Miami's Brad Kilgore Is the Restaurant Empire-Builder to Watch Now
With buzzy new openings and grand plans ahead, the acclaimed chef plots a dazzling year.
Chefs face their share of terrifying moments. Gustatory literature is loaded with tales of chopped fingers, incendiary stew pots, and, as recounted on GrubStreet, at least one knife fight in the kitchen of a four-star restaurant. For Brad Kilgore, who recently launched his hot and sexy, neo-Japanese spot, Kaido, in Miami’s retail-intensive Design District, the moment of fright involved hot oil and one of the world’s most desired cuts of steak.
Recalling a scenario that repeats itself every night in his restaurant’s compact kitchen, the 32-year-old, Kansas City-raised chef says, “Deep frying A5 Wagyu beef is the scariest thing. It goes against everything you have ever been taught about respecting product, letting steak rest, and not treating it like a cheap cut of pork.” But Kilgore fights his better instincts, coats the precious meat in panko, and drops it into hot oil. His superior version of the trendy A5 Wagyu Katsu Sando is served on brioche toast and punched up with shitake-Gruyère jam and freshly grated wasabi. “We do it as East meets West. It’s almost a Stroganoff sandwich.”
The dish reminds me of a decadent cheesesteak turned all the way up to eleven—although, this iteration goes for $99, comes perfectly rare, and does not require a single squirt of ketchup.
“I did it as inexpensively as possible,” Kilgore continues on a recent afternoon, sitting in Kaido’s empty, 25-seat dining room (there are an additional 35 seats outside) as his kitchen crew prepares for the night’s service. “The same cut goes for much more on South Beach. But I don’t want to be that guy. I want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy it.”
A 2016 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef—plus a veteran of kitchens run by the likes of Grant Achatz, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Laurent Gras—Kilgore began working in restaurants at age 10 (washing dishes “for video-game money”) and made a name for himself with his 2015-opened Alter. Still quite popular, the restaurant focuses on New American cuisine in Miami’s scrappy Wynwood neighborhood. The place is fantastic, beloved by locals and critics alike. But as soon as you enter Kaido, look up above the bar and see a giant sculpture of an uni from which over 1,000 gold knives hang down (blade first), you recognize that this is something else altogether. Kilgore characterizes the design as “Japanese luxe punk”—and I am not arguing with him.
While the statement-making Kaido is clearly inspired by Japanese fine-dining—the chef and world-class mixologist Nico de Soto, who plays a key role in Kaido by devising stunning cocktails to pair with the cuisine, spent a string of memorable nights researching Tokyo’s food and drink scene—Kilgore likens it to a culinary version of a remix.
“For example,” he says, “I like sushi, but I am not going to disrespect people who spent 30 years washing rice and call myself a sushi chef. My version of nigiri is with Thai sticky rice, local fish, and a peanut emulsion on top. Plus, we include what resembles soy sauce but is actually nuoc cham, lemongrass, cilantro, and other aromatics. It looks black and tastes like Thailand. The fish I use is wahoo—creamy, soft and silky, like white tuna. Look, I’m not going to serve bigeye tuna here”—that’s for the Hawaiian sushi guys. “And you can get [ordinary] tuna sushi in your local gas station these days.”
If the menu does wind up including a tuna dish? “It will be black fin tuna,” says Kilgore, who once wowed his idol Alain Ducasse with anything-but-pedestrian steak au poivre that had the iconic chef “drinking my sauce.” “I want to bring black-fin tuna here. I know the guys who fish for it and it is different to me than bigeye. This restaurant is all about me doing things my way. I am interpreting Japanese fine-dining, not copying it.”
That means patrons will do well to start their meals with a pot of Kilgore’s silky fondue. Designed to inspire camaraderie—which is a subtext of Kaido’s menu and general vibe—it is made mind-blowingly inclusive with a potion of uni, aged parmesan, chili flakes, and a king crab add-on. Alongside the fondue pot: steamed buns and veggies for dipping. “Some people love uni, some don’t; but this you can enjoy either way,” says Kilgore, making a point that was underscored by my sometimes-vegetarian daughter, Chloe. While dining there, she proclaimed her distaste for uni even while she went at the fondue as if it was manna (wisely, Chloe granted herself a non-vegetarian cheat-night for dinner at Kaido).
Follow this up with the chef’s take on fugu (actually lionfish sashimi, made from a locally invasive fish that is lethal only to coral) and an elevated chicken-thigh robatayaki with blissfully melted leeks. (“It’s yakitori cooked over Japanese charcoal; but I put about five extra steps into the chicken; they include brining, exact temperature cooking, and air drying.”) Indulge in his head-spinning take on arancini: rice balls made with glazed and caramelized coconut-milk, sticky rice, scallions, and shiitake mushrooms. You might want to order an extra portion for the table. It goes fast.
There are also Kilgore’s twisty takes on Korean-style short ribs, crab Rangoon (“My mother used to order it from the local Chinese restaurant; so I do my version with blue crab”), and shrimp and pork dumplings. Just be sure to leave room for his enoki mushroom robatayaki. “That is my favorite dish,” says Kilgore of the intensely flavored mix of enoki mushrooms, umami butter (lifted from the bread service at Alter) and a shiitake dashi. It derives from a recent self-imposed challenge: “I want to make dishes with just two components. With ten components, there is shock value. With two, you really know whether it is good or not.” Think of it as listening to Springsteen playing “Born to Run” on his acoustic guitar and realizing that the song is awesome even in its stripped-down form.
Around the time you read this, Kilgore should be serving his omakase menu inside a delightful VIP room, sort of a restaurant within the restaurant. Known as Ama, it is named for the Japanese women who freestyle-dive for urchin on the northern coast of Japan’s Shima Peninsula. The glistening, windowless space—complete with a trio of pachinko machines; two vintage, one themed to Bruce Lee—is a total jewel box. Seating around 20, Ama features a bar that’s fronted with rare Japanese whiskey (obtained from a British collector who surprised Kilgore by charging in pounds instead of dollars, leading the chef to trim his purchase from five exquisite bottles to three), a case reserved for Kilgore’s personal sake collection (“It will get depleted,” he says with a shrug), and décor that stylishly pays tribute to the mermaid-like urchin divers. There is just one problem with Ama: You will not want to leave, especially as the mood heightens and the music gets loud. So brace yourself for a long and indulgent night.
If this is not enough, Kilgore (whose third restaurant, Brava by Brad Kilgore, provides innovative Italian meals for patrons attending performances at Miami’s Adrienne Arscht Center) is engaging in a bit of early-stage empire building via a sister restaurant located downstairs from Kaido. Set to open in spring, it is called Ember. The main attraction there will be open-fire cooking that transcends the eatery’s beautifully charred steaks. “I want to cook with fire in a way that goes beyond slapping food onto a grill,” says Kilgore. “I want to cook lasagna on fire and have grilled angel food cake with strawberries and cream. I will do an à la minute Rice Krispies treat, served in cast iron with ice cream on top.”
Kilgore and his pastry chef wife, Soraya, (her MadLab Creamery, around the corner from Kaido, serves game-changing soft serve with wild toppings) have ambitions to open a hotel together, too. Kilgore is already thinking about a rustic version of Ember and maybe launching a barbecue place that pays tribute to the Kansas City classics he grew up with. “There’ll be a line past the door and people hanging out,” he says dreamily before taking me on a stroll to MadLab for ice cream cones. “I like to keep growing. The idea is to create opportunities for everyone and let it all come full circle.”
Where to Eat in Miami: