April 21, 2024

Melting Pot

John Finotti | 2/1/2001
As a teen-ager in his native Macedonia, a part of what was then Yugoslavia, Klimé Kovaceski dreamed of becoming a rock star, studiously mastering the licks of guitar idols Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. When New Wave music became popular in the late 1970s, he and his bandmates were huge fans of Iggy Pop, the American avant-garde performer whose shirtless, frenetic stage presence embodied a freedom absent from their communist country.

But with prospects dim that he could make a living performing protest songs in Eastern Europe, Kovaceski decided to cook rather than rock. He attended a culinary school in his hometown, Ohrid, a resort town on a lake, and served as executive chef at the Skopje Hotel there for several years before taking a job at a restaurant in Amsterdam.

When the owner decided to open a Yugoslavian restaurant, Jama, in North Miami Beach in 1984, Kovaceski jumped at the opportunity to work in the U.S. He arrived in south Florida with a small suitcase, a few hundred dollars' worth of clothing and no work permit. "I didn't speak any English. Zero. Nada," he says.

In 1994, Kovaceski decided to strike out on his own, opening an upscale restaurant, Crystal Cafe, on Arthur Godfrey Road. One early lesson: After installing a fancy awning at the front entrance for curb appeal, he soon realized most of his customers preferred to enter the restaurant from the rear. He painted the back of the building and spruced up the back entrance.

More than six years later, the path to Kovaceski's back door is well-worn, and he's beating the brutal odds that prevail in the restaurant business. Kovaceski and his wife, Huguette, who serves as maitre d', work six days a week and haven't taken a vacation in six years. "This is the toughest business I know of," says Alan Rosenthal, a Miami attorney who has represented many restaurateurs over the years, including Kovaceski.

Operating from a tiny, cramped L-shaped kitchen, Kovaceski, 40, has made a name for himself both for his cooking -- salmon, sea bass, seafood osso buco and goat-cheese-filled chicken Kiev -- and his restaurant's attention to detail. As executive chef, Kovaceski oversees the entire kitchen process, setting the menu and deciding on each night's specials.

Crystal Cafe's sous chef, a young man from Colombia whom Kovaceski is training, prepares the meals. But Kovaceski -- unlike executive chefs at larger fine-dining restaurants, who rarely visit the kitchen during dinner preparation -- is never far from the action, helping assemble appetizers as well as entrees when things get busy. He also spends a good deal of his time creating new dishes.

One of Kovaceski's biggest concerns: The quality of his service staff, some of whom hail from Russia, Romania and Macedonia. "I'm old-school European," he says. "Service is the most important part of fine dining. A rude waiter can ruin the best meal." Kovaceski has been well-served by his nature: Ever gregarious, he delights in befriending patrons, vendors and restaurant reviewers.

On a good night, Crystal Cafe will turn its 72 seats over two-and-a-half times, better than most larger fine-dining restaurants. Ultimately, however, most restaurants make little, if any, profit from main dishes, generating most of their profits from mixed drinks, wine and after-dinner liqueurs and coffees. Even with some items priced at $25.95, such as a plate of veal medallions wrapped with applewood bacon, Kovaceski's restaurant, like other fine-dining restaurants, has small profit margins -- typically running anywhere from 5% to 12%. Crystal Cafe's annual sales approach $1 million.

Recent dining trends bode well for his business, Kovaceski says. Throughout most of the 1990s, fine-dining patrons spent about an hour at a restaurant before hurrying off to a movie or some other form of entertainment. In the past few years, however, a trip to an expensive restaurant has itself become the entertainment, Kovaceski says. Now his patrons spend up to two hours at Crystal Cafe -- meaning they're more likely to consume more drinks, desserts and other high-margin goodies.

Crystal Cafe draws about half of its customers from Miami-Dade County. About 20% of the diners come from New York, while only 12% are from neighboring Broward County. Kovaceski is convinced it's extremely difficult for a restaurant to change a neighborhood. Instead, a restaurateur must first understand the local community. Please the locals, says Kovaceski. You'll get good reviews in the local media, and word will spread. The walls of Crystal Cafe display the reviews and awards. Like a proud father, Kovaceski gingerly takes a framed review down from the wall to show a visitor.

Indeed, to interview Kovaceski is to play audience to unabashed, gushing testimony to the American dream. Kovaceski's eyes widen as he tells of getting to serve a meal to boyhood idol Iggy Pop, who has recently been spending time in Miami Beach. As a favor to Kovaceski, Pop even called one of Kovaceski's old band members back in Macedonia one recent night from the restaurant. "It's incredible, really," Kovaceski says. "That I could come to this country in 1984 and now own a restaurant and have all these wonderful friends."

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Crystal Cafe's wait staff moves quietly from table to table, cleaning silverware and making sure each place setting is perfectly arranged. The kitchen staff is just as busy. With the last of the day's deliveries of fresh vegetables, meat and seafood finally in, Kovaceski disappears behind an office door. He re-emerges minutes later dressed in dark pants and a white starched chef's tunic. It may not be rock 'n' roll, but for Kovaceski, it's still performance. "Every night, it's unpredictable; it's like walking onto a stage. You don't know what will happen," he says, flashing one of his infectious smiles. "It's entertainment."

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