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Return to Greatness

by Jenny

By Lane Nieset
Photography by Jason Nuttle

Behind the C-shaped marble open kitchen counter at Florie’s, a handful of cooks flit from one fire to the next. Australian wagyu sizzles on the Japanese yakitori grill while a whole free-range chicken slowly rotates in the French rotisserie. A Napoli salami-topped pizza bakes in the Italian stone hearth oven and New Zealand lamb shanks roast in the tandoor oven. The centerpiece cooking station divides those manning the flames from the cooks carefully topping tennis ball-sized burrata with a sprinkling of Sicilian pistachios and sprigs of local coriander and basil.

The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Sicilian-born Nino La Spina, is conducting the small orchestra of cooks, ensuring the stations and skill sets of each member work harmoniously together. “One thing chef Mauro taught me is to always be present in the kitchen—don’t just show up for the service,” says the 33-year-old, who took the helm of Florie’s at the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach in December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit. “The chef isn’t there to be part of a show; he’s guiding the team, and they’re the ones who are making the food.”

Chef de cuisine Nino La Spina carefully places cilantro leaves onto a fillet of snapper at Florie’s.

La Spina first met Italian-Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco, who developed the concept for Florie’s—which opened just over two years ago—in 2014 as an intern at Colagreco’s flagship Mirazur in Menton, in the south of France. At the time, Mirazur held two Michelin stars (it recently earned its third and was rated No. 1 on the list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” for 2019). “Since the day I first stepped in Mirazur, I haven’t been separated from Mauro,” says La Spina, who continued as a line cook and sous-chef before assisting with the opening of Colagreco’s brasserie-style GrandCoeur in Paris one year later, most recently serving as its chef de cuisine. “He’s one of the most energetic and creative people I’ve met. More than just a chef, he’s a great mentor.”

Working under Colagreco at Mirazur, La Spina learned the importance of cooking seasonally and sustainably, asking producers, “What do you have?” instead of thinking, “What do we want?” Aligning with this mentality, La Spina incorporates every part of the produce that passes through the kitchen at Florie’s, from the roots to the dill-like leaves of fennel. While some of the protein is sourced nationally or abroad to secure the best in terms of quality, more than 90% of ingredients and products are from Florida, says La Spina, including the burrata, which is handcrafted in Fort Lauderdale.

La Spina doesn’t come from a family of chefs. He grew up in Pisa, in the Tuscany region of Italy, and his childhood and early teenage years revolved around three things: piano, swim practice and church. La Spina, who still has broad swimmer’s shoulders and tattoos peeking out from under the sleeve of his chef’s jacket, quickly adds he’s more about meditation these days. He spends his spare time swimming in the sea and mixing music on a turntable using the hundreds of vinyl records he owns. He claims he’s not good at routine, unless it’s in the kitchen. Since his first day of culinary school in Pisa, he has applied the structure and discipline he gained from all those years of competitive swimming and piano practice.

More than 90% of the ingredients La Spina uses in his dishes, such as this seared snapper with bok choy, cilantro, yogurt and cucumber, are from Florida.

Sicily was something of a refuge for La Spina, since he visited every holiday and escaped to the Italian island when he needed a reset in life or work. Diners can see the influence of the Sicilian kitchen in his plates through the use of traditional ingredients like citrus, almonds and pistachios. But the chef is quick to point out that the restaurant does not serve up typical Italian fare. The Mediterranean-influenced dishes pull inspiration from different coastlines and cooking styles, which is why the element of fire and the way dishes are baked or roasted play a central role in the cuisine.

At Florie’s, diners will recognize Colagreco’s signature dishes, such as the paper-thin heirloom tomato and peach carpaccio, layered with four different types of tomatoes delivered fresh daily. But La Spina has also added his own touches to Florie’s menu with plates like the tandoor oven-roasted cauliflower with hints of curry and preserved Florida lemon that remind the chef of the flavors of Arabic cuisine found in Sicily. “Citrus is famous in Florida, Sicily and the Côte d’Azur,” he says. “Everything is connected by this particular ingredient, and you can see its influence on the plate.”

Since his first day of culinary school in Pisa, Italy, La Spina has applied the structure and discipline he gained from his early years of competitive swimming and piano practice to his work in the kitchen.

A risk-taker who counts scuba diving as a hobby, La Spina says he tries to push himself to grow and learn new skills, including glass blowing, an activity he recently started with his girlfriend after returning to Florida in March, following a stint at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North while Florie’s was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reopening of the restaurant in April was more of a grand introduction of La Spina. He’s been spending a lot of time visiting local farmers and producers to continue innovating the offerings on the menu, which he believes should rotate seasonally, every four or five months. “It’s a big step to work for a large company and express myself as best I can in another country, where tastes are different,” he says. “I need to adapt and learn more about products here—it’s a new journey for me.”

Originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.

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