30 Marco Lake Drive, Marco
Put me in a roomful of people at any event and if there’s a chef in the room that’s where you’ll find me — they talk, I listen — eating up every delicious syllable they care to impart. In my best case scenario, of course, I get to interview any chef of my choosing, write it all down and submit the article to my editor for publication in the Marco Eagle.
That having been said, I recently visited Marco Polo Restaurant, one of the Island’s premier dining destinations with an elegant, supper club ambiance.
For the past 10 years, Marco Polo has been the domain of equally exceptional Executive Chef Maxime Ribera. He did the talking and I did the listening (and writing) as he related highlights of an extraordinary culinary career that began with his father, French Master Chef Maxime Ribera, who trained/taught the instructor-chefs who taught the students of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
“I was born in St. Quimper, the oldest city in Brittany and called Kemper in Breton, but I don’t remember much about it because I was quite young when the family moved to New York in the 1960s, and my father joined his sister and her husband in the family’s restaurant business.” Chef Maxime related.
“My father was my culinary school. I was 9 or 10 when I started working in the restaurant washing dishes — it was hard — my father had very high expectations. On the plus side, we dined out often and always the best restaurants in the New York area.
“I went to elementary school at Lyceum Kennedy in New York City, it was a private school but in reverse. My father put me there to learn French,” said Chef Maxime, who still speaks with traces of a French accent even though he went on to graduate from a traditional New York public high school.
“When I was 16, I began working in the Amber Lantern in Flushing. The menu was American Continental, and I was a line cook in the evening after high school for around three years.
“I was making good money when I worked as a bartender at the Europa Café. I got tired of it in the 80s and left to move to Miami and work for my father, who opened the Everglades Hotel’s Brasserie de Paris, in downtown Miami to fantastic reviews in all the Miami newspapers. My father went back to New York, but I stayed on and received equally excellent reviews from a well-known restaurant critic Taffy Gould McCollum who especially praised my sauces and said that I had a sophisticated and well-trained palate — or something like that.
Our Executive Chef Maxime certainly isn’t given to bragging. Chef showed me McCollum’s column and I read that he received the 1984 Holiday Magazine Award (trust me, that’s high praise) for exceptional desserts. Indeed, Chef Ribera’s Marco Polo Restaurant menu under Specialty Desserts lists the selfsame Grand Marnier Soufflé that McCollum stated, “Was typically French, elegantly served… worth the calories.” That kind of praise is enough to make this reporter forego the entrée and begin with dessert!
While another review published in Esquire called the Brasserie “a first-rate dining room, overseen by a 26-year-old chef who is thoroughly trained in classical techniques.” Anyhoo, Chef Maxime stayed at the Brasserie de Paris for five or more years until the Everglades Hotel was sold.
“I followed the owner to his new hotel in June 1990 — The Four Ambassadors Hotel on South Bayshore Drive, Miami, and was appointed executive chef at the hotel’s popular Gordon’s Seafood & Steak Restaurant. Actually, I took over total management of the restaurant, including the hiring and training of all personnel, the accounting, and bar operation. I also introduced new items to the menu and created many daily special items. I was there six years, until the hotel management sold its interest in the restaurant to an owner operator.
“I agreed to stay on and train the new staff and help the new owners for awhile. However, I had already decided to go back to New York — actually Chappaqua — and take over the Bistrot Maxime from my father and sister Brigitte. My father opened Bistrot several years earlier, but he wanted to devote more time to his famous namesake restaurant Maxime’s in Granite Springs.” Chef Maxime explained. Noting that the final “t” in “bistrot” is from archaic French, while the Bistrot Maxime structure itself, circa 1820’s, also has historical significance.
“The New York restaurant critics discovered us and we received excellent reviews.” Chef Maxime said, showing us copies of two notable ones. The first from restaurant critic and author John Mariani who wrote the well-read “America Eats Out” and “Passport to New York Restaurants.” The New York Times’ restaurant critic M. H. Reed could apparently “make you or break you,” Chef Maxime said with a somewhat pained expression, even though Reed gave the restaurant a “very good,” third up the ladder with five being “excellent.”
Your reporter was more interested in her yummy descriptions of Chef Maxime’s signature dishes: Look for a delectable special of Lobster Tail with Spinach and, of course, potatoes, the backbone of bistro cooking. Duck arrived properly cooked, crisp skin protecting juicy flesh, raspberries and oranges enhancing its gamey flavor. Enough of Reed and her supercilious faint praise and on to Marco Island and the casually elegant Marco Polo Restaurant which is where Chef Maxime arrived in 1998.
“It was a splendid opportunity to work in a first class restaurant and I was getting tired of endless winters. I really missed Florida,” said Chef Maxime, leaving your reporter with this thought when I asked “Why?”
“You’ve got to love to cook to be a chef — I always cooked in the best restaurants!”