I’m not sure how many people reading this are aware of how “fine dining” gets passed-off as in a lot of Southern cities. In fact, even I’m not really up to speed on what fine dining below the Mason-Dixon line is now. I do know that with chefs like Sean Brock, John Shields, and John Besh a lot has changed. But I will never forget what I was exposed to when I first started cooking in the late 90s in Jacksonville, Florida.
What “it” is, I can’t really explain. But ever since I took on this book project, I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out what has defined my style as a chef. Honestly, what does that even mean? Throughout my career thus far, I’ve sort of prided myself on my style being lack thereof. After all, why pigeonhole yourself into some lemming-like existence with other chefs? Appreciation for one’s work is one thing, but typecasting is another. I digress…
In 2000, I took a job at Stella’s Piano Cafe. At this time, the trend of fusion cuisine ran rampant across Florida, particularly Caribbean and Asian. There was mango salsa on every piece of fucking fish, a wasabi root for every mash, and black beans and citrus for your overcooked pork. It was a dark time for food in northeast Florida; and now that I think of it, more than a decade later, the sun has never really shone its light on that city as far as talented cooks are concerned. For me, I consider my time cooking in Florida as something that’s best kept suppressed in the back of my mind like some horrible childhood trauma.
Despite my efforts to bury the memories, they were awoken with a vengeance whilst pondering ideas for the next pop-up and micro-restaurant menus.
Brainstorming the components to our interpretation of Gary Gygax on a plate (Monkfish made to look like a dragon’s tail, pineapple, enoki mushroom, and Szechuan peppercorn), I had a PTSD flashback of a night at Stella’s Piano Cafe where I made pork tenderloin with pineapple salsa and overcooked, under-seasoned black beans at $32 a pop for some dickhead who probably sold Ford trucks on the westside of town and his racist, debutante-wannabe date.
So last night I decided to march down to the Jewel and purchase pork tenderloin, pineapple, black beans, and sweet potato – it was time to give this dish another go. I kept all the variables the same as when I cooked in Florida, i.e., the same ingredients, no use of hydrocolloids, and no circulators or cryo-vacs. The only thing that was different this time around, aside from a new time and place, was “my style” – which I have finally come to define as: mine, all mine.
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” – Gore Vidal