Hannah Flora-Mihajlovik, Executive Chef at Mizner Country Club, Delray Beach, Florida, USA
Images: Diana DeLucia, Make up by Laura Watts. Special thanks to Katie Chase and Marie Mitchalk and the team at Mizner.
It was a pleasure working with Executive Chef Hannah Flora-Mihajlovic at Mizner Country Club in Delray Beach, Florida in July. I have not seen such an accomplished chef at such a young age in the industry. Hannah has the ability to please a diverse membership of all age groups and is potentially the catalyst to influencing young Americans that there are incredible career opportunities in the Private Golf and Country Club space.
~ Diana DeLucia
GK: What was the catalyst that drew you to cooking at such a young age?
HFM: I was born in Akron Ohio, and grew up outside of Chicago, in DeKalb, Illinois. With cornfields as far as the eye can see, the ability to extend my creativity was limited. Finding inspiration to be creative in such a rural area was my challenge. I took cooking, pottery, art, dance and painting classes in and out of school to keep my restless and creative mind stimulated. I fell in love with cooking with the strong pull and desire towards art, I decided to challenge myself in the kitchen and combine the two mediums. I would fall asleep every night watching The Food Network and Iron Chef, always thinking how impossible it seemed to create such amazing dishes. It was my goal to teach myself how to be as excellent as these celebrity chefs.
I started baking and creating recipes myself at home when I was nine. I began a side job after school, making dog treats and holiday cookies. That exercise drew me to cooking more seriously where I began to extend my knowledge and create other items.
Originally, my heart was set on becoming a pastry chef and soon changed currents to overall culinary as my focus in my career. Since the age of nine I felt it in my heart that I was destined to be a chef. When I graduated high school, I ventured to Florida, entirely on my own and enrolled at the Florida Culinary Institute/Lincoln Culinary Institute. I was attracted to Florida because it was utterly different from Illinois. There were no cornfields and no cold winters. Fresh produce, fish and farmers markets were easily accessible on a daily basis which enticed my creativity for local and unique flavor profiles.
When I graduated culinary school in 2013, I ventured into the professional field and this only reinforced my decision of becoming a chef. I applied at The Everglades Club and remained in their kitchens for 5 years, studying under Master Chefs Peter Timmins and Russell Scott. These extremely talented Chefs taught me to keep my nose down, work hard and listen. They were very open and allowed me to draw on my creativity and culinary instincts in a very professional atmosphere.
GK: What was your role at this time?
HFM: I started as a line cook, rotating from lead grill cook to lead sauté as well as banquet experience. I made it a goal of mine to master all areas of the kitchens. You must constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone to achieve excellence. If you are comfortable, you are not growing.
The Everglades Club was a seasonal club, and my restless energy drove me to a new adventure in Martha’s Vineyard Massachusetts in 2015. It was an amazing experience and new way of looking at the culinary industry. I would often sail out on oyster boats and harvest fresh oysters for the restaurants and visit the local shiitake farms for farm to table experiences. Truly a remarkable island if you are a Chef!
GK: Did you return MV the following season?
HFM: Yes, there’s something about the Vineyard that keeps a hold on your soul. From the smell of the fresh sea air, to the amazing product right outside your door, I had to go back and learn as much as I could. For the next three years, I returned and worked at a restaurant called Down Island under a very talented Chef, Scott Cummings. Down Island featured a five-course tasting menu that changed every week making it exciting for the locals and tourists, as well as ourselves.
GK: Tell us about your experience with Chef Cummings?
HFM: Chef Cummings made me the chef I am today; he molded me to be creative and welcomed my avant-garde culinary concepts. I’m forever grateful for Down Island because this was where I blossomed into the Chef I always aspired to be. I had found my niche.
Being seasonal for both The Everglades Club in the winters, and Down Island in the summers, I decided to stay year-round on Martha’s Vineyard. Let me tell you, it was a brave decision. The winters, oh my goodness! (laughs), I made it one full year. The winter wind was brutal; and being such a seasonal island, you lose track of the real world. I lived in a little cottage in the woods that was adorable and perfect but, it was cold! It was during that winter that myself and my two miniature greyhounds decided our blood was too thin for the chilly weather and I decided to come back to Florida where our hearts were.
GK: How did you land at Mizner Country Club?
HFM: When I returned to Florida, there was a vacant position. I was interviewed by the Executive Chef at the time, and it was the most casual interview I’ve ever had. I instantly clicked with the club, and I felt like this could be my new home. I wanted to show my worth, talent, and dedication, and I quickly climbed the ladder.
I was 26 at the time and took the role of sous chef. I wanted to change how the world views country clubs. I wanted to show that country club dining can be Michelin-style restaurant food in a country club setting. Within one year, I was promoted to Executive Sous Chef.
GK: How were your ideas received at the club?
HFM: The Mizner management gave me the freedom and support to make my job an everyday adventure! That is why I feel at home here. Out of the box pairings, creative works of art as a dish, and new concepts feed my hungry heart. To be an Executive Chef was always my goal; I watch, observe and execute. I am the most demanding of myself in terms of mastering something. It’s not unusual for me to be in the kitchens until 1:00 AM teaching myself new techniques. In my mind, I was training myself to be an Executive Chef and reach my goals. Failure was not an option. I knew that even if it weren’t at Mizner, I would need to learn as much as I could to excel in my future.
In October 2020, I assumed the role of the Interim Executive Chef. In November 2020, Mizner made it official. Hannah Flora-Mihajlovic as Executive Chef. My childhood dream and everything I have pushed myself to be was now manifesting into the universe. Time to make waves.
GK: How did it feel to have the role officially just six days before Thanksgiving and in the middle of a pandemic?
HFM: “Bring it on!” Covid-19 posed an unexpected, yet welcomed challenge. Luckily, my brain thinks in combination of extreme organization and hyperactive creativity, making it more than possible to execute over 400 Thanksgiving dinners flawlessly. We set up the library and boardroom as a satellite space to package over 400 Thanksgiving dinners. Under my direction, the team was able to execute this feat, allowing the membership to gain even more confidence in my new position.
GK: What were some other innovations you created due to the pandemic?
HFM: We created the Mizner bubble within our community during the pandemic. Our team needed to make sure our membership knew that they were both safe and entertained as well as satisfied with our programming. It was then that we introduced “Craft-Mart”, a grocery store within our club walls that would provide home essentials as well as prepared meals available for online ordering and home delivery.
Our team created a Shopify platform for our members to order from their phones. Product was delivered to their doorstep and a notification of the confirmed delivery was sent. Watching the program unfold into a well-oiled machine was unbelievable. It truly was a well-orchestrated event behind the scenes.
GK: What changes did you make in regard to liquor and wine?
HFM: It took us a moment to accumulate our permits for alcohol sales, but we had a massive market for wine, and the membership showed great interest with sales from the online market. This ignited our decision in creating a structured and permanent Wine Boutique, where members could purchase wines in-house and have them delivered. They enjoy having the unique and curated wine selection from our Sommelier, Marc Etienne-Hoffmann.
GK: What ideas would you like to implement at Mizner in the future?
HFM: I recently began experimenting with small plate tapas-style buffets where we have chef-attended stations that serve and create small plates right in front of the members; it’s always fresh, new, and different. Fresh and local is always our goal. Being in such a rich agricultural atmosphere, I want to bring only the best quality into the kitchens and onto the plates. I will also be looking to implement an outdoor kitchen where we can offer brick fired pizzas and flatbreads as well as new and interesting items to showcase. Being in Florida, our weather is definitely something to take advantage of.
GK: How do you manage your team? Do you give them opportunities to be as creative as you have been permitted?
HFM: My way of management is hands on, creative and empowering. Keeping my team excite, encouraged and supported, allowing my chefs own creative minds to blossom into something special. As a team, you set yourselves apart from the standards. There have been many restaurants and clubs that I’ve worked at personally where creative freedom isn’t always welcomed. My goal as the Executive Chef is to constantly swim against the currents and welcome new and fresh ideas under my leadership. Empowering, encouraging and allowing each individual thought process to come into play, makes Mizner kitchens a force to be reckoned with.
Having a strong art and dance background, I view my kitchens in a unique way. Working on the line during a service should be an elegant dance. Each individual has a role and a rhythm. When we all move in harmony, it’s a beautiful ballet. I encourage my team to be creative. After all, culinary is an ever-changing ocean, and I want to make the first waves. I never want to discourage my chefs creative thought process; I want to empower their creative side on a personal level and witness how it comes into fruition on the plates. I often ask my staff, “What was your favorite childhood memory? How can you recreate that memory on the plate?” Then as a team, we create a beautiful menu full of memory and feelings that become our specials. If my team is excited to come to work every day because they’re doing something that they love, it’s going to show 110% passion and quality in our menus and improve the experience for the membership. My responsibility as their leader is to encourage that leap into their personal growth.
GK: How do you create your menus?
HFM: Creating menus is an intricate process. We invite the staff in before menu changes, to prep and plan together as a team with the leadership of our Restaurant Chef. I love to create new recipes for the kitchens with a combination of our individuality.
GK: Tell us what goes through your mind when creating a recipe.
HFM: What goes through my mind while creating a recipe is more of a story than an instruction manual. How can I re-create the feeling of calm, anger, passion, or home through food? Sometimes something as simple as a single smell can send my mind spinning into an eight-component dish. When I think of a recipe and how I’m plating it, I see shapes and colors. I use my sense of smell to bring me back to a moment in my life. How can I recreate that life experience on the plate for someone else? My feelings come through in my food, which makes it more personal to me.
I’ve always loved showing my emotion, commitment, talent, and passion on a blank canvas. Whether with paints, clay, dance, or food, a true experience will emerge leaving the individual experiencing it at awe. I absolutely love seeing the emotions of a creation I have molded together, be expressed on another individual.
Often, my ingredient choices that I choose are opposites on the color wheel, but blended together in the perfect way can create an amazing work of art. That is my signature as a Chef.
GK: Tell us about your new Culinary Lab?
HFM: The Culinary Lab is a program I started with our HR department in June, to extend an opportunity for growth within our club. Growth is one of our values at Mizner and we pride ourselves to be able to extend any learning opportunity to our most important assets, our employees.
We offer one course per month over a 12-month period. This program is open to the culinary and service team. Our mission is to educate them with hands-on tours and masterclasses to better understand the depth of the culinary industry. It is a voluntary option to participate, yet if you attend all 12 classes, Mizner will completely fund an ACF certification for them. The incentive is to give our employees something that they can be proud of and build on top of their skills and career goals.
The 8th Green at Mizner Country Club, Delray Beach, Florida. Image by Even Schiller