Chef Jim Shirley, Farm & Fire, Romona Robbins


Chef Jim Shirley at Farm & Fire | Photo by Romona Robbins

Southern Man Cooks

The Evolution of Chef Jim Shirley

By Jordan Staggs

When Chef Jim Shirley started his career in the culinary industry, he set out to share the recipes and Southern hospitality he had loved from growing up helping his grandmothers in the kitchen. As the son of a Navy pilot, he has also been greatly influenced by traveling while growing up, such as being stationed in Iceland and traveling throughout Europe, chatting with the fish-and-chips purveyors of London, or gaining knowledge through his father’s time spent in Vietnam.

That worldly perspective has continually inspired the chef and restaurateur, along with his skilled culinary and hospitality teams, at his seven current establishments in the South Walton area of Florida’s Gulf Coast and the three establishments under his co-owned Great Southern Restaurants group in Pensacola. Still, his commitment to the Southern concepts of comfort food, welcoming guests as family, and sourcing fresh, local ingredients whenever possible has been the crux of Jim Shirley Enterprises since he opened his first restaurant in 1995.

Chef Jim Shirley, Farm & Fire, Romona Robbins

Chef Jim Shirley at Farm & Fire | Photo by Romona Robbins

“I started with those things—those family experiences in the South—and then all the other little pieces of my knowledge came from working and training with other chefs, whether it was a French chef in Macon, Georgia, or Jim McManus back in the ’80s at Jubilee Oyster Bar in Pensacola,” Jim says. “For developing international dishes, I try to find somebody’s grandmother to learn from. Somebody’s grandmother knows how to cook it, and that’s how you find the true recipes.”

Expanding his influence as an educator and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement in Northwest Florida was a natural step following his establishment as a chef and restaurateur.

“We’d done well in Pensacola and helped build a lot there. I was fortunate to be there at the right time when there was so much growth in the restaurant scene,” Jim recalls. “I was also involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance and trying to build the farm-to-table movement here. I had all these great seeds for produce that needed to be grown in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties. I gave them to all the farmers, but they all grew squash and zucchini instead of the variety of items needed to sustain restaurants in the area, so they all ended up with a huge surplus of produce at the end of the season, and it just went to waste. It was a challenge to get people to see the value in what we were trying to do.”

Luckily, Jim wasn’t alone in his belief that Northwest Florida could do better. His mission to create great culinary experiences in the area and to build the state’s reputation for quality food, responsible restaurant and farming practices, and support for hospitality workers is ongoing, with support from his staff and from friends like Dr. Ken Ford, who happened to be Jim’s neighbor back in Pensacola during those early restaurant years.

crab cakes, great southern cafe,

And, as a true entrepreneur, he’s far from finished building his legacy

“Dr. Ken Ford runs the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition,” Jim explains. “He’s also considered a world-renowned culinary doctor—he was one of the heads at NASA, a head of the National Science Foundation, one of the ‘kings of Antarctica’—and he is a super foodie. John T. Edge was hired by Bon Appétit to follow him around and write about what he was eating. And Ken was coaching me through a lot of things back then with food; he was a James Beard judge, as well. I could call him up from anywhere in the world like, ‘Hey, I’m in Paris.’ And he’d say, ‘Go here, look for this guy—the bald bartender—order this, order that.’ Or ‘Sit here, get the ten-course menu.’ He was invaluable in providing advice on what I should eat in any given city.” From Le Bernardin in New York to L’Atelier Robuchon in Paris, Jim says those “perfect” meal experiences were some of the best educational tools he could have as a chef and restaurant owner.

tuna poke bowl, north beach social

Making the move from his first few restaurants in Pensacola to opening his iconic eateries in Walton County, about fifty miles east, also involved a trip with Dr. Ken Ford and Robert Davis, the confounded and visionary of Seaside, Florida, and founder of the Seaside Institute, which aims to improve lifestyles through forward-thinking town planning, community programming, and innovation.

“I had invited Robert to an event in Pensacola and we started talking about the struggle I was having with the farmers,” Jim explains. “Through the Seaside Institute and the Pienza program they were doing, he invited me to a charette with Alice Waters, who started the farm-to-table part of Chez Panisse in California. Going on that trip was great for me and others from our area because you could look out the window and see all the white cows and the goats in the fields and know that when you looked down at your plate, you’d see the direct result of that farm-to-table movement and how it works. And from sharing that experience, I got to know Robert Davis better, and he offered me the spot in Seaside for the Great Southern Café.”

The landmark restaurant in Seaside’s Central Square boasts a beloved menu of Southern staples for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus an irresistible lineup of cocktails and—as even some locals might not know—an extensive award-winning wine list that has garnered the restaurant the coveted Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the past decade. (The Jim Shirley team frequently travels to renowned wine regions around the globe to expand their knowledge and portfolio.) Shirley’s signature Great Southern Café dish, Grits à Ya Ya, is celebrated nationwide. The dish was named “The best Southern dish in Florida” by Florida Travel and Life magazine. It was also chosen by Congressman Jeff Miller (then a Florida state representative) to take to Washington, D.C., for A Taste of the South, an event held on Capitol Hill for over a thousand dignitaries.

Photo by Chryseis Golden

His other restaurants in Walton County include the trendy frozen beverage bar, b.f.f., which is “lovingly attached” to Great Southern, while just off the patio, The C-Bar is an upcycled shipping container bar that provides an excellent gathering spot for locals and visitors alike to “unpack happiness.” There, they can enjoy the signature drinks and exceptional wine and beer list of Great Southern Café coupled with the new, exciting food menu from Shirley’s latest endeavor, 87 Central Square wine bar. The Meltdown on 30A is another Seaside favorite, which serves gourmet grilled cheese from one of the town’s iconic Airstream trailers. A few miles northwest on the shores of the Choctawhatchee Bay, beautiful views and great epicurean offerings abound at The Bay restaurant, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Across Highway 331, with an equally stunning view of the water, North Beach Social is a casual dining-and-drinks destination hosting some of South Walton’s best live music events weekly, along with larger functions. Upstairs, its sister restaurant, Farm & Fire, brings in the international flair with a menu boasting everything from sushi to pizza and fresh Gulf seafood, along with a rotation of seasonal specials and incredible craft cocktails.

Our team members are like family

A deluge of awards for all his restaurants has followed suit since Jim began, along with his notoriety as a culinary leader in the South. From his former cooking show on local television and “Good Grits!” column in the Pensacola News Journal to his Good Grits! Southern Boy Cooks cookbook, his stint as the president of Florida Restaurants and Lodging Association, and his support of tourism in the Southeastern US and Florida, it’s clear that Chef Shirley’s career will have a lasting impact on the culinary and hospitality industries in Florida and beyond. He is one of a select few chefs chosen to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York—an honor he has held six times. In 2022, his team traveled to the Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival to compete and represent South Walton, Florida. Jim has also received the prestigious Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award, the 2020 Shining Example Award—Epicurean Partner from the Southeast Tourism Society, and the Torch Award from the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Show for his outstanding knowledge and leadership, philanthropic and community efforts, and extraordinary talent, innovation, and inspiration.

And, as a true entrepreneur, he’s far from finished building his legacy.

Photo by Chryseis Golden

“I like to do new things, and I’m always looking for something else to do,” he explains. “I love Great Southern Café and Grits à Ya Ya, but I’ve been cooking it since 1998—I’ve got it down. So I’m always looking for what else we’re going to do, and it usually starts by playing around with a certain dish or idea.”

Jim says Farm & Fire is an excellent place for experimenting with new menu items. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a crowd favorite, and we’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things there. I’ve managed to put restaurants in three of the only old buildings left in South Walton, so they have so much character. It’s a great way to hold onto some of the area’s culture and celebrate that.”

Celebration is precisely what Jim’s latest endeavor, 87 Central Square, is all about. ​​In creating a new gathering spot in Seaside perfect for special events, everyday dining, and indulging in fine wine, beer, and craft cocktails, this destination fills a niche for an outdoor casual venue with award-winning food and one of the most robust wine lists on 30-A. The menu is led by a thoughtfully curated drink selection along with sushi, tapas, and more, paying homage to Chef Jim Shirley’s classics and embracing beloved “happy hour” dishes from around the world. “With 87 Central Square, we aim to provide a much-needed escape for adults visiting Seaside and offer the local community a welcoming retreat,” says Jim. “We’re eager to bring people together in celebration of food and drink, including our famous seafood paella.”

Madison Shirley, Jim Shirley, 87 Central Square, Jim Shirley Enterprises, Chryseis Golden

Madison and Jim Shirley at the Grand Opening of 87 Central Square in Seaside | Photo by Chryseis Golden

If you’re not hungry yet, rest assured there’s more to come from Chef Jim Shirley and his team, which includes many members who have been with the company for five, ten, fifteen years, or more. “Your crew will make all the difference in this business,” Jim insists. “If you don’t have a great crew and they’re not all in, you’re not going to make it.”

It has also become a true family affair as Jim’s daughter, Maidson Shirley, recently stepped into the position of vice president, and Jon Shirley, Jim’s brother, was named chief operating officer earlier this year.

Hunter Burgtorf, sushi, 87 central square

Sushi at 87 Central Square | Photo by Hunter Burgtorf

After growing up along the Gulf Coast and helping out at her father’s restaurants—she was even the first hostess and food runner at Great Southern Café—Madison moved west, most recently living in Oregon for several years before she returned to South Walton in 2021. Having worked in marketing for Adobe, Nest (whose parent company is Google), and the craft beer industry on the West Coast, Madison combines her love of both industries to bring a fresh, modern perspective to storytelling for the company. She also shares Jim’s deep passion for all things food and a drive to educate consumers on interesting flavors and techniques, sustainable ingredient harvesting and sourcing, and the best environmental and health-conscious practices in every aspect of the business.

With a rich background in the culinary sector mirroring that of his brother, Jon Shirley boasts a remarkable twenty-five-year career at Sysco, including ten years at the corporate offices in Houston. Jon was pivotal in overseeing the seafood sustainability program, collaborating closely with esteemed organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation, Best Aquaculture Practices, the Marine Stewardship Council, and Monterey Bay Aquarium. His corporate social responsibility contributions extended to the development of Sysco’s Animal Welfare Program, assuring Sysco conducts business only with suppliers committed to the ethical treatment of livestock animals. Later, Jon transitioned to category commercialization, where he collaborated on end-to-end product development and played a key role in digital readiness initiatives.

“You have a family of origin and a family of choice, and I’m fortunate to be a part of both the Shirley family and the family they’ve built at Jim Shirley Enterprises,” shares Jon. “My focus is on maintaining relentless hospitality and developing our people professionally and personally.”

Jon Shirley

Jon Shirley | Photo by Chryseis Golden

The family doesn’t end with the Shirleys. “Our team members are like family,” Madison says. “Several of them have been here for years and helped shape our Chef Jim Shirley restaurants, story, menus, and legacy for hospitality. We also love it when families visit our restaurants, whether they stop by for brunch at Great Southern Café or spend an afternoon playing on the beach and having a great meal at The Bay or North Beach Social.”

There’s no doubt more excitement coming from the Chef Jim Shirley team this year, whether that’s new restaurant concepts in South Walton, events for locals and visitors year-round, or new food and drink items at your favorite hot spots. It’s safe to say Jim and his crew never experience a dull moment—something he says keeps the business fun but can also be stressful. Expounding on the need for a great team and advice for young chefs and restaurateurs who wish to gain traction in the culinary industry, he says, “It’s a lot of work, and you’d better love it. Do your homework, put together a great team, and remember to count your beans!”

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Visit to learn more and explore all his restaurants, or head to @chefjimshirley on Instagram for the latest news.

You can also catch VIE editor-in-chief Lisa Marie Burwell’s interview with Chef Jim Shirley on VIE Speaks: Conversations with Heart & Soul podcast at, YouTube, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!

Seasonal Sips

Farm & Fire Debuts New Cocktail Lineup

The mixologists of Farm & Fire in South Walton, Florida, have tested their mettle to create the best spring and summer cocktails, and the four winners are now on the menu! Get a sneak peek or learn how to make these colorful libations at home as we spotlight the F&F bar staff and their latest mixes.

Farm and Fire, south walton restaurant

Farm and Fire cocktails

The Mandito | By Elliot Fullerton

farm and fire, south walton, chef jim shirley, hunter bergdorf

Photo by Hunter Burgtorf

2 oz Reposado tequila

.5 oz hand-squeezed mandarin orange juice

1.5 oz lime

Splash of nectar of agave

Chopped Fresno peppers

Tajin and salt rim

Served smoked

Smoky Cocchi | By Desirae Golden

Smoky cocchi, desiree golden, farm and fire,

Photo by Hunter Bergdorf

.5 oz Ilegal Mezcal

2 oz Cocchi Americano

.5 oz Giffard Pamplemousse

.5 oz Lemon Juice

Dash of Angostura bitters

Dash of Fee Brothers Grapefruit bitters

Yellow Fly Martini |By Kristen Tracey

kristen tracey, yellow fly martini, farm and fire

Photo by Hunter Bergdorf

1.5 oz Grey Goose vodka

.5 oz St. Germain

.75 oz Lemon Juice

.5 oz Fresno Chile syrup

Mercury Retrograde | By Chryseis Golden

farm and fire, south walton, chef jim shirley, hunter bergdorf

Photo by Hunter Burgtorf

1 oz Bar Hill Gin

.5 oz Heirloom Genepy

.5 oz Lemon Juice

.5 oz Egg White

.5 oz house-made Grenadine

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