he be tasked with Pierre’s—located in an elegant two-story plantation house and noted for its unique take on French cuisine fused with world influences—but he would also be expected to run the more casual Morada Bay Beach Café & Bar. To put the scope of the position in perspective, the two restaurants combined can do anywhere from 500 to 800 covers a day in season and come with a total staff of about 140 employees.
As you might expect, Toro definitely knew there would be challenges.
“Coming into a new property like this, you have to shut up and learn,” he says. “It took me awhile to bring in the reins. Purchasing for two restaurants, learning two groups of staff, learning the current menus… you have to learn them all before you can even begin to start attacking the previous problems. It was about a six-month learning curve.”
Despite the massive project, it didn’t take long for his food to shine. Blessed with a property that has herbs, Key limes, mangoes, different spices and starfruit, as well as owners committed to the best and freshest ingredients, Toro was easily able to supplement his personal style with the unique advantages of the location.
“For me, it’s hunting with flavor,” he explains. “Being Puerto Rican and Italian, I always go to my core ingredients: cilantro, garlic, jalapeño—that’s your sofrito; that’s your base flavor. Then when you use the best local products, there’s no need to cover it up with sauces or garnishes. Just let it speak for itself.”
And his food certainly does. With a quick look over the menu—at dishes such as mofongo with whole lobster tail and jumbo shrimp enchilada; pan-roasted mahi-mahi with cilantro green rice, tostones, and fresh Florida citrus mojo; and roasted organic half chicken topped with fresh Florida citrus mojo and served with cilantro rice, Hawaiian tostones, pico de gallo and avocado—his influence is obvious.
But even with all of Toro’s early success at Morada Bay, he knows it’s just the beginning. He’s quick to talk about how exciting it is to work with owner Hubert Baudoin—who also owns Morada Bay’s sister property, The Moorings Village & Spa—on taking the restaurants to the next level.
“I think the ownership at Morada Bay has really backed me up,” he says. “There is a really big vision, and it’s a beautiful property. I know there are a lot of opportunities to grow down here.”
Originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Issue.