Q: How did your upbringing influence your career path?
A: I’m a native Floridian and that goes several generations back. I grew up in a family that was heavily involved in food and hospitality. My grandfather was a corporate executive at Publix, having started with them as a butcher after returning from World War II. My uncle, Ray Killen, was a chef and had a catering business in Lakeland (my hometown). My first restaurant job was working for him in an incredibly historic restaurant in Lighthouse Point, Fla. called Cap’s Place. He lost some of his staff unexpectedly and took me in to peel potatoes and cut fries. I believe that was in 1972 and I was nine years old. I worked for him throughout high school and college doing catering but I never really considering going into the field myself.
Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to be a chef, and why?
A: An aunt and uncle of mine were living on Anna Maria so, after college, I moved there to avoid the drive back and forth to Lakeland every day off. I was gravitating toward my true calling: being a beach bum. I quickly learned that the best return for my time was in the restaurant business. I started at the Holiday Inn on Longboat Key in the mid-1980s and I learned that my place was in the kitchen. Then I landed a job cooking at Euphemia Haye in 1991. I met my wife at the Holiday Inn and we raised five amazing kids while I gathered experience at Mar Vista, the Beach Bistro and other well-respected restaurants. I reopened The Waterfront Restaurant on Anna Maria after they rebuilt it, and I was there for almost eight years. I feel it was fortuitous to be hired by the Seafood Shack for their rebirth. Startups and rebuilds were always my forte. This opportunity was too good to pass up and it does feel like a perfect match.
Q: What is one of your signature dishes and what makes it special?
A: My cheesecake is my uncle’s recipe. I got him to write it down a couple of times but it never came out right when I tried to do it. Finally, I got him to make it in front of me and explain the process more thoroughly. The ingredient list and cursory instructions were not enough. I realize now that he really didn’t want to give it up. He made me swear I would never write it down, at least until after he died. I never have. I love the way it can be flavored: raspberry white chocolate, blueberry banana, strawberry lime, caramel apple, Butterfinger, etc.
Q: Who are some of your culinary role models outside of your family?
A: Paul Bocuse is a rock star. Auguste Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin, Prosper Montagne, Phileas Gilbert…these people get food at such a primal and “back of the house” way that they seem like old friends to me. Christopher Kimball, who puts out Cook’s Illustrated, is another inspiration. I like how he and his team will pick a dish, search out all the variations and test them, then combine all the best elements into an ideal. I do the same thing when I cook.
Q: What do you like to do when you are not working?
A: I came to this area to live on the beach, so my wife and I are there whenever work and the weather allows. The restaurant where she works is closed on Monday, so that is typically our day. Having been lucky enough to buy a house on Anna Maria back in the 1980s, we get to live in a resort community and the beach is within walking distance. We do the trolley crawls up to Bridge Street, and we hang out at the Rod and Reel. We enjoy visits to Sarasota and tend to act as if we are from much farther away. We’ll stay in Siesta for the drum circle and eat at the Oaks (an incredible old barbecue place on U.S. 41) or stay at Hotel Indigo and catch a performance at the Van Wezel. We might check into the Golden Host and do the Bahi Hut, or enjoy a long afternoon at Phillippi Creek, eating oysters, mussels, shrimp and drinking pitchers of beer.
SEAFOOD SHACK OYSTER ROAST
8 freshly shucked oysters on the half shell
½ cup Andouille sausage, diced
½ cup bacon, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup onion, diced
¼ cup celery, diced
¼ cup red and green bell peppers, diced
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
½ cup Ritz crackers, crushed
¼ green onion
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Render the bacon and sausage together, add the garlic and brown. Add the butter and the holy trinity, and cook for 20 minutes. Set the mixture aside and allow it to cool. Add the Ritz crackers and green onions, and season to taste with the Tabasco sauce. Mound the mixture evenly on the oysters, and top each one with Parmesan cheese. Bake the dish at 350 degrees until it has a crusty brown top.