On a balmy coastal afternoon in Seaside, I sat down with Chef Zachary Keaton at a window table located inside Pizza Bar to try a couple of the new menu items and to pick his brain about how he comes up with his unique take on recipes and specials showcased on the menu.
Placed before me was panzanella, typically a Tuscan summer salad of bread and tomatoes, but this time was a bowl filled with wood fired and charred ripe peaches and nectarines, plums, radicchio, sourdough torn bread crumbs created from Keaton’s own starter, a drizzle of oil and creme fraiche that was dolloped on top.
Meant to be mixed together before consuming, I expressed my contentment with the first bite. Keaton says, “One of my favorite items is our fig pizza. It is always a huge hit. Every year, in season, we utilize the fig tree in our backyard for special dishes.” The farm egg pizza, clam pie, grass-fed meatballs and house-made pasta dishes served in the off season are also noteworthy.
At 27 years of age, Keaton’s drool-worthy photos have become quite popular on Instagram (@pizzabar_buds). And the cuisine has made even the staunchest of food critics take notice. As a result, Chef Keaton will be headlining the Seeing Red Wine Festival along with Chef Jim Shirley on Nov. 8-11, 2018.
Keaton grew up in the small town of Carrollton, Ga., and spent much of his youth at his grandmother’s restaurant called Butterbean Café. “It was a meat and three type of place. I prepped food and washed dishes. I had a great work ethic instilled in me and wanted to pursue the restaurant industry further,” says Keaton.
When it was time, he left home for Panama City, where he worked as a porter for a local steak house prior to being hired as a line cook at WaterColor Inn under the tutelage of the late Chef Lawrence Klang, and Derek Langford, who is currently the executive chef of Firefly in Panama City.
Klang, Langford and Keaton all made the transition to the Bud & Alley’s family of restaurants around the same time, where Keaton led the Neapolitan wood-fired, handcrafted pizza station while also managing the daily dough and cheese production.
In 2015, Chef Phil McDonald, a local who was well known for his catering business, had gone to New York to stage (be exposed to new techniques and cuisines), and returned to take the reins of Pizza Bar. Keaton says, “Phil became my mentor and I became his sous chef. He taught me an entirely new style of cooking that I carry with me today. I take really fresh and seasonal ingredients and try to elevate them. The idea is not to box yourself in to a certain style.”
The purveyors Keaton uses are all within a 200-mile radius, most closer. And he says, “We try to do it all ourselves. We break down the meats, stretch the mozzarella, make 700-plus dough rolls a day, our own ice cream, desserts, dressings, you name it.”
For the last two years as chef de cuisine, Keaton has cooked for and with many James Beard awarded chefs, is well versed in hosting the finest of wine dinners, and is on his way to making his own mark, not only in South Walton, but on the national stage with his culinary excellence.
Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar + Trattoria offers gluten-free and vegan menu options. The sourdough bread is handcrafted daily offsite at a relative restaurant, Black Bear Bread Company, in Grayton Beach.
Susan Benton is a food and travel writer with published articles, recipes, and photography in many local, regional and national publications. Her website is 30AEATS.com where she writes about the secrets of Gulf Coast food.