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A Cut Above
Sara Liss | Photo: Michael Pisarri | November 21, 2012
Night after night at Prime 112 in South Beach, chef Mike Sabin works his culinary magic to ensure one of the most lucrative steakhouses in the country remains that way.
It’s halfway through dinner service on a typically busy night at Prime 112 and head chef Mike Sabin is the calm eye of a beef-laden storm. Earlier in the evening a table of two placed an order for a $700 steak—Japanese Kobe has just come back on the menu and this patron fancied a 20-ounce cut at $35 an ounce. Most of the restaurant’s 240 seats are filled and the hostess stand will be thick with anxious diners, all of them eager (and not always polite) for a slice of what Sabin and restaurant maestro and owner Myles Chefetz have somehow managed to create: one of the most lucrative steakhouses in the country.
On a typical night Prime 112 will do a thousand “covers,” resto talk for diners including celebs, politicians and high rollers. So what is it like helming a restaurant that some NBA players consider their personal commissary and grosses roughly $18 million a year? According to Sabin it’s all about his team and sourcing the best product. “I’m not a gambler,” says Sabin, “I like to put pretty safe things on the menu. I think most of the dishes we have are ones you can make in your own kitchen. Now, can you get the same end results? Probably not.”
Ironically for a steakhouse the best performing dish at the restaurant is the Hawaiian tuna poke, made from Big Eye tuna sourced from day boats supplying the Honolulu Fish Auction. Prime goes through nearly 400 pounds of the fish a week and it’s easy to see why—the gorgeous, ruby-colored cubes tossed with sesame oil, macadamia nuts and sea salt are meltingly tender, aided by a sprinkling of crunchy limu seaweed. The one dish that did bomb (a rarity here) was fried chicken livers. “Some people loved it, but we couldn’t sell it,” says Sabin. “Maybe two or three a night. And I think Myles hates chicken livers so we took it off the menu.”
Most of Sabin’s staff has been with him for more than 12 years, going as far back as his days at Nemo (another Chefetz eatery, now closed). Sabin’s typical day runs from 1pm to 1am—12 long hours that start with administrative matters, inventory, sales reports and a meeting with Chefetz for the evening’s “plan of attack.” At around 5:30pm Sabin does a “full tasting” at both Prime 112 and Prime Italian, the pasta hot spot Chefetz opened a few years back. During these, he vets all the sauces, sides, salads and prepared dishes on the line. Once dinner service kicks into gear, Sabin rotates between the Prime 112 and Prime Italian kitchens, overseeing the culinary ballet taking place at both spots. These days, he hardly ever gets behind the stove. “If you see me behind the line that means something’s wrong.”
Prime 112’s executive chef, Todd Zimmer, who has been with Sabin for 14 years, oversees Prime’s open kitchen to ensure everything from the 10-ounce filet to the 48-ounce porterhouse is cooked to order and gets a sprinkle of French sea salt. Over at Prime Italian, chef Brian Cantrell churns out Sabin’s version of American Italian food: massive portions of chicken Parmesan, shrimp scampi and wood-oven pizzas served family-style.
“Prime Italian is like my sanctuary,” says Sabin. “It’s less busy, the lighting is softer. 112 is like my baby, but when the baby’s crying, sometimes you’ve got to leave the room,” he laughs.
Back at the steakhouse, Sabin checks in with Zimmer, and coolly takes in the scene with the calm reserve of a general observing his soldiers in action. Sabin’s father was a colonel in the Army and it isn’t too far a stretch to say that a bit of that military efficiency has influenced the proceedings here. With the aromas of sizzling beef permeating the air and the cacophonous din of hundreds of diners busily satisfying their gluttonous impulses, Prime 112 is a world unto itself with Sabin at the helm. As he walks through the dining room no one stops to shake his hand or asks to take a photo with him. He’s the captain behind the scenes and that’s just the way he likes it.