Q&A With Pensacola's Celebrity Chefs

    By Douglas Rojas-Sosa

    Centuries of cultural influences flavor the menus in the City of Five Flags. The celebrity chefs recently prepared a Viva Florida 500 feast at the James Beard House in New York.

    If you have one day in Pensacola, chef Irv Miller knows exactly what you should eat: a carpetbag steak.

    The original recipe – first printed in the early 1940s but likely older – calls for cutting a pocket in a thick steak, stuffing it with raw oysters and sewing the pocket together.

    But after years of following the guidelines, Miller has tinkered with tradition: He uses fried oysters, wraps them in a flat iron steak, and finishes the dish with blue cheese cream and crumbs and fresh-cut chives.

    This specialty of Miller’s Jackson’s Steakhouse is a prime example of the culinary delights being prepared in this northwest Florida city.

    The "Pensacola Celebrity Chefs" – Miller, Jim Shirley of the Fish House, Gus Silivos of Skopelos/Nancy’s Haute Affairs, Frank Taylor of Global Grill and Dan Dunn of H2O at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front – are creating a unique food style by taking advantage of rich historical influences that have converged here. The result is that Pensacola has become a must-visit destination on the culinary map of the United States. 

    The city’s culinary culture is inspired by Spanish, English, French, Native American, Floridian and Southern U.S. cultures. The dishes prepared by these chefs incorporate the best seafood from the Gulf Coast, mixed with vegetables, nuts, fruits, spices and other meats that have arrived in Florida thanks to almost 500 years of constant exchange between the old and the new worlds.

    In 2009, during the celebration of Pensacola’s 450th anniversary, the chefs cooked for Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Most recently, on March 27, 2012, the chefs prepared a historic dinner at New York’s acclaimed James Beard House as part of Viva Florida 500, the celebration of 500 years of Florida history. For the Beard House event, the chefs took historical recipes that have been used in Florida for hundreds of years and modernized them with their own interpretation.

    The menu included Gulf red snapper with stewed collard greens and a roasted corn and red pepper beurre blanc; pecan and country ham-crusted softshell crab stuffed with housemade seafood boudin blanc; grilled cobia, sautéed mustard greens and field peas with preserved Florida lemons, with spoonbread and smoked ham-hock sauce; and Gulf grouper sautéed over Cantonment stone-ground grit cake topped with Cedar Key clams and house-made chorizo in a chicken broth with tomatoes, jalapeno and black-eyed peas.

    VISITFLORIDA.com had the chance to ask a few questions to three of the Pensacola Celebrity Chefs.

    What do you think is the major contribution, or contributions, of Spain to the culinary culture of Florida?

    Irv Miller: The Spanish in particular brought over many of their beloved homeland foods beginning about 450 years ago in order to start America’s first settlement here along the Gulf Coast. Small-scale gardens included Seville oranges, grapes, figs, peaches, plums, beans, peppers, watermelons and peaches. In this modern era, we have unique and treasured foods from the Gulf Coast waters that include grouper, scamp, snapper, cobia, tuna, yellowtail, mahi mahi and some of the country’s best oysters, crab and shrimp, making our cooking coastal in nature.

    Gus Silivos: There are certainly many contributions from the Spanish in our local cuisine, but one of the earliest would be olive oil. It was extremely interesting to learn that the first olive pits in the New World were discovered in Pensacola.

    Jim Shirley: Our culinary history with Spain can be seen in many classic dishes in Pensacola, but the real impact can be felt through our new Latin citizens who bring a fresh charge of culinary delights that are directly traced to Spain.

    How do you incorporate ingredients and foods original from Florida into your cuisine? What makes Florida unique as a culinary point of interest?

    Miller: The ingredients we are using are of significant importance for our regional cuisine. We met with foodways experts from the University of West Florida, who work closely with archaeological dig sites and discovered that many of the same foods still remain today; for example, fruit seeds and olive pits, as well as animal bone discoveries that include venison, beef and pork. Though our menu incorporates the best Gulf Coast seafood, we use many other ingredients, including mushrooms, potatoes, zucchini, squash, spinach, arugula, tomatoes – and berries when in season. For me, it’s our sustainable local seafood that sets us apart and is of particular interest. I do enjoy creating menu items that reflect the bold flavors of our heritage in my personal interpretation and using my favorite preparations according to the seasons. 

    Silivos: Incorporating local ingredients is easy because the Gulf Coast is a rich source of a large variety of fabulous foods – from our coastal waters full of fresh seafood indigenous to our area, to the southern staples such as pecans, grits, collards and so many more.
    The menu prepared for the "Pensacola Celebration" dinner at the James Beard Foundation in New York was a terrific showcase of Florida flavors. What do you hope the guests will remember from this gala?

    Miller: This was our encore culinary event at the James Beard House. (The Celebrity Chefs were featured previously, in June 2011.) I hope they remember that Pensacola was where the first settlement began. Our cross-cultural foodways timeline identifies the foods of five governments and cultures – Spanish, French, British, Confederate and the United States. Include Mexico, the Native American Indians and, more recently, foods from the Deep South, then season with a little spice from Central and South America, and our food becomes a celebration of flavors from over 450 years of time and travel.

    We are home to some of the South’s best coastal cuisine that was brought by our earliest settlers – cowpeas, other legumes, okra and millet. New World settlers brought almonds and olives, peanuts, chili peppers, berries, pumpkins and yams, including spices from the Caribbean. The Native American Indians savored oysters, shrimp, crabs, conch and scallops gathered along our shallow waters and Pensacola Bay estuaries. Our menus are deeply rooted in celebrating the foods of the Deep South such as collards, field peas, melons and peaches while promoting Pensacola’s agriculture and Florida seafood.

    Shirley: I hope they will remember the quality and depth of the culinary talent – as well as the quality and range of the foods found in the Pensacola Bay Area.

    What does it mean for you to participate in the James Beard event?

    Miller: The James Beard House is known throughout the country as "the Carnegie Hall for chefs." The James Beard Foundation was created in 1985 by Peter Kump, shortly after American chef and food writer James Beard passed away. The organization is located at his former residence in Greenwich Village. This is a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to "celebrate, preserve and nurture our American culinary heritage and future."

    Shirley: It was a great feeling of accomplishment to be cooking at such an important place in the culinary world. To do it with a group of talented friends is even better.

    If somebody goes to Pensacola for one day and decides to have dinner at your restaurant, what is the must-have dish? Can you tell us a little bit about the history behind these dishes?

    Silivos: If visiting Nancy’s Haute Affairs, even if Scamp Cervantes is not on the weekly menu, one should always request it. I prepared the dish for the first time as a special at our original restaurant, which was on Cervantes street. I wanted to showcase the best of the Gulf Coast by combining scamp, which is in the grouper family and our fresh blue crab meat. The dish became an instant success and one of our featured entrees from that point forward. If you are just dropping by Nancy’s for a quick lunch, our gourmet sandwiches are a must, one of the most popular is our Grilled Asparagus Panini.

    Shirley: Grits à ya ya is the must-try dish at the Fish House. Conceived in 1998 during raucous Mardi Gras celebrations, it’s a delicious combination of a Gulf Coast classic, shrimp and grits.

    Obesity is an international health concern. What role should chefs play in the community regarding the promotion of healthful eating habits?

    Miller: It’s my belief that all chefs have the responsibility to pave the path for healthful eating. Chefs can take the opportunity and responsibility to promote fresh and sustainable food ingredients daily. Personal signature, chef-style and industry recognition can still be achieved through nutritious foods and menu planning. Plan menus around seasonal foods. Chefs can create palate-pleasing foods by using fewer fatty foods and teaching how to use chilies, spices and herbs to flavor bland foods. We should make the effort to participate by starting at home and with our own personal grocery shopping. Encourage healthful eating throughout snack time. Be knowledgeable and mindful of personal food quantity intake and frequency of meals. Promote fresh vegetables and fruits by supporting small growers and farmers. We can begin by taking responsibility for the foods we serve in our restaurants. Ultimately, if we provide healthful options, menu selection choices and eating habits become the responsibility of the diner.

    Silivos: It is important to us at Nancy’s to always offer healthy choices. We take pride in offering not only low-fat options, but also vegetarian and vegan, and meeting any special need. We always welcome requests and try to prepare each entrée to accommodate any health or taste issues.

    Shirley: Fresh, local food is great for people’s health and for the health of our world. Freshly made dishes trump processed food not only regarding flavor, but also in terms of good health. Chefs are in the perfect position to make sure that the food they serve is not only delicious, but also chosen for its nutritive attributes and prepared in ways that don’t diminish those qualities. This sets an example for all to follow.

    For more information and biographies about the chefs, visit pensacolacelebritychefs.com.

    Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Chef Irv Miller also appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Watch the video here.