Hotel Effie dinner to benefit Emerald Coast Autism Center
SANDESTIN – Hotel Effie has partnered with the Emerald Coast Autism Center for a special one-night event hosted by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson Friday, July 15 from 6 to 10 p.m. The pre-fixe dinner will take place at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Ovide, nestled in the heart of the world-famous Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
The spectacular culinary showcase will allow attendees to meet and interact with Acheson during the dinner, which will include a multi-course menu, showcasing Acheson’s creativity and passion for distinctive ingredients and cooking techniques by fusing coastal cuisine with a sophisticated French influence.
The evening will also include wine pairings by Presqu’ile Winemaker and Dieter Cronje, a silent auction, special guest speakers, and a magical cocktail reception. The reception will be hosted by renowned mixologist Kellie Thorn, who has received considerable recognition for her craft cocktails.
A portion of the night’s proceeds will be donated to the Emerald Coast Autism Center, a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to educating and improving the lives of individuals with autism in Okaloosa and Walton counties and surrounding areas. Every dollar raised for this evening’s event will be matched dollar for dollar by a matching grant that has been generously put in place by the Dugas family, a supporter of ECAC.
While there are a multitude of restaurants throughout South Walton, leaving the house for a restaurant-quality experience isn’t always necessary. But before you go hunting through your phone for takeout, consider the option of hiring a private chef to make your next meal something truly unforgettable.
Surprisingly, there are a number of private chefs in South Walton, many of whom have impressive resumes and a skillset that makes them highly in demand. From regular bookings to special occasions, these talented individuals are culinary masters whose abilities are yours for the asking.
Kyle Swift: Swiftly Catered
For Kyle Swift of Swiftly Catered and Blue Mountain Bakery, leaving the restaurant scene was inspired by his love for his guests and the desire to create a more personal connection with them.
“I did my first private dinner in 2015 and immediately fell in love,” said Swift, who worked in the kitchens of such restaurants as Christiano’s, Summer Kitchen, and Acme Ice House before becoming a private chef and launching his own businesses. “Direct interaction with your guests, more attention to detail, less room for error. You can’t send out a general manager from behind the kitchen doors when you make a mistake. The whole restaurant experience is on your shoulders, so you must deliver.
“Building long-lasting relations with our clients has been the best part. We have guests that have now been dining with us for seven years. We’ve had clients that had teenage children turn into young adults and we went from bringing them kid’s meals to cooking for their weddings. Interacting directly with our guests versus being stuck behind kitchen walls at a restaurant is so much more rewarding.”
Dan Vargo: Fine Coastal Cuisine
Making the change to the private sector in 2021, Dan Vargo left a prestigious career that took him all over the country and even across the Atlantic. Having come back to South Walton after years away, Vargo’s skills brought him to Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood before he became the executive chef of the Hilton Sandestin. Still, Vargo realized he needed a change.
“I have done many private dinners over the years, and I really enjoyed the way each meal was custom-made for the guests,” he said. “I loved being able to focus and personalize each culinary experience. After achieving the corporate goals I had set for myself, I decided to make the change to private chef and launched Fine Coastal Cuisine.
“Making custom menus for guests is my favorite part of being a private chef. Every meal is tailor-made and catered to each client. I have menus, but they serve more as an inspiration. In a restaurant, you can run features and change menus a few times a year, but I enjoy how each event as a private chef is unique. I also enjoy how much interaction I have. I get a personal experience at every event.”
Making it in the private realm
Clearly, there’s something to be said for the private experience. There’s a quality to the work and an attention to detail that isn’t always possible in a restaurant environment, where time, volume, and expediency can overrule. Naturally, it takes a skilled chef to make it in the private realm. All eyes are on them, their techniques and ability to create set squarely in the spotlight, with expectations high. Their ability to adapt and pivot when needed is also key, though keeping their clients happy can be a challenge when things don’t go according to plan. In those instances, private chefs show their true acumen, rising to the challenge and creating masterpieces.
Boasting an ability to pair flavors, to bring out the subtleties and nuances of their ingredients, to conceptualize and construct a dish that is both flavorful and beautiful, private chefs take pride in sharing in their guests’ enjoyment of their creations.
“I love getting people together, putting flavors and ingredients from all over the world into a dish and then sharing that experience together,” said Swift. “Once it’s all been cooked and cleaned up, there’s nothing left but the experience. It becomes about more than just the food.”
“Cooking is like an open-ended book,” added Vargo. “There is always so much more to learn and perfect. There are so many cultures, all with foods that tell a unique story and that create an experience.”
Creating an experience is the very thing that drives a true chef. From first bite to last, every dish is a masterpiece to be appreciated and savored. And for private chefs, that masterpiece is personal.
ROSEMARY BEACH – Restaurant Paradis has a warmth and elegance that welcomes guests as soon as they walk through the door. This fine-dining restaurant, led by Executive Chef Mark Eichin and his talented culinary team, is a local favorite for its unique approach to coastal cuisine, as well as its popular wine and dinner pairings.
Everything on the menu is fresh and new, with locally sourced ingredients.
“I like to try to buy local as much as possible because it supports mom and pop shops, as well as the local economy,” Chef Eichin said. “And also, why do I need to get tomatoes from California if I’ve got them growing right here and they taste even better? We also make everything in-house, like all of our stocks. When we’re in our busy season, I re-prep the entire menu from scratch every single day.”
The menu often changes depending on what’s in-season, but there are some mainstays that are usually available. Those include dishes like diver scallops, tuna tartare, beef & blues cheese tortellini, and Chef Eichin’s award-winning cast-iron filet seared in duck fat with lobster tail tempura.
Eichin, who has been with Restaurant Paradis since the beginning, credits an attention to detail for the success of most dishes. But he also has a vast and interesting food background that tends to influence many of his creations. As a military brat (both his parents served in the Air Force), Eichin grew up living all around the world where he got to sample many different types of cuisine.
“I was actually born in England, my oldest brother was born in Germany, and my little brother was born in Texas,” he said. “Then, when we came back to the states, we went from Texas to Georgia to East Tennessee. My dad was always a foodie from living in Europe, so we were exposed to quite a bit of different types of food.”
His mother grew up on a farm in Minnesota, made a lot of home-cooked meals and taught him the value of using fresh ingredients.
“I used to always love being in the kitchen and cooking with my mom. My philosophy is that cooking is like the wheel: everything’s already been done. So, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just take aspects of it, along with influences from a little bit of German or English or finding a dish I like and recreating my own way of making it better.”
He also values the creative input of others on his kitchen staff in trying new things for some of the specials on the menu.
Eichin enjoys collaborating when creating specific dishes to pair with different types of wine available.
“Our wine program is really, really, really incredible and I wish I could take a little bit of credit for that, but I can’t,” he said. “That comes from Michael Wood, our general manager. I’ll sit down and figure out what our main wines are by the glass, then I’ll start building things off a round to accommodate them. You always want one thing to complement another.”
It’s made Restaurant Paradis a popular stop for wine enthusiasts.
Chef Eichin is proud to be part of the amazing group that’s so dedicated to creating a one-of-a-kind experience that keeps guests coming back again and again.
“The one thing I’ve always loved about this industry is, it’s kind of an instant gratification type of deal. You don’t need anything to be said, you just walk around and see the smiles and people enjoying it and it makes the work you put in during the day all worth it.”
Restaurant Paradis is located at 82 S. Barrett Square, Rosemary Beach. The restaurant is open for dinner-only seven nights a week from 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 850-534-0400. For more information, visit www.restaurantparadis.com
ROSEMARY BEACH – Spanish for fish, Pescado is a name befitting of the restaurant whose location at the uppermost point of the Orleans building in Rosemary Beach affords sweeping views of the Gulf. Views that change with every hour of the day and every turn of the tide, with sunsets that keep it incredibly in demand. Featuring a menu of seasonally-driven featured dishes, small plates, and shareable entrees that pair with a wine list that also changes with the seasons. The underlying theme of this beautifully designed venue is to create food worthy of that view, food with spectacular flavor and presentation that showcases the Gulf. Whether guests choose to dine indoors or venture out onto the rooftop patio and bar area, that famously jewel-hued water is always in view, the fresh sea air like seasoning to every single bite in Pescado’s exquisitely created food.
Since opening in early spring of 2018, the menu created by Executive Chef Ken Duenas is respective of freshness in every aspect, from the house made sauces drizzled colorfully on the plates to the local seafood, freshly caught fish, and premium proteins used as the focal point of the dish. Each is a work of art, a carefully executed display of what results from focusing creativity, passion, talent, and technique together in cohesion.
A 30-plus-year veteran of the kitchen and former executive chef at Cafe Thirty-A, Marina Café, and Destin Chops, Duenas is a self-taught chef, building a career from a passion that was instilled in him by his grandmother in Guam. Along with partners Joseph Freer, John Freer, Greg Wakeham, and Steven Sapp, Duenas is part of the Last Call Restaurant Group, a partnership that has proven quite successful in creating a concept that will not only bring people in, but also bring them back. “We’re booked out six months in advance,” said Duenas. “People love to come here because of the view, the food, and the drinks.”
The perfect blend of farm-to-table and tide-to-table, there is a dedication to using the best, most fresh ingredients available in season. Guest favorites include Steak Tartare, Filet Mignon, the Seafood Salad, and the Cantonese Whole Lobster. Interestingly, the menu wanders the globe, taking inspiration from France, the Mediterranean, Asia, and – of course – Duenas’s childhood in Guam. In each of his dishes, Duenas takes particular pride that he is creating an experience for his guests. “I love making people happy as they’re having a meal,” he said. “When you walk outside and someone pulls you over to tell you that they’ve just had one of the best meals of their lives, that’s really satisfying. Hearing that from them, it’s better than any kind of fame.”
Still, fame is lavished on the dishes created at Pescado, as well as the drinks created by their mixologists. Served up with a twist of creativity, each drink shows that the minds behind the mixing know their flavor profiles as well as what makes the perfect sip. “We have an incredible team here that makes amazing drinks,” noted Duenas.
A restaurant that certainly achieves the vision of what Duenas and his partners had in mind when they opened, Pescado is “casual fine dining that has the best views in the area, with food, drinks, and service to match.”
Pescado Seafood Grill & Rooftop Bar is located at 74 Town Hall Road, Suite 4B, Rosemary Beach. The restaurant is open Monday to Tuesday 4 to 10 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 9:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. For more information, call 850-213-4600 or visit www.rooftop30a.com.
SANDESTIN – When Hotel Effie opened in February of 2021, it brought with it three new food and beverage opportunities: The Lobby Bar, Ara Rooftop Pool & Lounge, and Ovide, the hotel’s year-round fine dining restaurant.
The menu at Ovide comes from the mind of five-time James Beard nominee Hugh Acheson, 2012 winner of Best Chef Southeast and an alum of Bravo’s “Top Chef” series.
The food coming from the Ovide kitchen combines Gulf coast cuisine with Acheson’s Southern sensibility, then takes it to the next level by adding a French twist. Jesus Pacheco, director of food and beverage of Hotel Effie, said their food is really making waves.
“It’s unique in style; a trendsetter in this area,” Pacheco said. “Whether you’re proposing to your fiancé, or having a night out with the girls, it fits.”
Eats and drinks
Owner and developer Tom Becnel named Hotel Effie after his grandmother, and the Ovide name was borrowed from his grandfather.
“Effie was the ultimate host, her place was the place to be,” said Nova Winfield, assistant hotel marketing director. “We have really embodied that here.”
No place is that link to the past more evident than in Effie’s Biscuit, a menu staple made with salted butter and sorghum, using the actual family recipe.
From the starters menu, Pacheco pointed to the chargrilled octopus as a favorite, with its avocado, jicama and small chili salad.
“To me, it’s something you would never expect and the taste sticks around with you till your next bite,” he said.
One of the biggest brunch-time sellers is the farm egg with crispy rice, served with kimchi, spring onions and oyster mushrooms.
“This dish is thinking outside of the box and describes the culinary aspect of Hugh. It gives you the appreciation of our local cuisine,” Pacheco said.
From the dinner entree menu, he assured diners that Ovide’s pan-roasted snapper with bok choy and Thai chili is unlike anything you’ve had along the Emerald Coast.
“It makes your mouth water, to be honest! It’s our twist on a dish you’ll find everywhere around town, but it gives you that Ovide experience,” Pacheco said.
Beyond the breakfast, lunch, dinner, and kids menus served seven days a week (brunch on weekends), Ovide takes things further yet, welcoming guests to the immensely popular Saturday jazz brunches, special holiday meals, and the occasional celebrity chef dinner when Acheson is in town. Future plans include wine dinners and beer tastings as well.
Speaking of libations, the bar program at Hotel Effie was created by award-winning mixologist Kellie Thorn, always using fresh produce and house-made juices.
“We’ve made it our focus to be able to do those craft cocktails, and have bartenders that can really craft something specific for you,” Pacheco said, adding that the menu changes at least four times a year.
Stepping into an “aww”
The family ties continue in the décor, as Sara Becnel, GM of Sandestin Resort, hand-picked every detail in the restaurant. This marriage of fine dining and fine décor has been called “romantic” and even “sexy” – especially after the sun goes down. Here you’ll find rich, dark woods, warm lighting, and a dramatic floral ceiling mural that might stop you in your tracks.
“Sara took her time to create Instagrammable moments throughout the hotel to encourage people to notice the details – like our ceiling,” Winfield explained. “During brunch it’s a homey, family vibe. At night, it’s hopping, the music is good, the lights are down, the smells coming from the kitchen are amazing. It’s the place to be seen.”
Ovide is found on the ground floor of Hotel Effie, located at 1 Grand Sandestin Blvd., Miramar Beach, within the Sandestin resort. They take reservations and are open year-round for all meals, including weekend brunch. Visit them online at www.hoteleffie.com/dining/ovide or call 850-351-3030.
SEAGROVE BEACH – In addition to high-caliber sushi, fresh fish, and coastal farm-to-table fare, Old Florida Fish House has one of the most stunning outdoor dining areas around.
The restaurant’s new owners, Keith O’Leary and his family, took over the entire three-acre property on the shores of Eastern Lake over three years ago. They have transformed it into a beautiful oasis, nestled in the longleaf pine forests, decorated gorgeously with flowers, greenery, and twinkling lights.
“Once the vibe is set with the lights, the fire pit, the tiki torches, and the music, it’s magical,” said Mick Wilson, the restaurant’s general manager. “Everybody just wants to be out here.”
Almost every seat in the house has a sunset view over the lake every night.
This is 30A dining as it should be, Wilson said. Reservations are accepted, and with seating for 850 (over half of it outside), walk-ins are also welcome. Free valet parking gets you in the door, and once a visitor is there, they could stay for hours.
“We are unique on 30A for what we offer as a destination venue,” Wilson said.
The outdoor lawn and dining area is expansive with cornhole, ping pong, and astroturf areas where kids can play, a dock stretching over the lake, and an area for large parties where long tables can seat up to 20 guests.
Indoors, the restaurant has four main areas: the dining room, an oyster bar, the sushi bar, and the dueling piano bar, where a late-night crowd joins in boisterous singalongs and can even be found dancing on tables.
But that’s not all. On the property, the O’Leary family also has a wine and beer bar, a coffee shop, a daiquiri shack, a gelato and snow-ball stand, a food truck for to-go offerings, and a spot to rent paddleboards and kayaks to launch on the lake behind the restaurant. Oh, and also, Nana’s garden, a beautiful herb and vegetable garden.
The restaurant is versatile for whatever type of outing patrons seek. Not just in the array of offerings, but also in the dress, food, and vibe.
“We are kind of casual and upscale,” Wilson said. “You will feel relaxed and comfortable here whether dressed to the nines or in a t-shirt and baseball cap.”
DJ McCracken, the restaurant’s longstanding sushi chef, has stepped up his sushi game over the past two years, Wilson said, expanding their menu to include specialty fish flown in daily from as far away as Japan, Barcelona, and Hawaii. Offerings include aged bluefin and uni (the edible part of a sea urchin). While more traditional sushi rolls are available, the high-end Land and Sea roll includes king crab, wagyu beef, and Kaluga caviar.
Other menu highlights include the Grouper Fish House, which is grouper served with crab, shrimp, green beans, and garlic smashed potatoes with a lemon beurre blanc; braised wagyu short rib; shrimp and grits; and their award-winning seafood gumbo.
Specialty cocktails, with produce and herbs sourced from Nana’s garden, include the Rosemary Beach lemonade made with fresh rosemary-infused vodka and the Mexico Beach margarita made with jalapeño-infused tequila. They offer some premium bourbon selections with a menu running from $18 a pour to $800 a pour. Wine, champagne, and sparkling options run from $40 a bottle to $1,400 (for Jay-Z’s Ace of Spades).
Wilson said he loves his job. It’s challenging because of how multifaceted the operation is and just the sheer number of employees required to keep it all running smoothly. But, what fuels him the most, he said, is the passion the people who work there have for their jobs.
“You get to be a part of that magical vibe that the customer is experiencing,” he said. “What we are working so hard to give to the customers, we get to feel that and enjoy it. The team is all really passionate about making it all come together. It’s a great place to work.”
Old Florida Fish House is located at 33 Heron’s Watch Way in Santa Rosa Beach. They are open seven days a week. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner begins at 4:30 with sushi service starting at 5. The restaurant closes at 10, but the piano bar remains open until 11 p.m. Reservations can be made online at oldfloridafishhouse.com or by phone at 850-534-3045.
EMERALD COAST – When it comes to local exports here on the gulf, fresh seafood might be the first thing you think of, but a growing number of brewers are looking to make a mark in the craft beer industry, too. Take a look at this roundup of five Florida Panhandle companies that have joined the brewski game. Most products are available commercially, at select bars and restaurants, or you can head to the tap room, pull up a chair, and if you’re lucky, talk with the master brewers themselves.
Grayton Beer Company
Always a hometown favorite, Grayton Beer Company is perhaps best known for its 30A lineup: the Beach Blonde Ale in the bright yellow can; the 30A IPA, which comes in at an ABV of 4.5% and an IBU of 70; or the 30A Rosé Gose, with its bright berry notes and salty/tart foundation. Don’t sleep on the 1890 Founder’s Ale, a rich, malty amber ale with a lively pine finish; the Staff Pale Ale, featuring a nose of lemon and orange; or the Fish Whistle IPA, a combination of floral, herbal and spicy flavors.
The Taproom – which is both kid- and pet-friendly – is open Saturdays, and housed inside the 30,000-square-foot production facility.
Grayton Beer Company is located at 217 Serenoa Road, Santa Rosa Beach. Contact: 850-231-4786, www.graytonbeer.com
Idyll Hounds Brewing Company
The folks at Idyll Hounds like a good pale ale – try the Divide and Conch’r (8% ABV), the Palapa Pale Ale, or the Boosh (a New England-style IPA). The Ghost Crab Pilsna is an easy-drinking Bohemian-style pilsner made with Saaz hops, while the Rosemary Saison Ale is a French farmhouse-style saison with soft spiciness and rosemary notes. For those who like a jolt of java, the Joe is porter-brewed with vanilla and coffee, packs a heftier ABV of 7.5%.
Most of those commercially available brews are also among the 22 beers on tap at the Taproom, open daily. There you might enjoy such fun finds at the Mustachio Sour, the Banana Chocolate Mousse Stout – which packs an impressive 9% ABV– or the Grapeful Opossum IPA
Venture across the Choctawhatchee Bay to Niceville to find 3rd Planet Brewing Co. The taproom, affectionately known as The Mothership, is open daily. There you’ll find a wall full of beer options, visiting food trucks, and an outdoor area complete with live music stage and green space. On tap, sample the likes of their Dank Side of the Moon, a New England-style IPA; the Bear Creek Bramber with its nutty, toffee notes; or the Luminous Cloud, a hazy pale ale with a citrusy hop profile. For something completely different, look to the constantly evolving sequence of Fruited Sours, with new flavors available seasonally.
With a brewery and tasting room in Panama City, Salty Oak Brewing Co. pours the likes of Island Time Blonde Ale, an easy-drinker at 36 IBU. Buckle up for their Bourbon Country Brand Stout, an imperial with an ABV of 15.2%; or keep things fruity with the Wanna Peach of Cobbler? fruited sour.
The Salty Oak tasting room is known for its daily specials like flight nights, discounts for military and first-responders, and food trucks and live music. The tap list evolves throughout the year, as does the bottle and can selection.
Visit Salty Oak Brewing Co. at 2337C St. Andrew’s Blvd., Panama City. Contact: 850-276-0706, www.saltyoakbrewing.com
Odd Pelican Beer Co.
The new game in town, The Odd Pelican Beer Co. tapped its first keg in 2021. Like many of their counterparts, the Pelican crew finds inspiration locally with their Seaside Suds collection, including Bud’s Brew, a golden ale, and the OBE IPA. The Freeporter Vanilla Porter is sure to be a local favorite, or try the Tucker Town Brown.
At the onsite taproom, which opened in October, enjoy live music guests, trivia nights, visiting food trucks and the occasional holiday celebration.
SANDESTIN – With a dining empire to run, Chef Emeril Lagasse relies on Chef de Cuisine Frank Szymanski to hold down the fort at Emeril’s Coastal. Chef Frank stepped out of the kitchen long enough to grab a cup of coffee and answer a few questions.
You’ve been at Coastal almost five years now. Share your resume.
I had previously been the chef de cuisine out of the company as well as sous chef for Chef Emeril at NOLA and Emeril’s Gulf Coast Fish House that was in Gulfport, Miss. I had history with Emeril’s, so when I found out they were doing something in this area, I was pretty excited to come down here. I no longer wished to live in New Orleans, and when I heard they were doing something by the beach, I said, ‘I’m in!’ ‘Do you want to know what it is?’ ‘Nope! As long as I’m at the beach!’
What sent you on the road to a culinary career?
I turn 40 this year. I started cooking almost 26 years ago, and people ask how that’s possible, and I say it’s because I started when I was 14. I had a job at a little mom and pop place in Pass Christian, Miss., and they paid me in a little bit of money and lot of food, and that’s how they got around the rules for the first year. You can’t get around that nowadays. We’ve had some younger staff and you have to give them certain breaks and there are things they can’t do, and I think, ‘When I was 14, they had me on the slicer, everything dangerous I could do, I was doing.’
I was a marine biology major years ago and made the transition. I was a chef at a restaurant in Gulfport, Miss., going to USM, when Katrina hit. No school, no job, everything kind of started over. I was in my 20s, almost done with my degree, and I said, ‘I’m going to go to culinary school’ and I went to Johnson & Wales.
Describe your culinary inspiration
I’m from Long Beach, Miss., spent a lot of time in New Orleans – both eating and working – so that’s played a very strong influence in the way I cook. I love Southern food, taking comfort foods and making them a little more refined, but where they still invoke a memory. I love when you eat something, smell something, and it produces a memory. I strive for that.
What is it like to lead an Emeril Lagasse kitchen?
A lot of people ask if it’s stressful working for Chef Emeril, and the answer’s no. It’s exciting. He gives me the opportunity to do what I want, as he does with all his chefs at his different restaurants. We want to make each restaurant different and put our own personal touch on it, so he allows us to have creative freedom. We’re special here because he’s here all the time since he lives here, and it’s a help. His knowledge, the way he teaches the cooks, it’s so nice having him in the house. The cooks actually miss him when he’s not here. The vibe is a little different when he’s in the house, the customers are excited because they can see him. But we work like he’s here no matter what.
What does a typical day look like?
For a restaurant that only does dinner and Sunday brunch, we’re here a long time before the doors ever open. Usually I open at 7 a.m., we start checking in orders, I talk to seafood purveyors and they tell me what they’ve got coming in. I look at the books for the night to see how many customers we have coming in and start creating the menu for the night. We do a lot of whole fish preparations and that’s a fun thing for me in the morning, to find the fish that I’m going to serve that night.
After that, I walk around tasting things. Once we get through the morning, the cooks start coming in between 1 and 2, setting up their stations, getting their mise en place together. Sous Chef Tommy Wachter and I start deciding who’s going to make what that night and go over it with the cooks. Usually Tommy, myself or Chef Emeril will make the specials with them, walk them through the dish, so when it’s service time, they’re ready. I’m so lucky to have the staff that I have. Since we’ve re-opened, we’ve retained most of our staff, which is tough to do in this environment. Whether we’re short-handed or not, they get the job done every day.
We have a fairly short service, we open at 4:30 and go until 9, 9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays. We’re busy enough that even seating at 9:30, we’re still cooking until 10:30 every night. In the summertime we get out of here at 1 in the morning and we do it all again the next day. A typical day here is pretty long, but we all have each other’s backs. On a normal dinner shift, we’ll have 12 people in the kitchen, plus Chef Tommy and myself. That goes up in the summertime. We’re a pretty tight-knit crew and it takes a lot to produce the kind of food we’re producing.
Tell us about your namesake dish, Frank’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
When I’m off work, I eat a lot of simple foods: tacos, pizza, fried chicken. A few years ago, a table asked me to make fried chicken, so I did and they loved it. They asked for it again, then another table, and it became this thing if you called a day ahead, you could get Frank’s fried chicken. During truffle season, I’d come out and shave truffles on it, and it became this very special thing. At least once or twice a week, someone was coming in for it, and we’d do different sides with it, just having fun with it.
When we re-opened and were trying to come up with a chicken dish, Chef Emeril said, ‘Just do your fried chicken! It will give people from out of town the opportunity to get it.’ We started and it sells very well. We do a 24-hour brine with a buttermilk wash with a ‘very secret’ spice blend in the flour. We drizzle a little honey butter on the top, and if someone wants truffles, we’ll do that too. It’s pretty yummy.
What is your favorite thing on the menu to cook?
That’s tough. It’s whatever I’m cooking at the moment, but I get excited about our fish dishes. We always have at least three Gulf fish that we can do different preparations: a grouper, snapper, swordfish, cobia, wahoo done broiled, seared in a cast iron skillet, grilled, fried. Each one has different sets with sauces and sides. I get excited changing up the sets, like a grilled set with a salsa verde with capers and soft herbs, local vegetables and a saffron orzo. The fish are the same year-round, but switching things up because of the season, when it’s cold outside some Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes or parsnips, those are exciting changes.
How was Emeril’s Carnivale du Vin in November?
All Emeril’s chefs from around the country go each year. In 2020 with Covid, we did a virtual event, and it just wasn’t the same, so this was the first year back. I had fun. I bought a beautiful 130-pound bluefin tuna loin, Osetra caviar, sea urchin, and made lobster oil with tarragon and smoked paprika, micro pickled vegetables. It was a very, very good dish and represented what we do here: super-fresh uni, beautiful caviar, a beautiful piece of fish. I don’t want to smother things with cream sauces – I love butter, it has its place – but we want to let the seafood speak for itself.
What do you like to do on your day off?
I love to fish, believe it or not. A lot of the fish we serve here are fish I like to catch in my own time. I try to get out 10, 15 times a year, at least. I grew up fishing on the Gulf Coast, I did a lot of in-shore fishing. As I got older, I started making more trips off-shore. Anything I can do that involves water, I’m in.
Other than that, I love movies. I was excited when the theater next door opened back up. A lot of times if I open and I get to sneak out of here at a decent hour, I’ll run next door and watch a movie. I love to read, but I try to do as much outdoor stuff as I can because I’m inside here so much.
WATERCOLOR – Traditionally, a “fish out of water” describes someone found out of their element, but Fish Out of Water – also known as FOOW – is a palatable taste experience created by a kitchen staff found entirely in their element. Perhaps more of an homage to the restaurant’s commitment to seafood plucked fresh out of the water, the eatery’s name is topping everyone’s list of “must-eat” places on 30A.
Located at the WaterColor Inn, a St. Joe Hospitality property, Fish Out of Water offers sweeping views of the Gulf, and whether dining with family on vacation, celebrating a night out with friends, or enjoying the romantic gulf breezes with a special date, the restaurant offers just the right atmosphere for a memorable dining experience. And the menu, which features brunch, mid-day fare, and dinner, offers creative twists on coastal favorites, living up to its promise of “authentic cuisine and impeccable flavors.”
Chef Wichuta Theamsuwan, or “Chef Jules,” leads the culinary charge as Fish Out of Water’s kitchen manager. Described by those who know her as a “passionate leader who works hard and expects the best,” Chef Jules works diligently to create a fresh, savory menu and maintain a hard-working, talented kitchen team. The plates traveling from kitchen to table at the restaurant are not only exquisite in taste, but beautiful in presentation.
Chef Jules said the best compliment she’s ever been paid about her food was, “Ooh! Looks so nice! Tastes so good!”
“I believe that we taste first with our eyes, and then with our mouths. So I want the experience to start even before your first bite or even before you smell the dish being served,” she said. “I make sure that my dishes reach our diners looking fantastic, and it is absolutely essential that they taste just as good as they look.”
She chooses salt, herbs, and butter most in flavoring the food, and said, “At Fish Out of Water, we’re able to source such fresh seafood that it doesn’t require a lot more than that. We like to let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Kristy McKinney, director of restaurants for St. Joe Hospitality, agrees that the freshness of the food is the most important aspect of the menu.
“Our restaurant is situated directly on the Gulf of Mexico, with views of the water, and people want to taste that experience as well as see it. We have fresh seafood delivered to our kitchen every day at Fish Out of Water, and we serve it in a way that lets the natural flavors shine. I like to say that with fresh seafood you don’t have to do a lot to make it taste wonderful, but if it’s not fresh, there’s nothing you can do to save it. So, we would only serve our guests fresh seafood. If we can’t get it fresh, it’s not on the menu.”
Brunch is served from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily and features such savory excursions as a Benedict (with a house-made English Muffin, poached egg, and hollandaise, and served with bacon, ham, or sausage and breakfast potatoes), citrus and herb cured salmon (on toasted sourdough with a boiled egg, capers, pickled red onions, roe, and Crème Fraiche), and the FOOWly Loaded BLT, made on toasted sourdough with smoked turkey breast, avocado spread, Cajun aioli, applewood bacon, vine tomato, and farm greens.
A midday menu takes over from 2 to 4 p.m. for Happy Hour and offers Smoked Gulf Coast Fish Dip (with green tomato jalapeño chow-chow, and house-made salt crackers), a Shrimp Salad Roll (on brioche with farm greens, pickled red onion, and tarragon mayonnaise), and a selection of specialty cocktails like the Horsefeather, made with Benchmark Bourbon, lime, ginger beer, Peychaud, and Angostura.
FOOW does not accept reservations and encourages diners to dress casually. The restaurant is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and to-go orders may be placed online for curbside pickup. Large groups and families are easily accommodated, and a children’s menu is offered for younger diners. Fish Out of Water is located at 34 Goldenrod Circle and can be reached by calling 850-534-5050 or by visiting www.foow30a.com.
SANDESTIN – Since opening nearly five years ago, Chef Emeril Lagasse’s Sandestin restaurant has rolled with the tide, you might say. When the world-famous chef made the decision to temporarily close the doors to all his restaurants during the thick of the pandemic, he and his staff used that time to rework and re-imagine. The former Emeril’s Coastal Italian became Emeril’s Coastal, they switched to a dinner service with Sunday brunch, and the tastes of the sea became the kitchen’s main focus.
“We have always wanted to be seafood-centric at Coastal,” Lagasse explained. “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to regroup and rethink the menu, dropping the ‘Italian’ and focusing more on the advantages of being on the coast with the Gulf of Mexico in our backyard.”
With Lagasse and his chef de cuisine Frank Szymanski both being coastal kids by birth, and with a gulf full of fresh seafood at their disposal, the transition was a natural one.
“We have the opportunity to create dishes with the freshest seafood available and Chef Frank has done an incredible job with the seafood concept and seafood specials. When you dine at Emeril’s Coastal, you are going to have ‘a seafood experience,’ enjoying the freshest and most creative seafood dishes,” he said. “The guests have given very positive feedback.”
Both chefs are proud of their whole fish preparations, which are as much a feast for the eyes as the palate. Lagasse also pointed to the nightly special blackboard – which features a fresh catch like snapper, grouper or swordfish – and Bob Doyle’s Maryland Style Crab Cake, served with lemon butter and shoestring potatoes.
“We try to keep our menu pretty seasonal and our menu constantly evolves from one week to another,” explained Szymanski. “We print menus in-house so if mussels aren’t available, for example, we’ll do a dish with clams instead. We have so many repeat customers and they don’t want to eat the same thing every time, so we’ve got to keep it moving.”
Although there is a fine dining vibe at Coastal, they don’t take themselves too seriously. Halloween saw the waitstaff dressed in costumes, and special occasions are celebrated with freshly spun cotton candy and a festive flair.
Platters of oysters are celebrated three ways: raw with mignonette, chargrilled with Parmesan or baked with brie and bacon, or enjoy them over house-made spaghetti with garlic and cream.
“My team and I work hard every day to be the best restaurant with the freshest product,” Lagasse said. “We have some amazing local purveyors who provide us with the best seafood to provide our customers an experience that we are proud of.”
Those with a hearty appetite can tuck into the 22-ounce bone-in prime ribeye, or for lighter fare, EJ’s Chop Salad with avocado, sweet corn and bacon is named for the famed chef’s son, EJ, currently studying to be a chef himself.
The party continues behind the bar, featuring house-made extracts and specialty cocktails. The staff is poppin’ bottles during Sunday brunch, including bottomless mimosas, frozen Lushies, alongside midday nosh favorites like Meril’s Eggs Benedict, lobster Benedict or the fried oyster omelet.
A special take-out menu allows diners to enjoy the tastes of Coastal on the go, including apps, entrees, sides, a kid’s menu and desserts.
Life outside the kitchen
Lagasse is certainly known for more than the plates of food he produces; he’s a philanthropist at heart.
“This year, we are celebrating 20 years of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation,” he added. “We are looking forward to continuing to provide capital and programmatic support to organizations across the nation through our Community Grants Program and our signature program, Emeril’s Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen.”
After missing out on several of their live events last year, Lagasse and his wife Alden were thrilled to be able to get back to the business of charity. The Carnivale du Vin returned in November in New Orleans; the Line, Vine & Dine in Fort Lauderdale in February; with more events populating the famous chef’s upcoming calendar.
“Alden and I are looking forward to coming back together in person for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s Spring fundraising events like the Chi Chi Miguel Fundraising Weekend here in Santa Rosa Beach,” he said. “Line, Vine & Dine and Chi Chi Miguel support incredible local charities in the Florida communities and we are so grateful for the continued generosity of the donors, sponsors and friends who make them possible.”
In between events and trips to check in on his eight other restaurants, look for Lagasse, Szymanski and their team on the line at Coastal, serving up that fresh coastal fare!
Emeril’s Coastal is located at 435 Grand Boulevard in Miramar Beach. Open 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and for Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations are accepted; visit them online at www.emerilsrestaurants.com or call 850-608-7040.