Sandestin Gumbo & Bloody Mary Festival delights in its 31st year
By Michelle Farnham
MIRAMAR BEACH – The vibe at the Sandestin Gumbo & Bloody Mary Festival is always a
lively one, inspired by its Mardi Gras roots and undoubtedly aided by unlimited samplings of
the spicy cocktail. Set to the music of Dikki Du and the Zydeco Krewe, 2,000 festival goers
bebop between 25 booths competing for their “chips,” each a vote for best gumbo or best
With such a large field, some entrants really go the extra mile to catch the public’s attention.
Roberto’s Pizza set up outside its Baytowne Wharf eatery, serving Italian Stallion Bloody
Marys, featuring a roasted garlic, olive and pepperoni garnish. Slick Lips Seafood & Oyster
House Executive Chef Jay Ammons manned the stock pot, shouting “Crawfish here!” in his
best Boston accent.
The System Service and Engineering team bucked tradition with its seafood-free gumbo,
featuring chicken and andouille sausage with hush puppies. Over at the Bijoux Restaurant
tent, however, Chef Jack McGuckin went all-in on the seafood.
“We have oysters, Gulf shrimp, jumbo lump crab meat and fried crawfish tails on top,”
McGuckin said. “This is a true seafood gumbo: shellfish stock, oyster liquor, no andouille. Lots
of good seafood flavor. We’ve had a long line all day and I’ve seen some second- and third-
time faces so they’re coming back for more!”
The arduous task of rating 21 samples of gumbo fell upon the shoulders of celebrity judges
Paris Janos and Scott Rossman of WJHG, Chef Kali Davis of Plate to Plate, Chef Dan Vargo
of Hilton Sandestin Resort, Daron Walters of Coastal Luxury, Southern Beach Group’s Shane
Quinlan, and Phil Heppding, publisher of 30A Food and Wine.
Janos, who has served as festival judge for about five years, admitted the blind judging is not
an easy job – but a filling one.
“We get the samples with a letter or number; we have no idea which booth it’s from, we just
know which category it’s in,” Janos explained. “We go through and taste it, smell it, look at it
and try it – we take it seriously, too. I’m ready to come back again next next year!
First-time judge Davis drew on her culinary training to guide her decisions.
“I want a nice, dark roux; I want to make sure there’s low salt,” Davis said. “I like a lot of
different levels of flavor, not something that’s just one note. Some got a little creative and
served theirs with cornbread or fritters, some nice seafood: that’s what really pulled it all in for
Vargo was also new to the judge’s table and admitted that although he respects creativity in
cuisine, he’s a bit of a purist when it comes to gumbo.
“Cooking should come from the heart, but I like gumbo to be traditional and straightforward.
It’s unique to see just how many variations of gumbo there are,” he said with a laugh. “Of
course we were looking for color, because that shows the roux, and texture as well. For me,
it’s got to have some spice to it.”
There’s a lot of love that goes into making gumbo. Greg from Baytowne newcomer Local Life
Print Café told a patron, “We didn’t stop cooking until 3 this morning and were back up at
Among those reaping the benefits of that effort were Craig Smith and Holly Deuser, dressed
in their Mardi Gras best. They made the trip over from Fort Walton Beach for their third and
fourth gumbo fests, respectively.
“It’s my birthday weekend and I love it. Everything is just great, that’s why I keep coming
back,” Deuser said.
Meanwhile visitors Ginny and Jim Chapman of Ohio and Pat and Curt Genung of Wisconsin
are seasoned gumbo tasters, back for their eighth year. They pointed to the Harry T’s booth
as their favorite gumbo entry and Another Broken Egg’s Bloody Mary. ABE’s entry caught a
lot of attention with a garnish of deviled egg, smoked salmon, avocado and capers. Murmurs
of “I want to find that one with the egg,” could be heard around the event plaza.
The Sandestin Gumbo & Bloody Mary Festival benefits the Sandestin Foundation for Kids,
and will be back for its 32nd year Feb. 12 and 13, 2021.
Best Gumbo: People’s Choice
1 – Old Florida Fish House (Seagrove Beach)
2 – System Service & Engineering
3 – Slick Lips Seafood & Oyster House (Sandestin)
Best Bloody Mary: People’s Choice
1 – Carlito’s Amazing Products (Destin)
2 – Another Broken Egg (Sandestin)
3 – Sunset Bay Café (Sandestin)
Best Gumbo: 5 years & under
1 – Slick Lips Seafood & Oyster House (Sandestin)
2 – Hurricane Oyster Bar (Grayton Beach)
3 – Royal Palm Grill (Miramar Beach)
4 – Burnt Pine Golf Club (Miramar Beach)
Honorable Mention – Café Nola (DeFuniak Springs)
Best Gumbo: Veterans
1 – Bubba Gump (Destin)
2 – Harry T’s (Destin)
3 – Marina Bar & Grill (Sandestin)
4 – Marlin Grill (Sandestin)
Best Gumbo: Non-Restaurant
1 – System Service & Engineering
2 – Fluffy Girl Savory Cuisine
Best New Participant
Royal Palm Grill (Miramar Beach)
Slick Lips Seafood & Oyster House (Sandestin)