Grits Ya-Ya in New York City?
I jumped at the opportunity to attend Chef Jim Shirley’s dinner at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. A last-minute seat became available and I booked a plane ticket to arrive just in time for Chef Shirley’s “The Seaside Culinary Edge.” While it was his fifth time to be invited as a guest chef, it would be my first to experience our local food in an urban context.
In the taxi cab from LaGuardia Airport, I thought about how this day was far from the early days of Seaside, when the town architect’s home and office — a 280-square-foot tiny cottage — was also the social center for the handful of pioneers who wanted something more exotic to taste than the then-standard Southern staple of fried mullet. They would gather together at night for black beans a la Habanera, white rice and picadillo, a Cuban staple that Seaside founder Robert Davis called ‘Cuban Ground Beef Hash.’ They were all kids then — and they knew they were revolutionaries. Davis was the eldest, at 35, with the youngest fresh out of college.
Another young innovator would soon appear on the scene. He was Chef Jim Shirley — an architect of gastronomy. Shirley’s discerning palette, hard work, and talent for his culinary craft transformed those primitive Seaside suppers into the epicurean Southern delicacies that locals and tourists now savor at his collection of restaurants.
Shirley is the owner the Great Southern Café, 45 Central and The Meltdown on 30A in Seaside, The Bay in Santa Rosa Beach and Baytowne Provisions in Miramar Beach. He is also the co-owner of Great Southern Restaurants, which owns The Fish House, The Atlas Oyster House and The Fish House Deck Bar in Pensacola.
Not forsaking the relationship between food and local culture, Shirley has recreated a scene similar to those long-ago pioneering nights — at 45 Central, where every Wednesday and Friday night a paella is cooked up outdoors, as first come, first served, until it runs out.
The race to Manhattan was on. The cab driver dropped me in Greenwich Village where I maneuvered my suitcase through the streets to Beard’s four-story brownstone that Julia Child had pushed hard to preserve after his passing. Child organized a foundation to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs by using the historic James Beard House as a performance space for noteworthy talent who use high quality, seasonal and local ingredients.
As the 75 guests arrived, Kevin Boyle, events director for Seaside, greeted and ushered us through a huge, but cozy, commercial kitchen where Chef Shirley and his team were hard at work in a stylish set of Seaside aprons. It felt like walking through the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera while the musicians were playing. The up-close- and-personal view of the culinary crew, stirring up a sizzling symphony of food, rendered a jaw-dropping performance. I caught a glimpse of Sandor Zambori. The Sandor Zambori — a behind-the-scenes, local culinary legend — and I snapped a paparazzi photo as I entered the next room that was filled with a full-on soiree, where tongues were wagging and mouths watering from the aromas of the dishes to come.
It began with six appetizers, served on silver platters, accompanied by Champagne or wine. My favorite was fried green tomatoes with cracker kimchi. Happily noshing and hungry for more, we were then escorted to the second floor and seated for our five-course meal. The menu was reflective of Shirley’s affection for Northwest Florida’s agriculture and seafood, with dishes from smoked snapper throat gougères to Panhandle Cioppino and ‘such greens that can be found in these parts.’
All but three ingredients on the menu were sourced from local farms back home. Shirley uses his knowledge of local waters and his families’ farming histories to champion sustainable agriculture through each of his restaurants. For the James Beard dinner, Shirley and his team procured and carefully packed 12 ice chests full of fresh foods from local farmers. They wrapped the chests with duct tape and checked them as luggage on the plane. General manager Jason Schiess explained, “We left detailed notes inside each ice chest about the James Beard dinner and asked the bag handlers to please repack our coolers if they opened and searched them. They took care to do just that. Our local foods arrived safe and sound.”
During the third course, Shirley and his team made an appearance in the dining room. After the applause, Shirley shared the story of traveling to Pienza with Davis and The Seaside Institute, where seated for a meal inside the city, they could see the local farms that provided the food. When they returned, Shirley invited Davis to meet the local farmers on the Gulf Coast. Those initial encounters opened the door to Shirley’s first Seaside restaurant, Great Southern Café, evolving that handful of Seaside pioneers into the thousands of his restaurant patrons today.
The finale was Bourbon Pecan Baklava served with tarnation eggnog. The concluding bite begged the question — would Shirley recreate this dinner for us in Seaside? When I popped the question, Shirley said, “Yes, we are working to recreate the James Beard meal in Seaside.”
After most guests departed, I lingered to collect a few of the commemorative napkins as souvenirs for friends back home. Imprinted with a town map of Seaside, the napkins were a special touch, and the perfect complement to the table centerpieces — replicas of the Coleman Beach Pavilion. “No, Anne. You can’t take one home.” Boyle had spotted me eyeing a centerpiece from across the room.
“That’s ok,” I said. “Those pavilion steps are home.”
“Indeed, they are,” he said.