Chef Jack McGuckin – Pushing the palate to new places
By Stephanie Burt
You might notice a bit of the Big Easy on your plate when you visit Bijoux in Miramar Beach.
“There is something ‘New Orleans’ that is innate in the way I cook,” said Executive Chef Jack McGuckin. “It’s not ingredients necessarily, but in the way I approach food, the techniques. I can’t help it. It’s just in me.”
So McGuckin was a perfect fit back in 2002 when restaurateurs Mike and Gayle Pair lured him to 30A to help open Bijoux and work under the late Master Chef Jack Shoop, along with Chef Todd Misener. Before long, McGuckin was at the helm of Bijoux’s kitchen, and it’s a position he’s settled into and made his own for close to 15 years.
“My passion is really simple food with the best ingredients,” he explained. Like many of the chefs in the area, McGuckin has embraced local sourcing, from taking the time on occasion to source produce from the local farmer’s market. He works with Water Street Seafood out of Apalachicola, a company that sends him pics of seafood available that day right from the docks. On the Bijoux menu, it’s easy to find Carolina Gold Rice, local honey, and a rotating selection of market vegetables that come from “just down the road.” It just makes sense to him, since he grew up close to the land in Louisiana, fishing and hunting. In other words, he grew up tasting fresh food and knows how much sourcing good product can make a difference.
But Bijoux has become a fixture in the local scene, and that means that when visitors flock to the restaurant, they want the dishes they have been reminiscing about. McGuckin has learned over the years that vacation diners can be a particular set. It’s a challenge he embraces through serving classic dishes such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Grouper Almondine. Then he’ll host wine dinners with set menus in the off-season that allow him to introduce locals to a little something different, including elk.
“It is always a cool thing to be able to change someone’s mind,” he said, “and I love to hear a diner say, ‘I never would have tried that, but I love it.’” The off-season allows his team to experiment with new menu items as well, and the added bonus is that diners who visit are wowed by originality and creativity.
That focus is at the heart of McGuckin’s cooking. He cooks for the sheer joy of making people happy, and it is something he now sees as a family operation. His wife Leslie is a co-owner of the restaurant and their three kids spend so much time there that, “They don’t understand why we have to pay when we go to other restaurants,” McGuckin said with a chuckle.
He still loves to jump on the line, including recently when he worked a station at brunch.
“I had a fun time cooking eggs and shrimp and grits,” he said. “Cooking comfort food is one of my favorite things. The more simple it is, the harder it is to make it.”
This profile originally appeared in the summer edition of the the Food & Wine Guide for South Walton.