by Victor Maze | August 25, 2016
Grovestand: Fine Dining’s Alter Ego
Wielding Florida-fresh ingredients like a painter’s brushes, Chef Brad Kilgore creates culinary masterpieces, drawing national acclaim and foodies to his Alter restaurant in Miami’s artsy Wynwood District.
The most popular appetizer at Miami’s Alter restaurant appears deceptively simple: a white-on-white bowl of sea scallop foam, perfectly brûléed with torch-charred speckles. Beneath this minimalist surface, however, a mélange of unexpected ingredients awaits: Italian truffles, encapsulated in ready-to-burst pearls; a dehydrated Gruyère crisp, delivering umami flavor with a satisfying crunch; and the golden yolk of a barely poached egg, comforting in its rich familiarity. Deceptive by design, the result is a surprising spoonful of salty, eggy, cheesy excellence—and that’s just the first bite.
“I like when a dish is minimalist on the eye but has a really aggressive flavor,” says Chef Brad Kilgore, the culinary wunderkind behind Alter’s thoughtful and inventive menu. “It’s all about the irony.”
Like this signature starter, Alter and Kilgore reveal themselves in layers. Occupying a former warehouse in Miami’s oh-so-hip Wynwood Arts District, the restaurant’s rustic wooden tables, open kitchen and exposed ductwork impart the no-frills feel of a casual bistro. In a neighborhood best known for its Technicolor murals, Alter’s walls remain unapologetically bare. “We wanted the art to be on the plate,” says Kilgore, 30, explaining that the restaurant was designed to be the surprising “alter ego” of traditional fine dining.
A Kansas native whose first restaurant job was washing dishes at age 11, Kilgore has an easygoing, Midwestern sensibility and serves compliments as readily as his imaginative fare: “That looks great—beautiful work,” he calls to a staff member plating a complicated dish. During a Saturday lunch rush, Kilgore works the room like a proud father, stopping to chat with the eclectic clientele, who excitedly dissect each bite in a buzz of English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.
But this friendly, boy-next-door demeanor belies a fierce ambition, not to mention an enviable résumé. After studying culinary arts at Denver’s Johnson & Wales University, Kilgore honed his craft in some of Chicago’s most celebrated kitchens before a 2011 vacation to Miami made him reconsider his Windy City career trajectory.
“It was a really good time to visit; the food scene here was just beginning to sprout,” he says. Kilgore and his wife, Soraya, a pastry chef who now works by his side at Alter, wondered just what a future in Florida could look like for them.
“We thought: We can either renew our lease in Chicago and stay, or spend that money and move to Miami,” he says. They chose the latter—and never looked back, especially during the winter months.
Kilgore soon landed a job at Mandarin Oriental’s Azul before moving on to J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, where his dishes captivated the palate of the Miami Herald’s food critic, who awarded the restaurant the paper’s highest rating.
Javier Ramirez, one of J&G Grill’s most frequent diners, was equally impressed. After repeatedly sampling Kilgore’s innovative tasting menus, sometimes two nights in a row, the local businessman and food blogger invited the chef for coffee to propose opening their own restaurant together.
“I knew all I needed was an opportunity and a kitchen, and I would really be able to find out what I was made of,” Kilgore said.
Alter opened in May 2015; two months later it also earned a four-star review from the Miami Herald, making Kilgore the only chef ever to receive the honor twice. The accolades continued this year, as he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs and was also a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Award.
Despite his fast track to national recognition, Kilgore refuses to indulge in self-congratulation.
“I’ve set a lot of goals and I’m reaching them, but I don’t get cocky because I know there is much more to do,” he says. “It gives me confidence to keep creating because people seem to enjoy my food.”
Each of Kilgore’s carefully considered creations benefits from his artistic point of view. Perhaps none is as visually inspiring as a vegetarian dish that mimics a fallen tree and is served atop a custom glass terrarium that he conceived with Mark Alan Diaz, the designer behind some of Miami’s chicest restaurants, nightclubs and shops.
“I tell people my job is to make the food taste good, but my fun is to make it look beautiful,” Kilgore says. The chef would like to invent more special plates like this while continuing to find new ways to delight his most loyal customers.
In addition to hosting world-renowned guest chefs for one-night collaborations, Alter also offers nightly seating for four at the chef’s counter.
“It’s like having a ticket to a show,” Kilgore says.
“You get to see the heavy-metal ballet that is going on in the kitchen while interacting with me and learning about the details of each dish.”
Diners now travel from around the world to sample a menu Kilgore describes as progressive American that utilizes international flavors and techniques, with a focus on Florida ingredients.
An entrée of local grouper cheeks, for example, elevates a part of the fish that is often tossed out to the role of a delicacy, combining modern, French and Japanese cooking styles in an artful presentation that takes its cues from mother nature.
In addition to local seafood, Kilgore’s dishes incorporate cheese from Cypress Point Creamery near Gainesville as well as produce from Alter’s backyard garden and from Local Roots, a farm outside Orlando. Soon he will begin choosing seeds for Local Roots to plant and grow, allowing him to plan his menus literally from the ground up.
“I want my food to taste different, but if we’re all getting our ingredients from the same source, how different can it really be?” he asks.
While the year-round abundance of fresh ingredients is a nice bonus, the low-key quality of life is what keeps Kilgore rooted in the Sunshine State. “It’s a beautiful place,” he says. “Who doesn’t want to live somewhere that people dream about and save all year to visit for a few days? On top of that, Miami’s a relatively young city that is blossoming and becoming such an international hub. It’s an awesome thing to experience.”