Cooking With Local Chefs

Going local is easier said than done

The squash blossoms comes from the local farm Gamble Creek.
The squash blossoms comes from the local farm Gamble Creek. PROVIDED PHOTO

There’s been a lot of talk lately about going local, what is local, who is local and who is not.

I think we should all be encouraged by this major trend to know where the food we are being served is coming from.

For more than three decades the Chiles Group, consisting of the Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista restaurants, had built our business on local fish and crabs. We occasionally scored some local produce. Not being shy, a few years ago I decided that we should integrate further into our food local chain. I took a high dive into the deep end. I bought a farm.

I’m not splashing around on top yet, but I do believe I’m making progress. That translates to I’m cutting my loss in half every year.

People wanting local and being prepared to pay for local are often at conflict. Most often, it costs more. That’s right, it cost more.

As the one who is now on the production end with our Gamble Creek Farm I can certainly defend the higher pricing – local costs more. Much more than what we pay if we buy from Mexico and Guatemala. Our farm is run by Eric Geraldson, one of our community’s most well-respected farmers. The business is fraught with challenges. One of my lines about being in the restaurant business is, “something is always trying to get my cotton.” I now know first-hand how true that is in the farming business. Downy mildew in the heirloom tomatoes, spider mites in the arugula, the neighbor’s cows crossed the creek and are in the cabbage again, the wild hogs rooted up the Russian kale and the deer had our Swiss chard for dinner last night. It’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s too wet or too dry.

And then there is figuring out how we integrate what we grow at our farm into our restaurant operations. We have made great progress, but it hasn’t happened without challenges. It takes a lot of effort and, most importantly, it takes a buy-in from all the members of your team. It’s really about changing the culture of your operation. It takes extra effort and a new mindset from your staff. You’re not just taking it out of the bag anymore, you’re going through all the steps necessary to get a pristine, usable, fresh product on the customer’s plate. Our staff will tell you about my obsession with squash blossoms, in particular Seminole pumpkin squash blossoms.

Stuffing these delicate squash blossoms is not something that our staff was used to doing. Each blossom has to be handled gently. They need to be picked in the morning or late afternoon. They need to be picked, packaged, delivered, stuffed and served all within their 24-hour shelf life. All of this takes a lot of coordination. It takes a dedicated team of people that are committed to making a cultural change.

This is true especially when you add in trying to do local on the seafood side as well. Serving great mullet takes a lot more effort. We partner with a local fisherman who breaks the necks immediately and puts them in an iced brine so they set up perfectly. Then it’s straight to the filet table and a quick delivery to the customer’s plate.

Other local seafood is easier but it still takes a commitment and a willingness to pay a higher price. Gulf shrimp are sold at a significant premium to what is available from Asian markets. Gulf coast oysters are easily sourced but require extra labor and attention. We believe that serving and educating people about the quality of our sustainable seafood species like Spanish mackerel, King fish, Amberjack and mullet is worth the extra effort. Put any of those next to a piece of tilapia and I think you will see what I mean. We’re fortunate to have a great selection of local, independent restaurant operators that are leading the charge, including owner/operators such as Adam Ellis of Blue Marlin and Karen Bell of Starfish and A.P. Bell Fish Company. Fact is, we have some of the finest seafood and produce in the world right here locally.

We also now have multiple producers for local, grass-fed beef and poultry not to mention some of the world’s finest aquaculture like our hard-shell and Sunray Venus clams as well as Siberian sturgeon and what is arguably the world’s highest quality farm-raised caviar from Healthy Earth. I think the finest pork around is wild pig. Keith Mann is producing them at Three Sun’s Ranch in Punta Gorda. Our customers love it. But we have to pay two-and-a-half to three times more than we would for conventionally raised pork. In my opinion you can’t compare the two. The wild pork is far superior.

Here’s a real time example of what I’m talking about. For the last three days I’ve been at our cabin in Montana doing a little fishing. I have spent an hour or so a day trying to figure out how to get 1,000 pounds of blueberries from our family’s farm in Tallahassee down to the restaurants on Anna Maria and Longboat Key. Jubilee Orchards is a blueberry farm that has been developed by my brother Bud on land where my father, Lawton Chiles, loved to spend time. It has been in our family for three decades. These blueberries will be great in our farm fresh salads and desserts as well as compotes and jams that will allow us to serve them long after the season is over. The price is right but it took my brother taking a whole day driving them down from Tallahassee in a refrigerated trailer. They arrived at the Beach House yesterday for distribution to our other two restaurants while I was writing this column. The staff at Beach House fed Bud a nice lunch and sent him back on his way. I think it’s a good example of the commitment that it takes on both ends of the spectrum. But like I said, it’s sure not as easy as it looks.

The good news is our team is embracing this change in culture. Slowly but surely we are making progress. Our customers are responding. I think people are willing to pay a little bit more for the quality and local province. After all what’s a fresh blueberry cobbler worth?

And the good news is we have a lot of great local resources. King Family Farms grows some of the best peaches I’ve ever had. They remind me of the way peaches tasted in my childhood. O’Brien Family Farms has wonderful produce. Our local Edible Sarasota publication showcases the large spectrum of local producers.

Now our job is to work together to make these great local products more accessible to you; whether it is our fish, our local clams or wild pig, our fresh local produce or protein sources like locally raised beef and chicken so that those who want to make the commitment to devote the extra resources to buy local are able to do so. It’s a big step toward sustainability and improved local economic development. It’s what our local heritage was historically all about.

It’s not easy but I’m dedicated to it.

Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key, can be reached at 941-778-1696.

Seminole Pumpkin Squash Blossoms

Our squash blossoms, like most of our produce, come from the local farm Gamble Creek. Each blossom we serve in our restaurants is stuffed with ricotta and goat cheese, dipped in an egg bath, lightly breaded and lightly fried until crispy golden brown. We hope you will enjoy these as much as we do.

As many squash blossoms as you want to stuff

Goat cheese

Ricotta cheese

Farm fresh eggs

Almond flour (or a healthy flour)

Olive oil or canola oil

Gently but thoroughly clean the squash blossoms inside and out. Let dry completely.

Mix ricotta and goat cheese 2 parts ricotta to 1 part goat cheese

Roll gently in flour to a light coat

Dip in egg wash

Dust lightly in medium ground panko crumbs

Gently place in hot oil

Fry until lightly golden brown and a little crispy

If you do not wish to fry then simply coat the blossom in a little olive oil and roast in a hot oven till it gets some color.

Cool slightly and enjoy!