Florida’s culinary scene is sizzling hot right now, and it’s not due to steamy temps in the Sunshine State. Master chefs are migrating to coastal towns challenging food traditions and creating a wave of dishes unique to their region. They’re tapping into centuries-old ethnic influences from the Caribbean, Cuba, Central America, Asia and beyond to develop new spins on standard seaside cuisine. From the Panhandle to the Keys, creative cooks are enlisting the help of local farmers, fishmongers, ranchers and butchers to showcase fresh ingredients in delicious and nutritious ways.
Inspired by the land and sea, several epicurean pros caught the attention of Marinalife for their finesse with flavors and courage to revolutionize Florida’s kitchens. These five award-winning cooks can be found in restau-rants across the state, eagerly waiting for you to come sample their latest creations.
Côte d’Azur, Naples
When Waller moved his family from California to Florida, he also brought along decades of experience in fine cuisine. This graduate of California Culinary Academy in San Francisco has worked in a gamut of restaurants from small eateries on the east and west coasts to the grand Monterey Plaza Hotel where he spent 20 years as executive chef. His culinary style is perfectly suited for Côte d’Azur with its charming décor inspired by Parisian cafés. Waller masterfully marries sustainable ingredients with robust French flavors, while crafting presentations with edible flowers and colorful fruits that are lovely enough to earn Impressionists’ nod of approval. Naples food enthusiasts are not surprised that he continues to win local and national awards for his fabulous feasts.
Jackson’s Steakhouse, Pensacola
The western gate to the Sunshine State is home to Irv Miller, the Florida Panhandle chef who pioneered Florida coastal cooking back in the mid-1980s. Miller continues to explore and bring to table current seafood flavors. For the past two years, Miller lead the charge to eradicate invasive lion fish from Pensacola and serves the fish whenever weather permits. He also has a penchant for oysters. His culinary achievements take place at Jackson’s Steak House, a beautifully restored 1860s era building where guests relish seasonal ingredients paired with exceptional wines and libations. To spread his passion about the region, he has two cookbooks to his credit — “Panhandle to Pan: Recipes & Stories from Florida’s New Redneck Riviera” and “Gulf Coast Oysters: Classic & Modern Recipes of a Southern Renaissance.” Miller is noted for working aside chef Edna Lewis, which led to his appearance as a guest judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
Zest, Miami and Ortanique, Coral Gables
It’s taken Cindy Hutson two decades in the restaurant biz, several dining establishments and a boatload of culinary awards to finetune the refreshing food concept she calls Cuisine from the Sun. Inspired by a fondness for world travel and passion for indigenous ingredients, her goal is to present meals that are ethnically diverse, seasonally driven and packed with Caribbean island flavors. Her culinary approach of making the most of what is local and native to the region has south Florida patrons flocking to her doors. To spread the word about her innovative ideas, her cook book, “From the Tip of My Tongue,” encourages at-home chefs to experiment, create without limits and cook everything under the sun.
Addison Reserve Country Club, Delray Beach
Ho-hum chicken breasts and limp lettuce in an overdressed Caesar salad used to pass as the norm in country club fare. But along came Zach Bell who is raising the bar on how we eat while dining at the club. In his journey from steakhouse dishwasher to four-time James Beard finalist, Bell has mastered the mayhem of professional kitchens and introduced a mandate for fresh ingredients when preparing meals in large volumes. In a climate where members might frequent his dining room several times a week, he knows how to mix up and diversify food selections to keep them excited about what’s next on his menu.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami
Philadelphia-born Michael Schwartz is rocking south Florida’s taste buds with a straightforward approach to cooking: strive to use foods that are local, seasonal and sourced responsibly, and let good ingredients speak for themselves. At his restaurants under the Genuine Hospitality Group’s umbrella, menus change daily depending on what farmers and fishermen bring to his kitchen door. His unpretentious style was recognized with a James Beard Best Chef in the South award, and his cookbook “Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat” is a tribute to sensible, affordable food. But what makes Schwartz stand out among others in his industry is his commitment to community causes and charities such as Share Our Strength and Wellness in the Schools.