Florida Keys Business
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Homegrown and handmade
Martin Liz specializes in native and natural, Conch and Cuban cuisine

Native. Natural. Conch. Cuban.

In the case of Key West Personal Chef Martin Liz, the same adjectives aptly describe both the cook and his custom cuisine.

Born and raised in Key West, Liz spent much of his childhood in his family's kitchen, where on weekdays his Cuban-born mother created meals for her husband and seven children. On Sundays, Liz was in the kitchen with his father, who worked for years as a chef at the former Holiday Inn Beachside at the entrance to the island.

"He was a chef there back when they were filming PT 109 here in town," Liz said. "Dad cooked on Sundays and Mom cooked every other night, and I was always intrigued by food and cooking."

By the time he was 14, Liz was cooking at Key West's Rooftop Cafe.

"I was hired as a prep cook, but one night someone called out sick, and all of a sudden, they threw me onto the line. I had always watched what was happening, and I knew the menu, so it actually ended up working out great."

At 15, Liz was working in the famed Hukilau.

The name still conjures memories of a bamboo interior, Polynesian decor and Coffee Butler belting out tunes at the piano.

Liz graduated in 1997 from Key West High School, where he participated in the school's culinary program. His young professional career continued, however, and he worked at the Casa Marina Resort in Flagler's Steakhouse, the Sun Sun tiki bar, and in the catering department.

"After high school, I moved to the mainland to attend culinary school," he said.

But a job with renowned Chef Michael Schwartz, owner of Michael's Genuine in Miami, changed his mind about school versus work.

"Michael Schwartz told me I was wasting my time in school, and he wanted me full-time, so he basically paid me to quit culinary school," Liz said on a recent Tuesday evening while arranging sauteed local fish around a savory mound of Caribbean root vegetable hash.

The colors were as vivid as the flavors, and Liz prepared and plated it all with a cool head, and while maintaining a comfortable conversation with his dinner guests.

But then again, that's what he does.

Liz returned several years ago to his island home. After working as executive chef at the Key West Yacht Club, Key West Harbor Yacht Club and other ventures, "I decided I could do something better on my own," he said.

And upon learning the online domain name of keywestpersonalchef.com was available, Liz's new business was born.

"I'm a personal chef for any type of event, any size crowd," he said. "I can customize menus, based on themes, preferences and of course, someone's budget. One of my specialities is the traditional Conch and Cuban cuisine.

"I like to bring back the lost dishes of Key West," he said, ticking off the names of mouth-watering dishes like mollettes and whole roasted pigs.

He described the porgy he had prepared in myer lemon butter with pickled onions that was served alongside local tilefish that was marinated in charred annatto.

"Porgy is one of those local fish that is often overlooked," he said. "But I'm a huge fan of the ocean-to-table movement that ensures the freshest, local seafood. I'd prefer not to use any ingredients that came from north of Stock Island."

And the diversity that's possible is delightful.

"Conch cuisine is so much more than just fritters and ceviche," Liz said.

But he is also classically trained in French cuisine, Caribbean, Asian, you name it, and he won't rest until his clients are in awe of the menu he designs for their event.

"I always cook everything on site," he said. "I don't bring things over in warming trays. I can cook in vacation rentals, on yachts, in apartments, anywhere."

A client is flying him up to Baltimore next month to cook for 200 guests. But another meal involved just two people -- a couple who were getting engaged.

"No job is too big or too small, and I'll design something for everyone's budget," he said, clearly thrilled with the possibilities of his month-old business venture.

So far it's been word of mouth, but it's already working," Liz said, serving up one last bite of the porgy dish and pouring his guests another glass of homemade sangria.

"This is what I love; always have," he said. "I enjoy it. I'm comfortable in any kitchen. I'm a personable personal chef."

That's one more adjective to describe the new Key West Personal Chef.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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