The Inspired Cuisine of Chef Rick Mace
By: Jennifer Coco
Inspired. Amongst chefs, this simple adjective is universally considered to be high praise when used to describe their dishes. Many cooks never achieve this elusive descriptor, instead having their food described as unimaginative, or even worse, bland. Happily for Owner/Executive Chef Rick Mace and his diners, the BBQ-style fare served at Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach, Florida is most certainly deserving of the term. After speaking with Mace, it’s clear that the restaurant’s success and remarkable food is attributable to his well-honed technique, expert use of classic and original flavors, and ability to draw inspiration from both familiar and unlikely sources.
Chef Mace’s technique is undeniable and something that he began cultivating when realized at a young age that he wanted to become a chef. With a father in the Air Force, Mace was exposed to global cuisine early on. He wistfully describes his dad returning from being stationed in Greece and exposing his family to exciting, exotic, and previously unknown foods. He recalls,
“I remember (my dad) coming home and we were all at my grandmother’s house and he went in the kitchen and started cooking and the whole family just surrounded him and it was a real a-ha moment of what it would be like to be in that position. I had always liked food before, but it had never really crossed my mind that that was something that I really wanted to do. That inspired me to learn about food and cooking.”
It was this experience that sparked young Rick’s desire to become a chef.
Since then, Mace has methodically made moves with the intention of sharpening his craft. He made the literal move to Turkey with his dad while he was stationed there and endeavored to expand his knowledge of foreign cuisine. He worked in restaurants after high school and eventually attended culinary school. After that, he landed a job working with famed French chef Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas and perfected his French technique. In 2013, Mace earned the role of Executive Chef when he took the position at Café Boulud, a French restaurant located inside of the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach. Working as the Executive Chef in a hotel is highly challenging. As Mace describes it, “being in that position meant doing a little bit of everything…breakfast, lunch and dinner, room service, catering, banquet, dining and bar.” One can imagine that those who survive such a taxing environment become stronger chefs for it. Mace thrived in the role for eight years.
It was while working at Café Boulud that Rick had the opportunity to travel to Japan. During that trip, Mace was exposed to the highly specialized and focused style of Japanese cooking. He reflects,
“The depth of thought that goes into food and the specialization of cuisine was very apparent. Somebody does one thing and does it very well for a very long time to be as accomplished as they can where in our country people want to learn as much as they can as fast as they can.”
Mace’s observation accurately describes a key difference between the Japanese and American understanding of expertise when it comes to food. Generally speaking, Japanese experts will focus on perfecting a specific type of food almost down to a science whereas in America, the greater that one’s breadth and depth of knowledge is, the more of an expert they are considered to be.
This cultural distinction is also revealed by the types of restaurants that are prevalent in each country. In America, diners are usually bombarded with massive amounts of choices while in Japan restaurants often offer very limited options. Mace observed this and described how it affected him saying, “the culture of food was the most impactful thing to me, just how deep they dove and I think that’s a beautiful thing. You see one shop that just does soba, one that just does gyoza, one that just does okonomiyaki.” When Mace ultimately decided to leave Café Boulud and open Tropical Smokehouse in 2021, he took the lessons that he learned in Japan with him.
Mace’s years of culinary experience and unique perspective inspired by local culture and his travels abroad led to Tropical Smokehouse becoming a purveyor of truly incredible food. Looking at the menu, one can clearly see how the diverse Floridian culture informs the options. The Brisket Empanadas, Chorizo Queso, and the Black Bean and Plantain Rice Bowl are tasty examples of Latin and Caribbean influences. Even Mace’s decision to focus on BBQ was a nod to Florida’s history. The native population of Florida was some of the original grill masters as they cooked their meat on racks over open flames. Continuing this tradition, Tropical Smokehouse offers an array of local smoked fish and meats including Cajun Gator Sausage made with wild Everglade gator and Duroc pork.
In addition to local influences, the cuisine at Tropical Smokehouse draws inspiration from Mace’s travels to Japan. In line with the Japanese ethos on cooking, Tropical Smokehouse offers a limited menu allowing Mace to focus on perfecting what’s offered. Several menu items are also Asian-influenced. The Caesar dressing for example is made using mayonnaise and fish sauce as opposed to the usual combo of parmesan and anchovies. The white BBQ sauce is made with ginger and citrus, a traditionally Asian flavor combination, in favor of the horseradish typical to classic Alabama white sauce. Notably, both of these menu staples are made using Kewpie Mayonnaise, a Japanese product. When asked why he prefers Kewpie to American mayo, Mace said, “Kewpie is the richest most delicious mayonnaise and its very food friendly to cook with. It’s a unique product with underlying richness and a delicate flavor. “ Mace combines native and exotic ingredients seamlessly and the result is food that is complex, intriguing, and just plain delicious.
While the success of Tropical Smokehouse is to be lauded, Rick Mace is not one to rest on his laurels. He currently has a second location in the works and it embodies the same qualities that contributed to the success of his current establishment. His new place will be opening in January in downtown Palm Beach and will feature a BBQ menu that’s even more focused and streamlined than that of Tropical Smokehouse. The restaurant will feature an adjacent bar with a tropical vibe that serves light bites and fresh, innovative cocktails. One such cocktail will be made with kakigori, or Japanese shaved ice. Here too, Mace is employing his winning strategy of creating a menu that is informed by locality and beyond. The hot and humid Florida climate calls for a refreshing, icy drink and Mace will serve one in a Japanese style that will be brand new to many diners. I wonder if Rick realizes that he is, in a way, recreating the moment that made him want to be a chef. Only instead of his father exposing him to new and exciting food in his Grandma’s kitchen, he is now the one introducing others to novel and inspired cuisine from his own restaurant.