Interview and Tasting: Mark Rivera, The New Chef of The Mai-Kai Restaurant

Posted on May 12th, 2016 by
Chef Mark Rivera in the Beautiful Mai-Kai Gardens

Chef Mark Rivera in the Beautiful Mai-Kai Gardens

Interview and Tasting:  Mark Rivera, The New Chef of The Mai-Kai Restaurant

Anyone who follows my reviews knows I have deep roots with the Mai-Kai Restaurant. My dad worked there for over 30 years, I worked there, my two brothers worked there, my sister worked there and my daughter worked in the kids show for four years. No writer in South Florida is more qualified to review the Mai-Kai than me. Yes, I have a soft spot for the Mai-Kai in my heart and always will.

The manager, Kern Mattie contacted me about the Mai-Kai hiring a new chef named Mark Rivera. Kern and I are childhood friends so we go way back. Kern was pretty excited about Chef Rivera and he asked if I was willing to meet and interview him for my blog. Of course I said yes and we set a date/time.

I did some research online and found out Chef Rivera worked as Executive Sous Chef at Michael Mina’s Stripsteak at the Fontainebleau Hotel and Executive Chef at TATU at the Seminole Hardrock Hotel and Casino. He worked with chefs Nobu Matsuhisa, Ken Oringer, Hiro Asano, and Timon Balloo. He also catered an event at Gloria Estefan’s house for President Obama. All of that was impressive, but what I also found interesting was Chef Rivera loves triathlons. Now I’ve hung with some chefs and read Anthony Bourdain’s first two books and used to religiously watch his TV shows. Chefs, and almost everyone in the industry, love to party. For this dude to like participating in triathlons was foreign to me. Needless to say, I was very curious to meet him.

To make this a special event, I invited the new owners of Runyons Restaurant in Coral Springs, Kevin and Ryan O’Conner, to go with me and my bride. Kevin and Ryan were interested in sampling some of the famous tropical drinks the Mai-Kai is known for. They are in the process of revamping their Happy Hour and looking to add some signature cocktails. So I brought them along with the hopes they may find some inspiration for some new libations. The bonus round for them was they were able to sample the new food being offered by Chef Rivera, too.

Chef Rivera with Molokia Bar Maiden Roxy

Chef Rivera with Molokai Bar Maiden Roxy

Before I get into the food, I want to take this opportunity and introduce you to Chef Mark Rivera!

First off a chef that runs triathlons? Never heard of that LOL. How the hell did you get involved with that and how do you find time to train when working as a chef?

Well the hours are hard and I was looking for an outlet. I wanted to be healthier and more active. I was getting tired of going out late with the industry night life so when I turned 30 I wanted a change.

What’s the biggest triathlon you ever participated in and which one is on your bucket list to do?

Miami 70.3 half iron man. Did really good and I’m training for the full one in July.
Kona in Hawaii, it’s like the Super Bowl of triathlons.

When you train I’m sure you listen to music…..what songs are on your playlist?

Jay Z and Kayne West on Pandora maybe a little Nora Jones and Nirvana.

Personal $hit, you married, kids, where were you born, your high school, pets, and did you go to culinary school?

Single, no kids, Philippines Baguio, no pets, and I graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar.

Let’s talk food. You have a Asian influence with your cuisine, who is your favorite chef that prepares Asian inspired food and why?

Jean Georges because he stays true to the soul of the food.

If you could have that chef prepare you a meal what would request and what would you drink with your meal?

Just have him surprise me.

What is your favorite meal to prepare and what drink would you pair with it?

Adobe braised pork belly Filipino style with just rice. It’s basically Filipino comfort food.

Let’s talk Mai-Kai. I love the Mai-Kai! I grew up with Manager Kern Mattei and my dad worked here for over 30 years in the show. What’s your vision for updating the menu which has not changed much in over 50 years?

Mai Kai is a special place and they come here for the experience and the show. I want to stay with fresh ingredients with a tropical flare; passion fruits, pineapple, and papaya. I want it to remind you of Hawaii. Since we have a mix of customers, I want to give some healthy options too which are gluten free and vegetarian. The Mai-Kai is more Cantonese style now and my goal is to be more Asian inspired.

I’m a big fan of the following dishes: Shanghai chicken, cheese Tangs, egg rolls, Cantonese fried shrimp, crab Rangoon, Nams, Polynesian Chicken, the pork tenderloin, lobster bisque, pan fried noodles, seafood noodles, the ribs, Lobster Bora Bora, Szechuan surf and turf, and anything cooked in the Chinese oven. Are you looking to change/update or delete any of these dishes?

Classics will stay. I want to work more on the technique and execution of each dish.

I see you added some new apps and dishes already, which one is your favorite and why?

I kinda like them all but the charred octopus is something different considering I braise it. Its very tender and has good flavor.

What’s your favorite dish or app on the menu now besides the ones you added and why?

Peking duck because it’s a painstaking process and I appreciate the work that goes into that dish.

Last question, you are on Chopped, for main course I give you, Mai-Kai Barrel of Rum, cooked Tahitian Cheese Tangs, Prime Angus Filet Mignon, baby romaine and French fries. What would you prepare?

Hhmm.. This is a very interesting one! Lol.. What I would probably do is a Potato herb crusted filet with oak wood chard baby romaine salad in a cheese tang rum dressing

I would ground up the French fries and add some fresh herbs and use it as a crust for the filet
I’m going to reduce the rum barrel and add the cheese tangs to make a dressing that I am going to be using for the charred baby romaine and since I love bacon might as well add it in there with a pickled red onion, baby tomatoes, frisée and micro greens that we already have in the restaurant and call it a day!😊

Cool dude huh? I think so. This guy is in his early 30’s and he seemed really mature. On top of that he is a pretty handsome young man so maybe we will see him on TV in the future…you never know!

The New Food

As I mentioned above, I’m a sucker for the Mai-Kai’s classic food. My all time favorites are the Nams, the Seafood Noodles and the Mai-Kai Surf and Turf. The majority of the food has not changed much since I started going there in the 70’s. After interviewing Chef Rivera I was excited to hear his passion for fresh ingredients and healthy options.

We sampled all of the items listed below…They all were good but I’ll feature the ones we thought were great.

AHI TUNA POKE gluten free
Hawaiian Style Tuna Tartare
Seaweed salad, Asian Pear, Avocado, Soy, Sesame, Truffle oil

Pacific Yellowtail, Jalapeno, Cilantro, White Soy, Cassaca Crackers

Fresh Seafood, Mango, Pineapple, Maui Onions, Jalapeno, Yuzu, Passionfruit

Grilled blackened Mahi-Mahi, avocado, crispy wonton shells, lettuce, spicy aioli

Cauliflowers puree, Maui onion rings, Fuji apple, Singapore black pepper sauce

Hawaiian papaya salad, fresno peppers, macadamia, Thai basil pesto

Asian slaw, barbecued steak, Gochujang sauce, white corn tortilla

Chinese steam buns, pickled cucumber, apple kimchee

Artisinal baby romaine, water chestnut, macadamia, roasted mushrooms

Wok sauteed with mushroom sauce, Fuji apple, watercress

Ceviche Sampler

Ceviche Sampler

The first table favorite was a sampler of the Ahi Poke, Hamachi and guacamole, and the Ceviche. I liked them all but my favorite was the Hamachi and Guacamole. The creaminess of the avocado with the heat of the jalapeño combined with the Hamachi was outstanding! What makes it even better is when you placed it on the cassava cracker…It’s not like it added much flavor but the crunchy element complemented the soft textures of the fish and avocados.

Maui Tacos

Maui Tacos

Maui Fish Tacos. Tacos at the Mai-Kai? Great idea if you ask me! Perfect bite of food that would make any surfer or paddle board person smile. Wasn’t spicy at all and the fish was cooked perfectly.

Charred Octopus....just plain AWESOME!

Charred Octopus….just plain AWESOME!

Charred Octopus. Everyone LOVED it!! This was so damn good and tender…I have never had octopus so tender! I asked Chef Rivera how he prepared it and he said, “It’s braised”. I was like no $hit. The papaya was unbelievable, too. It had a teriyaki favor and almost had a meat texture to it. If you were blindfolded and someone gave you a piece of this you would never think it’s a fruit. Just fantastic!

Brussel Sprouts and Cauliflower

Brussel Sprouts and Cauliflower

Brussel Sprouts and Cauliflower. Alright I’m far from being a vegetarian but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate vegetables and fruits more. I was first introduced to Brussel Sprouts when the Food Truck scene was jumping off 7 years ago. I never ate them, my loss:( The Fuji apple rounds this dish out. The sweetness complimented the heartiness of the Brussel sprouts and cauliflower. Fuji apples are very popular in Japan and this is the first time I’ve seen them featured in a dish.

Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Chicken Lettuce Wraps

The sauces

The sauces

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps. This is a spin on the Thai dish, Nad Sod. In the Thai world, they usually use ground pork but I’ve been to restaurants where they use ground chicken. This dish is packed with flavor. The seasonings on the chicken were money and again I just love crunchy elements with my food…the macadamia nuts and water chestnuts did the job for me. But what sends this dish to flavor heaven is the three dipping sauces it comes with….peanut, sirachi chili, and curry mustard. I really liked the sirachi chili sauce which gave the dish a nice punch in the face with spice.


I really liked the direction Chef Rivera is going in! Hardcore Mai-Kai enthusiasts like myself should be pleased with his cuisine. If you haven’t been to the Mai-Kai in a while I highly recommend you go back and sample these new dishes. Go during happy hour, grab a famous Barrel O’ Rum or a Black Magic and dive into the new chow. I want to thank the Owner Dave Levy, Manager Kern Mattie, and Chef Mark Rivera for displaying their “Aloha Spirit” to me and my guests. I give our experience 4 Hinano Tahiti Beers! Remember to tell them Dan I Cook sent you and Stay Hungry!

Four beers = Outstanding
Three beers = Good
Two beers = OK
One beer = Needs work
Zero beers= Sucks (No beer is never a good thing.)

Mai-Kai Restaurant

3599 North Federal Highway

Ft. Lauderdale, 33308


4 Comments to “Interview and Tasting: Mark Rivera, The New Chef of The Mai-Kai Restaurant”

  1. brian faer says:

    I went to the Mai Kai on Saturday to celebrate my daughters graduation from High School and her birthday. My wife and I took her and 10 of her High School aged friends. Everything was delicious! I had the prime rib which was cooked and seasoned perfectly. Prime Rib can run a little fatty but this piece must have had lipo, as it was a solid piece of meat with little to trim off. The horse radish sauce added a little extra flavor and heat. I looked around the table and everything looked superb. The California Roll appetizer looked delicious and was bountiful. My wife had the chicken stir fry and loved it. Overall, the food, atmosphere and show were awesome and will not soon be forgotten. Thanks to the Mai Kai for making this event a great success!

  2. Andy says:

    I have been going to MaiKai my entire life…I am 50 now. It was always the place to go on a special occasion. I live 6 hours away now but still make it every now and again. I am dying to get a recipe for their bbq sauce..the one that comes with the bacon wrapped chicken. I am sure it is a secret but even if someone can get me close to a recipe. You can buy it there but they bottle it in the kitchen without preservatives(which is great of course) but it only lasts a couple of weeks in the fridge and I can’t make it down there to get it. I am not asking for an ancient secret recipe LOL but get me close to that flavor because I live too far away and when I taste that flavor I am 7 years old again sitting in MaiKai watchinhg the show and drinking out of a pineapple….every 50 year old should be so lucky!