Jen Karetnick, Food-Travel Writer, Poet/Author, Educator
Freelance writer, poet and educator Jen Karetnick works as a dining critic for MIAMI magazine, is a blogger for Virgin Atlantic Airways, and contributes to many outlets including TheLatinKitchen.com, Aventura Magazine, Food Arts, CityEats.com, Jetsetter.com, Southern Living, and USA Today, among others. In addition, she is also the Creative Writing Director for grades 6-12 at Miami Arts Charter School, has published poetry, prose and playwriting in a variety of different journals, and is the author of numerous books from travel guides to recipe compilations. Most recently her first solo cookbook, Mango, was released by University Press of Florida.
Jen has won first place honors from the North American Travel Journalists Association, Association of Food Journalists, and the Society of Professional Journalists (including a Green Eyeshade Award), and has placed in the Greenbrier Scholarship Competition and the Missouri School of Journalism Awards. She has won grants from State Farm, Poetic Power/Creative Communications, Target Field Trips and O, Miami for Miami Arts Charter School and was named one of the “33 Emerging Creative Minds for 2011” from SOFI Magazine. A member of the Poetry Society of America, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and Les Dames d’Escoffier, Jen lives in Miami Shores on the last remaining acre of a historic mango plantation with her husband (a neurologist with whom she co-authors articles), their 2 children, 3 dogs, 3 cats and 14 mango trees.
You’re a long-time Miami restaurant critic. What’s your take on the current state of the Miami culinary scene?
I moved to Miami after finishing my first Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from University of California, Irvine, back in 1992, when my husband and I were newly married. He was born in Long Island but had lived in South Florida since he was 10, and he was attending the University of Miami School of Medicine then, and had been telling me how much I’d adore the South Beach scene. He was right, of course.
South Beach was so vital and edgy back then, especially when it came to dining. I could sense then that Miami was a city on the move, and that it had the culinary roots to grow into a true dining destination that was unlike anywhere else. Sure, it has its faults. But today’s culinary picture is as bright as I suspected it would be. And yes, we have many of the same elements and movements that other second cities also have, such as the farm-to-table trend and outpost establishments from celebrity chefs. But you can’t deny that Miami, thanks to its Latin and Caribbean influences, has its own inimitable epicurean character.
You’re an award-winning journalist and an author, but Mango is your first solo cookbook. What made you want to step out on your own?
I’ve always had an interest in cooking and writing my own recipes. I like the orderliness of it. Which is kind of funny if you know me, because cooking and writing is the only place in my life where I’m actually organized. Otherwise, I’m the biggest slob you’ve ever seen, which drives my daughter insane.
You run Mango House, a home mango orchard in Miami Shores, with your husband. Describe Mango House in 3 words.
Historic. Peaceful. Problematic.
What is your all-time favorite dish that features mango?
Difficult question! The ones I like best probably didn’t even make it into the cookbook, because I cook them all the time during the season. For instance, I really like to sauté Vidalia onions and red bell peppers in a little olive oil, toss in some fresh chunks of mango, salt and pepper it at the end, and throw it all over freshly grilled sausage. If you get the artisanal, handmade sausages from Proper Sausage in Miami Shores, a good French or Cuban bread and a nice bottle of wine, you’re set. Well, you might need another mango for dessert, along with some ice cream.
What food item best describes you, and why?
Now that’s an easy one. I’m an artichoke. I can get pretty prickly sometimes. But I have a good heart.
If you had to pick one ingredient to inspire your next cookbook, what would it be?
I’ve already chosen it. Avocados. In fact, my sister, Betsy, and I – Betsy’s an excellent cook who contributed a few recipes to Mango, and helped test and style it – have a 45-page proposal already finished. And we’re not talking about the Hass avocado. We’re talking the West Indian and Guatamelan race avocados that fruit from South Florida to Hawaii, yet get no love from the food snobs in this country – but only because they just don’t know how good they are and what to do with them. Yet.
You’ve worked with a number of celebrated Miami chefs? Of the new crop of Miami chefs, whom would you like to collaborate with next?
Another hard one. I’m always happy to work with people who have respect for the product. I love it when Doug Rodriguez comes over and his eyes light up at the sight of the fully loaded trees. Or when Kris Wessel shows up and I can see that he’s already calculating how he’s going to get this or that variety of mango to make this or that dish – plus he’ll grab a couple of sapodilla and guava if he can. I’d work with any of the newer crop in town who have the same kind of gleeful attitude when they see really fresh, abundant ingredients – Jose Mendin (Pubbelly), Dena Marino (MC Kitchen), Jamie DeRosa (Tongue & Cheek), Albert Cabrera (Bread + Butter), Danny Serfer (Blue Collar and Mignonette) – and who do what they do because they can’t help themselves.
What Miami restaurant(s) are you loving right now?
On South Beach, I’ve recently enjoyed Vintro Kitchen a couple of times – now there’s a place that respects the product – and for really high end, Morimoto South Beach is fantastic. The Restaurant at the Setai never gives you anything less than excellence –the chef there, Mathias Gervais, is truly talented. When I’m in Midtown, I like Kouzina and Salumeria a lot. But mostly the places that I love-love, that I return to often on nights when I’m not reviewing, are right in my neighborhood, or close to it: Moshi Moshi, Via Verde, Oishi Thai. Tap 79 for craft beer and chicken wings. Schnitzel Haus for potato pancakes. And, of course, Evio’s for pizza.
If you could bring back one classic Miami restaurant, which would it be?
This is probably not what you expected, but I’d bring back Chrysanthemum. It was a wonderful Chinese restaurant, located on Washington Avenue, that came to us by way of Montreal. The dumplings in peanut sauce alone make me wish for a time machine.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Miami?
My favorite things about Miami are what most people hate about it: the heat and humidity, which I think of as hot, soft, caress-your-cheeks kind of air. The locals who won’t go out of their way to be friendly or who may not necessarily speak your language. Good. I’m introverted and don’t want to make small talk, either. The way you can’t count on anything or anyone to stay put. I like a city that’s always growing and on the move. Otherwise, I’d be bored.
Mitch & Mel