KRIS WESSEL, CHEF/PARTNER
Kris Wessel is the award-winning Executive Chef of Red Light Little River, and brings his decades of culinary expertise gathered across the globe to his position as Chef/Partner of Florida Cookery, in tandem with South Beach luxury hotel, The James Royal Palm. Florida Cookery features regional Florida fare and creates a platform for Wessel to share his hands-on, flavors-first culinary approach with a much broader audience.
A Louisiana native, Wessel spent his youth in 1980s New Orleans. At 8 years old, Wessel embraced the simple joys of cooking, whipping up omelets in a pan his grandmother had given him for his birthday. A few years later, he was voluntarily cooking dinner for his family of six, barring his three sisters from the kitchen. Wessel remembers the familiar flavors of his childhood fondly – both his father’s savory dishes, like Oysters Bienville and Daube Glace, and his mother’s mastery of sweets in the form of baked blueberry cobbler and mango pies. As a child exposed to the booming flavors of a tourist-driven town at a time when chefs like Paul Pruhome and Emeril Lagasse were beginning to take over as national personalities, all it took was a trip to New York for Wessel to fall in love with the restaurant scene and take the first steps toward his future as a chef.
Wessel received his first kitchen experience at a string of New Orleans tourist restaurants, including Court of Two Sisters and Pascale Manales. At 21, he ventured south to Miami to complete his Bachelor’s degree in Hotel Restaurant Management at Florida International University and immediately jumped into what was then one of Miami’s most popular restaurants – Mark’s Place. After three years, Wessel had earned himself the title of Chef de Cuisine, but the daily grind of cooking for celebrities and 300 guests per night in pre-South Beach Miami was beginning to take its toll.
In search of new culinary inspiration, Wessel traveled to Europe for six months to complete cooking stages at Michelin-starred restaurants in Austria, Spain, France and Italy, spending two to three weeks at each restaurant completing what he would later consider as the best education of his life. In 1994, Wessel returned to Miami to open the third Mark’s concept, located in Grove Isle. As the Executive Chef, Wessel worked closely with his sous chef, the now-celebrated Michele Bernstein.
After spending a year at Mark’s in Grove Isle, Wessel began searching for spaces on the iconic – and then un-renovated – Lincoln Road. His love of New Orleans-style sandwiches and the influence of the time he spent in Europe drove Wessel to launch Paninoteca, a funky Italian sandwich shop, in 1996 at 809 Lincoln Road.
His next venture, Liaison, opened in late 1999 at 500 Espanola Way. The restaurant achieved critical acclaim in both local and national press, but was at its core a locals-driven restaurant in the heart of glitzy South Beach. In 2002, when Espanola Way underwent massive reconstruction, Wessel chose to sell the restaurant and began work at Elia, a Bal Harbour Shops concept serving New Mediterranean cuisine. Ultimately, Elia would serve as a platform to earn Wessel a James Beard House dinner; a “Rising Star of American Cuisine” title from Star Chefs; and the Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2004.
In 2005, Wessel began to search for the ideal location for an offbeat restaurant concept he had conjured up during his time at Elia. One year later, as he was driving down Biscayne Boulevard with his daughters, he spied the Little River Bridge and was immediately inspired by the location. A Chinese takeout restaurant attached to the Motel Blu had experienced a kitchen fire years earlier, leaving the lunch counter space abandoned. The adjacent river front was overgrown with tropical trees and iguanas, as well as the ever-present manatee swimming around the debris that stuck out of the Miami River.
Wessel began cleanup of the site in September 2006, and opened Red Light Little River in May 2008 at 7700 Biscayne Blvd. In March 2009, the restaurant was featured in Bon Appétit, quickly followed by a spot on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and several local TV spots. In 2010, The New York Times featured Red Light Little River as a “Top 5” destination restaurant in Miami and in that same year, the James Beard Association nominated Wessel for “Best Chef – South Region.” Months later, Wessel was featured on Food Network’s competitive cooking show, “Chopped,” and won. The episode aired April 24, 2012.
Red Light Little River has become an underground local favorite and has earned Wessel a reputation for being a “chef’s chef.”
Wessel currently resides in the Miami subdivision of Buena Vista, where he enjoys the area’s tropical fruit trees and Spanish-style architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. In his spare time, he spends quality time with his daughters and enjoys tennis, basketball, swimming, canoeing and fishing
NOLAN NARUT, EXECUTIVE CHEF
Originally from the northwest side of Chicago, Executive Chef Nolan Narut began his love for restaurants at an early age. In the early 1980’s, Nolan’s parents, both health care professionals, moved he and his two brothers to Twin Lakes, Wisconsin and opened a small ice cream parlor – Lucky Lindy’s; Naruts’s first restaurant opening. Here he sat patrons, cleared tables, washed dishes and scooped ice cream all by the age of seven. The family later moved a short distance away to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Here, Narut took summer jobs at an early age in local restaurants. He knew early on that he wanted to pursue a career in culinary arts. At sixteen, to better prepare himself for a culinary education, he took a job at The Abbey Resort and Fontana Spa as chef tournant. After graduating high school, he went on to study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York.
Upon graduation from the Culinary Institute of America in 1995, Narut took a job working as a sous chef under the culinary direction of Mark Weber at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Emphasizing in French cuisine at Lake Park Bistro, Chef Weber reinforced Naruts’s culinary education, while teaching him to develop his own style and technique. In 1999, he moved back to Chicago where he worked as chef d’ partie at the Everest Room, a top dining destination in downtown Chicago. Here he trained with Executive Chef Jean Joho, continuing to hone his French skills and training. This training continued with Chef Joho as Narut began work as sous chef at Brasserie Jo in 2000. Following his time working with Chef Joho, he was part of the opening team for the Sofitel Water Tower, just off the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago, adding to his opening hotel and restaurant experience.
In 2002, he would once again work with his mentor Mark Weber in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on a new project, WaterMark Seafood. Narut was brought on as chef de cuisine and developed his passion for all things seafood. Under his culinary direction, WaterMark received a 3 ½ star Milwaukee Journal review. Always very well received by local diners, WaterMark also achieved a Zagat food rating of 29 out of 30. Narut returned to Chicago in 2006 and began work at The James Hotel and David Burke’s Primehouse as part of the opening team. Under the culinary direction of Rick Gresh, Narut learned the technique of dry-aging prime meats, while strengthening his skill and knowledge in hotel operations.
Narut left The James Chicago in 2011 to open Quay Restaurant and Bar in Chicago as Executive Chef. His cuisine at Quay could best be described as contemporary American with elements of comfort food and an emphasis on fresh seafood and prime aged meats. Narut led his team to a Chicago Sun Times 3 star review and subsequently a 2 star Chicago Tribune review.
A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America with nearly 25 years’ experience in the restaurant industry, Narut is a trained professional with a passion for all things food. Throughout his career, he has been involved in the opening of five restaurants and three hotels. At the James Royal Palm, he will bring this passion and experience to South Beach, working aside Chef/Partner Kris Wessel on genuine Florida cuisine using regional products, flavors and techniques.
When not working, Nolan spends time with his wife Cynthia, their 3 year old son Oscar and 3 month old daughter Zoe fishing perch, walleye and bluegills off the pier at his family cottage on Lake Elizabeth, Wisconsin. A recent transplant to the Miami area from the Midwest, Nolan will now have to trade his night crawlers for large Florida sport fishing bait.