While there’s no sure-fire recipe for cooking up epicurean magic, a truly enchanting meal is crafted with ingredients such as passion, imagination, and talent. And in a bustling culinary crossroads like Miami, it takes a measure of all three to stand out as a world-class head chef. Chef Jose Casals, the new face of Acqualina Resort and Spa’s food and beverage operations, has done just that.
Bringing over two decades of international culinary experience to Acqualina, the seasoned chef adds to the delightfully elevated and refreshingly diverse elements of the resort’s fine cuisine, including the beachfront Costa Grill, the resort’s event and banquet menus, and the spa menu for Acqualina Spa by ESPA.
Here, Jose shares what it takes to become a top-tier chef in a gourmet hotspot, what drives his mission to create good food, and what his plans are for Acqualina’s culinary offerings.
The Makings of a Chef
Jose’s fascination with food began as far back as he can remember, and his aptitude for preparing it soon followed suit. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he experimented with colorful Caribbean ingredients and drew inspiration from the professional chef in his life — his own grandfather.
Jose was hired in a restaurant in 1994, but with no official cooking experience to speak of, he worked hard as a dishwasher before working his way up to line cook. In 1995, he enrolled in culinary school while maintaining two full-time kitchen jobs, continuing his education inside of the classroom and out.
“I mainly focused on honing my skills while learning from many talented chefs,” he says. “My goal was to perfect my style and be the best line cook I could be.”
After graduating from culinary school, Jose was recruited by Disney World as a restaurant chef, where he ran specialty establishments such as the Brown Derby, Mama Melrose’s, and Prime Time. While there, he also oversaw the catering and banquet departments of Hollywood Disney Studios and served as Chef Ambassador for the Epcot Food and Wine Festival between 1997 and 1999.
In 2002, Jose became the executive chef and culinary instructor for the Florida Culinary Institute, where he passed the ACF’s rigorous Certified Executive Chef exam and took an opportunity to broaden his culinary horizons.
“Around that time, I started traveling the world cooking and eating,” he says. “Those opportunities gave me a chance to explore the food around many amazing countries.”
With an expanded portfolio of worldly expertise, Jose opened a Miami catering company in 2010. Just a few years later, he became a tenured cooking instructor at Miami Dade College, leading the school’s food programs to international recognition.
The Art of Gastronomy
In crafting a one-of-a-kind culinary experience, Jose’s work starts outside the kitchen. When he’s traveling, he makes it a priority to visit local markets, chefs, farmers, and wineries in order to understand seasonality, research regional flavors, and ensure that his quality ingredients are ethically sourced. During his journeys, he’s also forged a number of lasting relationships with others in the industry.
“Throughout the years I have met amazing people who I have kept as my prime network of food experts,” says Jose, whose diverse connections help him keep track of the latest cooking trends. “In my world, our clients have multicultural palates,” he explains. “Customization and a mix of international foods are key.”
Drawing from his Puerto Rican roots, Jose likes to customize his menus with a variety of Caribbean vegetables, such as malanga, yuca, and the boniato, a not-so-distant cousin of the sweet potato. Not only do these regional roots make excellent foundations for his signature dishes, they are also some of his favorite vegetables to cook.
Back in the kitchen, where vibrant hand-picked flavors meet Jose’s innovation and personal touch, the culinary magic continues, from ingredient to preparation to plate.
“I’m always happy while working because I consider my work as a hobby,” he says. “I feel very lucky to cook with professionals who share my passion. Food is an art form that has given me the freedom to be as creative as possible.”
A Fresh Acqualina Experience
Jose brings his connections and expertise to Acqualina to lead an award-winning team of 20 talented kitchen staff. Working together, they plan to enliven guest expectations of an upscale outing with some delightfully unexpected twists.
“I thrive on fresh, bold flavors with a creative push,” says Jose, who plans to promote daily specials with lesser-known ingredients. “It’s an opportunity to get the flavors noticed without overwhelming the plate. In this case, less is more.”
While diners at the resort can still indulge in celebrated Floridian staples like fresh-caught fish and prime cuts of meat, they may also be pleased to discover delectably diverse takes on classic dishes.
Transcending traditional “Floribbean” cuisine, yet still purveying a modern American influence, Jose’s colorfully intriguing menus are the delicious culmination of decades of trial and error. Combining his vast background of gastronomy knowledge with an ever-curious drive to explore cutting-edge culinary techniques, Jose is thrilled to infuse his singular style into the Acqualina’s distinguished dining options.
“My goal is to elevate the food experience, making the resort a one-of-a-kind food destination,” he says.