Edible Orlando writer Michael Cuglietta wrote this on the eve of the Michelin ceremony while vacationing with Mark and Jen Berdin, chef-owners at Kadence. The Edible team congratulates Mark and Jen for winning their first star.
Shortly after celebrating his 2nd birthday, Romeo Berdin flew business class from the Philippines to Spain. In Barcelona, he was strapped into a car seat and chauffeured through Basque country, across the French border, into Bordeaux.
Most toddlers get their first suits for religious holidays or family photos. But most toddlers don’t have Michelin-trained chefs for parents. Romeo’s miniature three-piece, charcoal grey ensemble is reserved for fine dining. He first wore it to eat at Smyth, a Chicago eatery with two Michelin stars. This was on a cross-country train trip which ended in San Francisco, where he suited up once again to eat at the two-starred Lazy Bear. In Bordeaux, he got his first taste of three star cuisine at Michél Guerard’s, Les Prés d’Eugénie.
Kadence Chef/Owners Jennifer and Mark Berdin
Romeo’s parents, Jennifer and Mark Berdin, are the chef/owners of Kadence, an award-winning omakase sushi bar in Orlando. Regulars at the 9-seat sushi bar include NBA All-Stars, famous R&B singers, state senators and a mayor who shall remain nameless due to their fondness for “sake shotguns.” Once, the Secret Service locked down the restaurant so a high-ranking member of the Cabinet of the United States could come dine with her family.
Now that the Michelin guide has expanded into Orlando, the Berdins are contenders for their own star.
“Winning a star is not our goal,” Jen said. “But it would be a huge honor.”
Mark, on the other hand, said winning a star would mean he’d have to spend the next couple of months, “telling people to leave me the fuck alone.”
But, perhaps, that was the beer talking. Or, maybe, the altitude. When I interviewed the Berdins, we were vacationing together in the Rocky Mountains. Getting Mark to agree to an interview required lots of beer. In a more introspective, less guarded, less blasphemous moment, he admitted, “It’d be exciting to win. But, also, you win something like that, then you have to go for a second star. Then you’re going to go crazy. That’s the reason why a lot of places, particularly in Japan, don’t accept them.”
Having come up in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York City, London and Japan, the Berdins are no strangers to the rating system.
“All the Michelin restaurants I worked in, they know exactly what the Michelin people are looking for. They have a checklist. Working towards that checklist can create a mechanical restaurant, one without soul,” Mark said.
Despite the fact that Mark and Jen have spent a fortune traveling the world to collect Michelin-starred dinners, Mark describes those meals as “the most boring four hours ever.”
Dining Experience at Kadence
Anyone who has eaten at Kadence knows it is anything but boring. That is not to say they don’t take the food seriously. One nine-person seating requires a minimum of 10-12 hours of prep work, which Mark and Jen do with the help of their sole employee, Daniel Penovich.
Those 10-12 hours call for a monk-like level of concentration but, once service begins, they transform from craftsman and craftswoman into party coordinators, there to make sure each guest leaves feeling like they spent the last three hours celebrating with their dearest friends, while being intoxicated by some of the best sushi they’ve ever tasted and, maybe, a little sake.
“I don’t like eating at tables,” Mark said. “If you’re eating with your family, it’s fine. But not in a restaurant. I like eating at bars. That’s why I love San Sebastian so much. It’s more convivial. It’s a lot crazier. The food is better. Less pretentious. Table service is just so pretentious.”
The inspiration for Kadence came from El Quim de la Boqueria, a small tapas bar inside a market in Barcelona. Mark and Jen’s concept was to serve the same level of sushi one might find in a traditional sushi bar in Kyoto, but turn in on its head by giving it the feel of a Spanish fiesta.
“Traditional sushi bars are so quiet. They are supposed to be a Zen-like experience. In Spain, people are gregarious.”
The other thing about El Quim, which appeals to Mark, is the fact that it is located inside a market. Before immigrating to South Florida, Mark spent the first nine years of his life inside a market in the Filipino province of Bohol.
Mark’s grandfather ran a restaurant inside the market. His family, along with the cooks who worked for his grandfather, lived in a house connected to the restaurant.
“We had rooms but there weren’t really beds. We just slept on the floor.”
A more apt term for the floor would be the ground, as there was no tiling, just dirt. His grandfather woke up every morning at 3 a.m. He’d walk through the market, collecting his ingredients for the day. By 4:30 a.m, he’d start cooking. It was a family-style restaurant. All the food was prepared in advanced and served cafeteria style.
Mark’s life in the Philippines is a stark contrast to the upbringing he’s able to provide for his son. That is to say, as a child Mark was not taking business class flights to foreign countries to sample the world’s finest cuisine.
“Growing up in the late ‘80s, we still had carriages drawn by horses. That’s how rustic our town was. The streets used to be covered in horse shit, like New York City in the 1800s.”
Mark values his childhood and would not trade it for one of more comfort.
“It was cool to have a different perspective. I think that’s what makes immigrants strong. They see stuff. In America, it’s like, ‘this isn’t so bad.’ But immigrants have seen things that motivate them to study harder, work harder.”
Although Mark has never had a job outside of a kitchen, he did not intend on being a chef. After graduating from the University of Florida with a history degree, he moved to New York City with no real plan. In order to pay his rent, he took a job washing dishes at Morimoto, in the Chelsea Market.
The sushi chef at Morimoto, recognizing Mark’s work ethic, pulled him into the sushi bar. In the beginning, Mark remembers working seven days a week for three months straight. His motivating factor, at that point, was not to become an expert at his craft. Rather, he was drawn to the money.
“When I started working sushi, I was getting cash tips, that’s when my money problems disappeared.”
It wasn’t until he left Morimoto that his motivation began to shift.
“When I left Morimoto, I was thinking like an American. My goal was to open a big restaurant – fifty seats, seventy seats. Have a fucking D.J. start spinning at 10:30 every night. Boom. Boom. Boom,” he said, accentuating each “boom” by raising his hands into the air.
Then he got a job at the one Michelin-starred 15 East, working under Chef Masato Shimizu – aka Masato-San – and everything changed. Or, perhaps it’s better to say, everything began.
Masato-San turned Mark onto the idea that one of, if not the most important parts of being a chef is learning the culture behind the food.
“People who go into cooking and don’t learn anything behind what’s going on, they’re going to stay cooks forever. They are just going to do what you tell them to do, and they’re good at it. But in order to go beyond that, you have to learn the culture behind the food.”
The veteran chefs at 15 East told Mark he should spend his money on three things – books, knives and travel.
“Working in a high-end sushi bar, you quickly realize all your customers are well to do. In order to be well to do, they have to have some sort of education or hustle. As a person serving the food, you don’t want to be lower than them in culture. And you can’t be lower than them in taste.”
Watching Masato-San hold his own in conversations with the wealthiest, most educated customers, Mark realized, to be a sushi chef, he would have to read the paper every morning, to know his current events. He would also have to work at becoming worldlier.
“If someone mentions a place they traveled to, you should be familiar with that place. When I talk to well to do customers, I want to know more than them. I want to be able to jump into any conversation and be able to carry it further.”
To this day, traveling is a crucial part of Mark and Jen’s life and work. When I met up with them in Colorado, they were on the last leg of a two month vacation, which took them from the Philippines to Spain, up into France, London and, finally, Colorado.
“Without travel,” Mark said, “it’s too easy to get caught up in the wheel of your mind.”
Mark and Jen have devoted their lives to their craft. Travel informs and inspires that craft.
“If you don’t make time to see the world, your food becomes boring fast.”
Jen and Mark met at UF but didn’t start dating until after graduation. While Mark was in New York City, Jen was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, working as a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch. There was an Asian symposium held in Manhattan that year. As the only Asian person in the St. Pete branch of Merrill Lynch, Jen was sent up to attend the symposium.
On her day off, Mark showed her around the city and she fell in love, with the city, at first. But, later, with Mark.
Soon after returning to Florida, the stock market crashed. Taking this as a sign, Jen packed her bags and went to stay on Mark’s couch. At the time, he was sharing an apartment with Lordfer Lalicon, their former business partner at Kadence, who has since moved on to open Kaya, a Filipino restaurant.
It was Lordfer who got Jen her first kitchen job, at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel, run by Chef Joel Antunes. She had no real restaurant experience and zero skill but was attracted to the culture in the kitchen.
The Oak Room was unique because Chef Antunes got his start as a pastry chef. Shortly after opening, the restaurant was panned by critics. The only thing they liked was the dessert.
Jen was pastry chef de partie when she left the Oak Room. She continued her education at a number of other eateries in the city, including the two Michelin-starred Swedish restaurant, Aquavit.
When Chef Yoshianori Ishii, who worked with Mark at Morimoto, was offered the opportunity to take over the kitchen at the one Michelin-starred Umu in London (which, under Ishii-San’s direction, would win a second star), he invited Mark to come along. So, Mark and Jen packed their bags and moved to London.
Ishii-San would become Mark’s biggest mentor, taking over from where Masato-San left off. Jen would take over the dessert program at Umu, raising to the rank of executive pastry chef. Mark became Ishii-San’s sous-chef.
Unlike New York, London is a city that goes to bed early. By the time Mark and Jen got out of work each night, everything would be closed. Homesick and tired of bouncing between a dungeon-like kitchen and their tiny apartment, after three years in London, they returned to Florida to be closer to family and sunshine.
They accepted positions at Avenue Gastropub, in downtown Orlando, owned by a friend. Mark was in charge of the kitchen while Jen ran the front of house. Lordfer had also moved back to Florida to help run the kitchen.
“We were getting horrible Yelp reviews because the food would take so long to come out,” Jen said. “I’d go back into the kitchen and Mark would be taking forever to plate fries with chopsticks.”
One of the first things Mark and Lordfer did was throw away all the canned and prepacked ingredients.
“They’d be back in the kitchen making homemade ketchup, mustard and mayo. Meanwhile, customers were at the bar asking for Heinz.”
The trio recognized, in order to be successful at Avenue, they would have to employ a counterintuitive strategy.
“We realized if we could just not care customers would be happy. So we had to un-train ourselves to not care.”
They found success. But, in order to do so, they threw all their training out the window, which made them miserable. Searching for an outlet for their craft, they began hosting dinners for friends at their apartment. Also at this time, they were going to the East End Market to help owner, John Rife, garden. When space at the market opened up, Rife offered it to them.
Before Kadence, there was Kappo, a seven seat sushi bar in the East End Market.
“We were told by industry friends a high-end omakase with just seven seats would never work,” Jen said. “They told us we needed a big restaurant to make money. People in Orlando will never pay that kind of price to eat sushi, they said.”
Kappo took off overnight. In just two quick years, the trio outgrew their small space in the market and were forced to close down to search for a bigger, standalone location. When they reopened in their current space, they did so as Kadence.
“The goal of some restaurants,” Mark reflected, as Jen strategically poured us another round, to keep him talking, “is to be open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so you can keep making money. Then you expand. Then you do the same playbook over and over again. The food is not good. But you’re making good money. To me, that’s putting yourself in a box. And you’re going to drown in that box.”
As Mark spoke, Romeo traversed the two-and-half-foot boulders in front of our Airbnb in Grand Lake, Colo. Under Jen’s supervision, he climbed each rock on his hands and knees. Each time he summited, he held his arms out and triumphantly declared, “Mountain!”
“At the end of the day,” Mark continued, “a restaurant is a lot of work. And if you’re an owner, you have to be there.”
During our two-hour chat, I kept pressing Mark for a quote on what it would be like to win a Michelin star. The best I could get was,
“Overall, the food we are making is the same food I learned from people who have two Michelin stars. The stars are a validation, I guess. But as long as you know yourself that you’re doing good food and you’re providing people with the quality they’re supposed to get for the price they’re paying, I think you’re good.”
As for Romeo, accustomed to the finest levels of dining, at the end of the day, he loves nothing more than a big plate of French fries pared with a sippy cup full of apple juice.