Menu Masters

With abundant local produce nearly all year ’round from nearby farms and seafood straight from the ocean, Northeast Florida chefs have the tools to concoct creative cuisine. Most diners never know what it takes to mold the menus in their hands. Chefs spend hours, days and weeks creating their selections of appetizers and entrées. Most are inspired by their family, friends and environment. Here’s a peek inside the imaginations of four local chefs.


A Chef with Moxie

Chef Tom Gray, along with his wife and partner Sarah Marie Johnston, know something about crafting menus. The founders of Bistro Aix helped make the San Marco restaurant one of Northeast Florida’s best. After 13 years, they left Bistro Aix to launch Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails in the St. Johns Town Center, due to open in late November.

Moxie‘s modern, angled exterior and urban rustic dining room differ from Bistro Aix’s appearance, but the menus differ as well. While Bistro Aix was built on international cuisine, Moxie will have an “American flavors from coast-to-coast” theme.

Gray’s travels from New York City to Napa Valley and from Seattle to Maine combine with his artistry as a cook to become his version of the “American flavor story” one plate at a time.

“The menu is a personal expression of the flavors Chef Tom and his team find most inspiring, with craft cocktails, local brews and a Cal-centric wine list to complement the offerings,” Johnston said.

The Moxie crew has invented some of their favorite meals quite by accident. Leftover party beers? No problem — use them in your pancake batter the next morning. A recipe for the tasty cakes is even being added to a cookbook from Intuition Ale Works, due out later this year. Gray blends his personal tastes with seasonal produce to make innovative dishes. He described his method of invention as artful, sensible and effective.

“When I set out to make a menu or a new dish, I don’t necessarily look at the protein on the plate first,” Gray said. “I choose the produce first always.”

He’s got the right idea: Produce changes, proteins usually not. Everything on the plate counts.

“I prefer a big flavor — with focus,” Gray said. He bases a lot of his ideas for Moxie’s menu on simple, home-cooked meals. “I think of something I make at home and then look up to see other ways to make it interesting, or different techniques folks have tried.”

He experiments with different concepts, replacing some key ingredients, making sure the dish is delicious no matter what dietary needs a diner has. Vegetarian? No problem. Beef stock can be easily replaced with mushroom stock, resulting in the same hearty flavors. He and his team taste-test multiple versions of each dish before it’s added to a menu.

Gray brought Executive Sous Chef Al Fuentes with him from Bistro Aix to Moxie, as well as Sous Chef Scott Bevis (Woodfire Grill in Atlanta), Sous Chef Dean Marcel Dowda (Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif.) and Pastry Chef Sylvia Gould (Kool Beanz in Tallahassee).

European Taste

Chef Sam Efron of Taverna in San Marco assembles his seasonal European cuisine menu with a specific goal in mind.

“When making menu items for Taverna, my personal tastes and styles are definitely reflected to some degree because it is my food, but most important, I focus on what is the style of the restaurant that my wife and I have created and stay true to that,” Efron said. “I have other styles of food and cuisine that I enjoy to cook very much, but they would feel out of place at Taverna.”

Some of his most popular dishes are lamb meatballs with herbed ricota ravioli, ratatouille and kale; salmon with white beans, kale and warm olive vinaigrette; and cheese and charcuterie plates with selections of sheeps milk, triple crème, goats milk, prosciutto, capocollo, chorizo and more.

His approach has proved successful for Taverna. Construction on a next-door expansion began in August, and Efron plans to complete the work by mid-November. The plans include a private dining room that can accommodate parties of up to 40 people. A new bar will offer handcrafted cocktails. A quick-service lunch section will allow guests to order from the same lunch menu at a counter and take a seat in a special section while they wait for their food to come to them. Or guests may choose to be seated at a table and be waited on by a server. Dinner as well as Saturday and Sunday brunch will remain full service.

Taverna’s menu has made it a favorite on the square for four years. Efron meticulously searches for items online, in books and at cooking shows, asking opinions of friends and family, to perfect a specific vision for his restaurant. And like Gray, Efron buys local, seasonal produce for dishes such as the butternut squash soup with apples, bacon, pomegranate molasses, crème fraiche and sage.



Affinity for Fresh Fish

Chef Bill Pinner of The Fish Company in Atlantic Beach takes inspiration from a busy household including his two girls and constant change. Not surprisingly, his menu is driven by the fresh catches from the sea, with new selections delivered every morning.

This seasonal approach makes him flexible: If there’s leftover fresh fish, why not add it to a ceviche or a soup?

Pinner might represent the Beaches’ chill lifestyle, but he takes his food seriously.

“I have to be fully committed to the product I am selling,” he said.

He won’t cut corners on his menu and would never add an item that wasn’t the highest quality, he said. Nothing goes out on a plate unless it passes his taste inspection.

Planning meals around the best available seafood allows him more time to invent delectable side dishes, like spinach Asiago fritters, blistered green bean medley and cheese grits.

“Sometimes the recipes just come to me — like a songwriter,” Pinner said.



Southern Comfort

Some chefs are guided by their Southern roots, like Chef Scotty Schwartz of 29 South in Fernandina Beach.

“I was classically trained, but the regional foods I grew up with are so close to my heart, it just makes sense that that is what I do best,” Schwartz said.

This award-winning artist — winner of Folio Weekly’s Best of Jax Best Chef in 2007 and 2008 and Best New Restaurant in 2006 — takes full advantage of the local ecosystem. He has 300 hens, a pair of Berkshire pigs for chops, 14 organic garden beds and even a St. Augustine beekeeper on call.

“We take our ingredients seriously,” he said. “I believe in ingredient-based cooking. In other words, I believe in the purity of the flavors on a plate and often that means less is more. Let a perfect tomato be just that, a perfect tomato, and don’t mess with it. Don’t muddle the perfection with extraneous steps and ingredients on the plate. Every good artist knows how to paint. A great artist knows when to put the paintbrush down.”

Clearly. Like most of the Northeast Florida chefs, he, too, changes his restaurant’s menu to match the season.

“Mother Nature tells us what to cook,” he said, “not our egos.”

He pours his childhood memories and world travel experiences into some of the best cuisine on the island. He earned the Spirit of Slow Food award and a Snail of Approval in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Florida Trend Magazine bestowed 29 South the coveted Golden Spoon. His favorite menu item reflects this: a sweet tea-brined DelKat Farm pork chop on mac ’n’ cheese with warm blackberry ginger preserves.

Beer and wine also play an integral part of the dining experience.

“When I taste wines for the list I am constantly pairing them mentally to my food because it eventually helps the staff when it comes to the right tableside recommendation and sale,” Schwartz said.

Chefs can chart new territory for foodies, venturing out into the world to bring home new culinary experiences. At times, exotic items pack a high price tag that determines how and when new ingredients are used.

“Price and value definitely play a part in the decision for any ingredient, not just new ones,” Schwartz said. “I can add truffles — not an ounce per plate — but enough to get the point across and expose someone to the flavor.”

How these items arrive on the menus in our hands might be a mystery for those of us without the gastronomic gift, but the proof on our plates is all that matters.

Now, what to order?