After slogging through almost a year of COVID-19 and its ill effects on their businesses and community, three Naples hospitality superstars seize a lighter moment to gather in a gorgeous home for a savory and sweet tasting dinner, accompanied by delicious wines. The first to arrive, with the sun bouncing off her shiny dark hair, is Liset Zelaya, a 10-year sommelier at Sea Salt. “Who doesn’t get excited when the guest with the booze shows up?” she jokes.
Zelaya was introduced to Naples during childhood winter vacations, escaping the chillier climes in Toledo, Ohio. “After college, I vowed I’d never suffer another winter again and moved down here in January 1998.” She still has a fondness for Ohio, mostly revolving around family memories that inspired her career path. “My mother wouldn’t let my friends leave without eating a full three-course meal.” And her father is responsible for her interest in other cultures and cuisines. “My dad traveled all over the world, often taking us with him,” says the mom of a kindergartener daughter. “He instilled in us to try the foods of wherever we were.”
The doorbell rings and a rosy-cheeked guest arrives—chef Paw Mikkelsen of Mikkelsen’s Pastry Shop, which he’s co-owned and operated for 20 years with his wife, Elizabeth. He carries in three big white bakery boxes, and Zelaya can’t wait to peek inside. He gently places them on the countertop and says, “I have things in here that I don’t sell in the bakery.” Growing up in Denmark he worked in his parents’ pastry shop at age 11, did an apprenticeship at 15, and came to the United States at 19. “I worked as a pastry chef for the Four Seasons in Houston and The Ritz-Carlton in Boston,” says the father of three children, now all in their 20s.
Chef Asif Syed, a father of two young kids, is the next to arrive, bringing with him a little rock-and-roll attitude. Though everyone in this trio knows each other from living and working in Naples, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to spend quality time together. Syed came to Naples more than 20 years ago, through an internship at the JW Marriott on Marco Island. “Later, I got a job at the Hilton hotel on Marco Island and worked to become the executive chef,” he says. “Fifteen years later, I opened 21 Spices in Naples.” Both Mikkelsen and Zelaya have eaten there and comment that they appreciate the vibrant decor and delicious flavors. Grateful for his colleagues’ kind words, Syed replies, “It was my dream to open an Indian restaurant, to showcase food from my home country. I am a culinary ambassador.”
Syed gets busy chopping and heating up vegetable oil on the induction stove. As she watches Syed do his thing, Zelaya says, “I love sharing a meal, wine, and conversation.” Then she adds, “Okay guys, which bottle do you want to open first?”
The men smartly defer to her, and she uncorks Chappellet Grower Collection Chardonnay, Calesa Vineyard, from Petaluma Gap in Sonoma County. “The boldness of the fruit and the bright acidity will go beautifully with the flavors of the samosa and chutney dish,” Zelaya explains. She grabs the bottle, and they all head out to the patio off the kitchen to nibble on appetizers.
The three collectively take a breath and exchange stories about COVID-19, concurring that Naples is a generous community. “We were closed for two weeks,” says Mikkelsen. “Then, we tried attracting more retail business, as our wholesale business—our backbone—disappeared. That was a big adjustment.” He notes that he has been fortunate to pick up hotel clients recently. “We fared better than many, keeping our staff working enough to survive. We hope Naples supports local restaurants and bars at this critical time, or they will be gone.”
Sympathetic to the bakery’s situation, Zelaya shares how her career plans derailed. “Prior to the pandemic, I was supposed to travel to Australia’s and New Zealand’s wine regions,” she says. “We are all in unchartered waters, but our industries will pull through and emerge even better.”
Syed commiserates, saying, “We were planning on increasing our retail space, but instead we will chip away a little bit at a time.” Yet, he’s optimistic. “We have a great community and will get back on our feet. We need to focus on our strengths. It’s in our nature to enjoy each other’s company and dine together.”
On that upbeat note, Syed checks on the entrées in the oven. When they are ready, he calls his peers to the table, and Zelaya opens bottle No.2: Problem Child, Linne Calodo, from Paso Robles. “This is one of my favorite California producers,” she says. “This wine, a Zinfandel, Syrah, and Mouvedre blend, is ethereal and pairs well with bold flavors.”
Digging into Syed’s spiced lamb chops, the conversation turns to home entertaining. “The parrillada is my go-to,” Zelaya says. “It’s an array of grilled steaks, chicken, sausages, and vegetables, with an arugula salad and a selection of whites and reds.” The men joke that they are ready for their invitation. Syed chimes in, “It is part of my culture to showcase hospitality. I truly enjoy hosting friends and family for dinner.” Mikkelsen nods, as he feels similarly about honoring his background. “We try to include Danish meal selections, to keep our heritage alive. Desserts are pastries from the shop.” Syed says he serves his grandma’s rice pudding.
Speaking of dessert, Mikkelsen unveils them: a white chocolate pistachio napoleon, a Florida rum raisin Bundt cake, and a fondue cake with strawberries to dip into the chocolate center. Zelaya digs out a special box from her bags to reveal a sabre, meant to open the dessert Champagne. The ceremony adds revelry to the gathering.
“It’s delicious,” says Mikkelsen after his first sip of the Ruinart Rosé. Zelaya nods, adding, “This is Champagne’s first rosé wine. One of my go-tos. The bubbles refresh the palate after each decadent bite.” Following more sipping and sampling sweets, the three professionals agree it’s invaluable to take time to commune with colleagues. “Moments like this will make us always be on top of our game,” Syed concludes.