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Kitchen Confidential

Top Southwest Florida chefs describe their favorite dishes and how they came about.



Every dish has a backstory. Some are pretty simple: Chefs taste something they like at another restaurant and decide to put their own spin on it. But others have a little more meaning. We canvassed local chefs—and some masters of drink, as well—to find the stories behind some of their favorite creations. From dishes that remind them of old friends to those born out of serendipity, the results will give your next trips to their restaurants a little more meaning.

Barbecue Shrimp and Grits

Andrew Hunter, The Bay House in Naples

Although the bay house features more low-country cuisine than Cajun or creole, these shrimp are made New Orleans-style because Hunter and his sous chef both spent time in the Big Easy. “If you’ve ever had true New Orleans barbecue shrimp, you know why we made that decision,” he says. “They are just so good.”

And while the shrimp dish reminds Hunter of a former home, so does another noteworthy menu item with roots along the Mississippi River—this one sweet. Enter his gooey butter cake, from St. Louis.

It started with a friend’s birthday party when he was a kid. “My friend’s mom made a gooey butter cake and I just loved it,” he says. “I told my mom she had to learn to make it. So she got the recipe, and that’s what I asked for every year for my birthday.”

The traditional St. Louis recipe is really more of a decadent hack of a standard box cake mix than anything else. So when Hunter decided to recreate it, it took a little trial and error to make it from scratch. He eventually settled on a Gâteau Basque-style batter, then added in the extra butter, cream cheese and powdered sugar that set off his young taste buds all those years ago.

 

Stuffed Plums

Gloria Jordan d’Cabral, La Trattoria Cafe Napoli in Fort Myers

Jordan d’Cabral created her stuffed plums based on a memory of colleagues in Spain. “I have many dishes on my menu that come from family and stories about my family,” she says. “But the plums are special, because I don’t see those colleagues any more. They are around the world somewhere, but we lost contact. Now I see them every day in a plate.”

Nearly 30 years ago, at the beginning of her career, Jordan and her fellow cooks would make dishes to impress one another after work. The goal was to make something simple but delicious on a budget, because they all made little money. “The money we did have was for good wine,” she says. “Food was secondary.”

For her dish, she grabbed a few plums off a tree in the backyard, pitted them and stuffed them with Cabrales cheese. She wrapped them in bacon, which was cheaper than Serrano ham. After cooking them, she finished the dish with a little olive oil and orange marmalade.

She won the friendly competition and the dish became a classic among her friends as long as plums were in season.

“When I opened my restaurant, my first thought was of those plums,” she says. “And every time a customer orders them, I see my old friends.”

 

House-made Chorizo Poutine

David Nelson, Timeless in Naples

When opening a new restaurant, one of the most important parts of the process is completing a good test run. So, to give the new coal-fired pizza oven a workout, Nelson and owner Matthew Kragh decided to do a pizza party birthday celebration for Matthew’s son. Only trouble was, something wasn’t working right with the oven. While waiting for a service call, Nelson sprang into action on a backup plan: chicken fingers and fries. So he had his kitchen staff start making a lot of hand-cut fries. Just before starting to cook the freshly cut spuds, the pizza oven came back online. The birthday party went on as if nothing had happened.

“The next day, I had all these fries cut and started to think about what to do with them,” Nelson says. “Then I thought, ‘poutine.’”

In a previous role as chef at Truluck’s, Nelson had learned to make the dish at the request of a Canadian couple getting married at the Inn on Fifth. So he added house-made chorizo, cotija cheese, avocado and poached eggs to the traditional recipe of fries, cheese curds and gravy.

“It was so good,” he says, “we had to put it on the menu.”

 

Salade au Chevre Chaud Pain Poilane

Lisa Boet, Chez Boet in Naples

Before she opened her Naples restaurant, Boet lived in Paris for 10 years. One of her favorite memories from that time is going to Poilâne bakery for their country loaf sourdough bread. She loved it so much that about a decade ago, when she and her husband started leading culinary tours of France, she made sure to take each group to the famed bakery. After striking up a friendship with a manager, and eventually getting to tour the wood-fired ovens that date back to the French Revolution, Boet lamented that she couldn’t get the bread here in the U.S.

“‘We can ship it to you,’ he said,” Boet says. “It’s amazing. They bake it on Thursday afternoon, ship it Fed-Ex and I have it on Friday morning.”

Other than selling whole loaves (which are shelf-stable for about a week) to customers and at the Third Street Farmers Market, Boet also uses the bread in a special appetizer, which brings together her favorite French imports: special aged goat cheese from the Loire Valley and the Poilâne bread.

“It’s just about perfect,” she says.

 

Watermelon, Olive and Cheese Salad

Melissa Talmage, Sweet Melissa’s Cafe on Sanibel Island

Great ideas often come when you are least expecting them. Talmage left New York and her job at Union Square Café after 9/11, only to run into Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans while working at Commander’s Palace. From there, it was on to Sanibel, to be close to her parents. (Luckily, she came two years after Hurricane Charley, which ripped through Captiva where her parents lived. “They had just finished up their house when we moved in,” she says.)

One day, she was on the phone when her daughter, Olivia, came home from school, Talmage remembers. “She says, ‘Mom, I’m hungry. Can you make me something?’ But I’m on the phone so I don’t get to it right away. By the time I was finished, she had already helped herself to what was in the fridge. She had out watermelon, olives and little balls of mozzarella cheese. I just stopped and thought, ‘That would make an amazing salad.’ It sounds weird, but it’s actually really great together. Since then, some version of Olivia’s salad has been on the menu anytime watermelon is in season. I do different things with it. Like right now I have fresh heirloom tomatoes with feta and Kalamata olives with the watermelon and a basil vinaigrette.”

 

Photography by Michael Caronchi, Vanessa Rogers

 

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