Still, in the midst of finalizing menus and ordering supplies, Niven Patel stops to talk about a carrot.
He describes how, after planting 300 seedlings at his homestead farm, Rancho Patel, one lone carrot matured before the rest. “I took the carrot out of the ground and it was all twisted,” Patel says, explaining that underneath the soil, there’s a layer of limestone, and each vegetable and flower learns to adapt to its situation by taking root around the rock. Like a proud father, Patel admires the carrot for what it had to endure to grow.
That carrot’s path is an apt metaphor for the journey to open Orno, Patel’s latest venture, set to open at Thesis Hotel in Coral Gables next week. The restaurant, designed by Saladino Group, features a lush dining room filled with greenery and accented by pale pinks and gold tones. A separate library, outfitted with a wall of books, can be used as a private dining space. A large, green-tiled wood-burning oven that serves as the focal point of the open kitchen will be the primary vehicle for preparations of vegetables and meats alike.
Back in 2016, Patel and Mohamed “Mo” Alkassar met and formed a quick friendship. Alkassar, chief operating officer for Nolan Reynolds International, which owns the Thesis and adjoining projects, was tasked with finding restaurant partners for the hotel. The hospitality executive remembered several excellent meals he had at Patel’s restaurant, Ghee, and campaigned for the chef to open two restaurants at the property.
The pair formed the Alpareno Restaurant Group to seal their business partnership but, more important, they formed a friendship that grew even as their projects were stalled by a global pandemic. The two worked closely on projects, going so far as to tandem-dive on a visit to a seafood farm.
For Patel, 2020 was a roller-coaster year. Like many other restaurateurs, he was forced to close the midtown Miami location of Ghee and lay off most of his staff amid the pandemic. Patel and his family took over running both the remaining restaurant and a pop-up eatery called Erba. On the other hand, Patel was named one of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chefs. To top it off, he and his wife, Shivani, welcomed twin baby girls last July.
When the University of Miami announced it was reopening in July 2020, Alkassar and the Thesis team rushed to open the hotel and Patel’s first eatery, Mamey. The restaurant, which serves Caribbean-inspired dishes, was an instant hit with Coral Gables residents.
Patel didn’t want to rush Orno, though.
The James Beard-nominated chef, whose background is in fine dining, made a name for himself by working first for Dean Max at 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale and then for Michael Schwartz at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink before opening Ghee with Shivani in 2017. (Shivani now runs the establishment, located in Downtown Dadeland.)
For Patel, Orno marks a return to fine dining. Billed as “New American,” the food will center on local produce plucked from Patel’s farm and others in the area, paired with quality meats and sustainably caught seafood, prepared in the wood-burning oven or on a Josper grill.
Patel says the menu, which will change seasonally, will be printed daily to allow for last-minute tweaks. “We were going to do a snapper crudo, but we got a great wahoo and decided to change things,” he says by way of example. All items will get the seasonal treatment. For instance, until tomatoes are ready to be picked, Patel is pairing his burrata with eggplant caponata.
Patel is also working with a local clam farmer who’s raising Sunray Venus clams in Sebastian Inlet. The chef says the clams have a sweet, pink flesh far superior to common littlenecks or Blue Points. Patel will toss the rose-colored bivalves in house-made bucatini, adding just olive oil, lemon, salt, and a touch of Calabrian pepper to the elegant yet simple dish.
The kitchen will be helmed by executive chef Josh Elliott, though expect to see Patel stoking the wood-fired oven. “Josh will spearhead the whole project, which leaves me time to do what I love best — just cook,” Patel says.
It also gives Patel time to work with the vegetables that come from his own land.
For the past two weeks, the chef has been gearing up for the growing season. Farmer Laura Sutton has returned to Rancho Patel and is helping to plant Chinese celery, herbs, several types of beans, heirloom carrots, and okra.
“My mission is to get people to like okra,” Patel says. “I discovered grilled okra can convert anyone to an okra lover.” During the pandemic, he and his father-in-law worked to keep the farm running on a shoestring. Though the work was difficult, there was one bright side: Each morning, the chef would take his daughters to survey the property. A year later, the girls are able to toddle with him, checking out the sunflowers that are growing.
As for his new baby, Orno, Patel says he’s been juggling the farm, parenting, and opening his new restaurant. He quips that it’s lucky he needs only about four hours of sleep a night and that his partner, Mo, is on the same schedule. “We text each other at two in the morning,” he says.
Sleep deprivation aside, Patel seems joyous and shares the secret to his happiness and his success. “I have great people around me. My in-laws live with us and Shivani is kicking ass with Ghee. I love cooking and I want to create great spaces where my team can shine.”
Patel and Alkassar intend to open two more restaurants in as many years. When asked whether he considers himself a farmer, a chef, or a restaurateur, however, Patel is quick to answer: “I will always be a chef first.”
Orno at Thesis Hotel. 1350 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables; thesishotelmiami.com. Opening October 14, 2021.