vie magazine subscribe button

Coastal Food with New Urban Soul

By Boyce Upholt  |  Photos by Kreg Holt Photography

They might not know it, but many people around the world have become familiar with classic Florida Panhandle architecture. That’s because the town of Seaside is now a global icon of good design and has many faithful imitators. Classic Florida beachside construction has influenced the standard look of New Urbanism.

The food of the region, though, is less well known. Sure, everyone eats seafood stews and fresh oysters—but fish throats? Or swamp cabbage? Even some locals overlook these classic Panhandle delicacies. Then again, before developer Robert Davis conceived of Seaside, its now-famous home styles seemed to be fading too.

Chef Jim Shirley’s recent splash in New York City could help change the reputation of these forgotten foods. On January 24, Shirley and staff from his Seaside-area restaurants prepared a five-course “Taste of Seaside” dinner at the James Beard House. The facility is owned by the James Beard Foundation, one of the premier culinary organizations in the world. An invitation to cook there—or perform, as the foundation puts it—is considered recognition of excellence. (This was Shirley’s fifth time cooking at the house, though his first as the sole headliner.) For his performance, Shirley aimed to show off the depth of Gulf Coast cuisine—and its endless possibilities.

 

Shirley’s playfulness as a chef is revealed in his trademark shrimp-and-grits recipe, which he served at the dinner. He stumbled upon the recipe while visiting his daughter in Italy; unable to purchase grits or bacon, he went with the local equivalents—polenta cakes and pancetta. Another hit in New York was his cioppino, a fish stew. “Blue crabs and local tomatoes—that makes an incredible broth,” Shirley says.

An invitation to cook there—or perform, as the foundation puts it—is considered recognition of excellence.

From “Ol’ Florida mullet,” as Shirley calls the familiar Panhandle fish, the chef conjured a smoky dip that was served atop house-made crackers. The dish reveals the importance of knowing your ingredients: because mullet is a bottom-feeder, it often tastes muddy. “From most places, it tastes terrible,” Shirley explains. “But you can go through the state and see where they have those clean white sands.” Those sands produce a much cleaner tasting fish. “Good smoked mullet dip is just a Gulf classic,” Shirley says.

Grouper throats perhaps best represent the more esoteric Gulf food traditions. Long eaten by fishermen, this is a delicacy unknown by even locals who have a slightly more distant relationship to the sea. Shirley compares the throats to the dark meat of a chicken, more richly flavored than the rest of the fish. He served them in a gougère (a high-class cheese-puff pastry, in other words) topped with local pickles.

 

Shirley knows he opened the eyes of attendees at the James Beard event. “I’m pretty sure they had not seen kimchi made of swamp cabbage,” he says, using the colloquial name for sabal palms. The hearts of new sabal fronds have a cabbage-like texture.

The son of a Navy pilot, Shirley was born in Pensacola, Florida, where he was exposed to the cultural gumbo that marks Gulf Coast food history: local Native American roots and influences from the Spanish and French empires, as well as from African chefs. The Navy influence also meant Shirley grew up eating food from across the Pacific Rim.

When he opened his first restaurant, Madison’s Diner, in Pensacola in 1995, Shirley struggled to buy local produce from farmers. “I couldn’t get them to grow anything besides squash and zucchini,” he says, “even if I gave them the seeds.”

The chefs of the Jim Shirley Beard event.
Chefs Andrew Dahl, Tim Plowick, and Sandor Zombori of Great Southern Café and Michael Mix and Ben Steeno of The Bay joined Shirley to prepare the meal at the James Beard House.

Over time, through mutual connections, Shirley struck up a good relationship and shared a vision with Robert Davis, the founder and developer of Seaside. The town was more amenable to his explorations, given its emphasis on building sustainable, locally rooted communities. In 2006, the chef opened his first restaurant in the area, the Great Southern Café. Since then, Shirley has opened three more restaurants in and around Seaside.

Shirley says it was a bit of a scramble to prepare for the James Beard event, which was not confirmed until November. But, hoping for such an opportunity, he had planned ahead by canning and preserving local produce. In late January, his local Seaside purveyors packed coolers and wrapped them in tape—pieces of the Panhandle were heading north to the big city. One can imagine that, as the world comes to know these coastal food traditions, it won’t be the last such journey.

— V —




Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
Summertime!
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail

X

A LIFESTYLE