By Channing Estell
Jim Shirley is a multifaceted award-winning chef, business mogul, and philanthropist, along with being the founder and proprietor behind some of the most popular eateries along the beaches of 30A and Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast. Great Southern Café, 45 Central and The Meltdown in Seaside, The Bay in Santa Rosa Beach and Baytowne Provisions in Sandestin are all part of this well-known and respected group of coastal restaurants that also include the co-owned Pensacola Florida eateries; The Fish House, The Atlas Oyster House, and The Fish House Deck Bar.
As a nationally recognized chef and restauranteur Jim has been creating his style of coastal themed cuisine for almost two decades, opening his first restaurant in Pensacola way back in 1995, Madison’s Diner, named after his daughter. Since that time Shirley has continued to be very instrumental in developing all of the new startups he’s involved in, while also contributing heavily to the momentum and success of other Northwest Florida eateries through his mentorship and service as a board of directors member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, founder and president of the Society of Great Southern Chefs, and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Additionally Shirley has held several other positions within the restaurant and tourism community, as well as local and regional philanthropic organizations.
Among Chef Jim Shirley’s most notable accolades as a chef have been his invitations to the world famous James Beard House where he was celebrated most recently in late 2018 by the holy grail of food, The James Beard Foundation, as a guest chef. Shirley is actually one of only five celebrity chefs from the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast to have been invited to prepare a meal for the organization. Our Editor-In-Chief, Will Estell, recently sat down with Chef Jim Shirley to talk with him more about this and other aspects of his restaurant group’s many successes along the way.
WE: First off tell me about your unique style of cooking and how that came to be.
JS: You know, I like to call it modern Southern cuisine. As for how it came to be, it was really just a little of this and a little of that from various cultures and places I lived and learned to prepare dishes from. My dad was a Navy pilot who was stationed all around the world, and I learned to enjoy a variety of foods from so many cultures, along with picking some of it up from my grandmothers’ traditional Southern cooking along the way.
WE: I know your first restaurant along 30A was the now iconic Great Southern Café’ in Seaside. How did that come to be since you had already established yourself as a chef and restaurant owner in the Pensacola area?
JS: At that time, the farm to table concept for healthy food utilization in restaurants was in its infancy and I had been coming to Seaside for quite some time to visit some friends who were some of the early colonist of the 30A area. Through these friends I was introduced to Robert Davis [Seaside’s founder] and we began talking about some farm to table concepts. I had been having trouble sourcing fresh produce for my Pensacola restaurants and Robert had some connections and brilliant concepts as to how to solve some of those issues. On a particular trip to Seaside I had some farm to table system people along with me to meet with Robert and some other friends in the 30A area involved in these talks. During the course of these routine visits Robert and I became friends … over lots of wine [laughing], and one thing led to another, and we just decided to do a restaurant there in Seaside. That’s how Great Southern Café was born, and we’re extremely proud to be a forerunner in that Seaside and 30A culture.
WE: What originally inspired you to become a chef and then restaurateur?
JS: You know, I just always loved to cook and entertain. I really began cooking by flipping burgers at fourteen, and I essentially ran a pizza place at seventeen, so all of these things were in motion moving me away from becoming a doctor. It just became evident at that early age that this was the industry I was going to be in. And if I was going to be in it, I wanted to really be in it and make a mark.
WE: Speaking of making a mark I know your most famous dish is probably the Grits a Ya Ya, and anyone who has tried it understands why. Tell me how that dish came to be.
JS: Back in 1998 I was cooking for a Mardi Gras Krew party in Pensacola and that was the dish I came up with. I threw it all together while listening to the Rolling Stones ‘Get Your YaYa’s Out’, so that’s how it got its name. It just took off and stuck and it’s been a favorite ever since.
WE: Having said how Great Southern came to be, tell me a little about some of your other 30A and South Walton eateries and what makes each one different than the other.
JS: The Bay [located at the foot of the 331 bridge in South Walton] is a place to experience more of an international flair in the dishes served there. Guests can come by car or by boat, and since it’s right on the Choctawhatchee Bay it offers a great place where families can come together, and the kids can play and have fun while their parents listen to great live music while dining on our porch or inside the restaurant. It’s a great place for the whole family or to get away as a couple. We also do a lot of events at this location, from destination wedding receptions to corporate events. The Bay is just such a great location and picturesque setting, and we have room for lots of people.
My partner Kelli Castille and I opened Meltdown on 30A in Seaside in 2010 as a unique concept to fit in with Seaside’s new community of vintage Airstreams converted to food trailers. We sell a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches. Who doesn’t like grilled cheese sandwiches right? You can get your choice of all sorts of meats and cheese and an array of sides including fresh made roasted tomato soup or chips. This one just took off and now we’ve got people posting on Instagram, showing pictures and videos of them pulling their sandwiches apart, showing off the stringing cheese as they eat there. They’ve basically started some kind of Meltdown on 30A cult following [laughing].
Baytowne Provisions is a partnership of ours also and Baytowne Provisions is a full-service restaurant, bar and general store located in the Village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin [referring to Northwest Florida’s well known Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort near Destin]. The store is open daily and the restaurant serves Wednesday through Sunday evenings. There we’ve got everything from seafood to steaks to handhelds, along with a full array of cocktails and specialty spirits. All with a laid-back Southern charm ambiance and that country store and restaurant feel and décor.
Then there’s 45 Central Wine & Sushi Bar in Seaside. It’s another unique concept and a great place to just dine and unwind. We’ve got an extensive wine selection, great sushi, and just a great atmosphere to relax, meet new people and have a good time in a wonderful place like Seaside.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview Jim Shirley Enterprises has also added two new eateries, both located across the street from The Bay in Santa Rosa Beach Florida. These include the newly opened Northeast Tortilla Company, a Mexican themed restaurant with authentic Hispanic dishes, and the soon to open (Summer 2019) Farm and Fire, with its unique menu and dining experience.
WE: It’s one thing to have these unique concepts, and I’m sure that goes a long way in making your group of restaurants work and continue to be so successful, but beyond that what do you attribute your success to? What’s the magic in the Jim Shirley Enterprises recipe… if you can tell me that special ingredient?
The secret, or not so secret if I’m telling you, ingredient is our people. All 270 plus of them. Our restaurants are all built from the kitchen out. Our various concepts can only take us so far, but the right people are what make the machine work. We just cook what people like. Our food, service and attention to detail drive it all. If a restaurant’s ownership, management and team don’t take the time to satisfy the customers the customer won’t be back. Everyone from myself to local farmers to our management and every single member of our staff are a part of our team and we all work together to keep everyone happy.
WE: Tell me about your invitations and journey to the world famous James Beard House in NYC and what that was like, especially this past time being the guest chef and putting on your Taste of Seaside presentation.
JS: It was really an honor to be invited every time I’ve been asked, but the most recent time for myself and my crew to be able to put together a menu that was so highly grounded in Walton County meant a lot to us. We were cutting up Swamp Cabbage and things like Sable Palm. It was just great to have the opportunity to present our style of Southern Coastal Cuisine. Their organization [James Beard Foundation] is just doing such great things and really pushing the pinnacle for chefs and the whole food establishment across the country. Before my most recent two invitations I had been there three times with a group of other chefs from Pensacola to promote the culinary society of Pensacola. We even got to cook for the King of Spain when he came to Pensacola for the 450th Anniversary, and because of that we were invited to the James Beard House and presented with an award for that. The entire experience, each time, has just been great for myself and our team.
Editor’s note: For those of you not familiar with the James Beard Foundation, their mission is to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone. They also maintain the historic James Beard House in NYC’s Greenwich Village as a special culinary presentation place for visiting chefs. Guest chefs are selected through the Foundation’s director who seek out noteworthy talent on a national level. Only chefs with the highest of reputations of excellence are given the honor of presenting as Guest Chef of the James Beard Foundation.
WE: At this point and having done all you have done with the successes of the various restaurants, how involved are you on a day-to-day basis in the operations of the individual eateries, and what does that involve?
JS: You know, at a certain point the focus begins to be on the growth of the brand, however, we’ve now brought in some great professionals to oversee a lot of that and make sure the brand maintains its reputation and grows, so now I’m back doing what I like and in the kitchen cooking a lot more.
I spend a good portion of my time at The Bay right now. Mainly because as much as I love Great Southern it’s a hard place to just drop by the kitchen. We’ve got some great people running it and it’s extremely successful the way they are doing it, so you can’t just slide in and disrupt things.
WE: After doing so much at such a successful level what is the next aspiration?
JS: [laughing] Yeah, there’s probably some new things that are coming, that we can’t really talk about right now, but I promise you, you’ll know when they happen. We’ve got some pretty exciting things on the horizon for our future.
WE: I know you’ve been involved in many philanthropic efforts giving both of your time and resources to mentor and make a difference for others around us, including one that seems very near to your heart, The Children’s Home Society of Florida. Can you tell me more about that and what your work with that organization entails?
JS: Sure. It’s a group and an effort that I feel really passionate about. I believe the future of our community –really of any community, anywhere- is going to be the product of what we’ve done with our children. The Children’s Home Society has always done a great job of providing the support that, unfortunately, some children really need. Whether it’s seeing children get adopted into new families or knowing that our school systems are working to better help these children, it’s just a very rewarding program to be involved in, and we just hope we’re making some positive impact at our level.
WE: Tell me about some of the things you like to do personally when you’re not busy working and coming up with new ventures and growth strategies. What are some of your passions beyond cooking, some hobbies you have?
JS: I like to cook [laughing]. I like to entertain. Some of the things I’ve put on the back burner I’m trying to do more now. I’ve got all the gear to go fishing again. I have some really great people working for us and managing for us who don’t need me to micromanage them, so I’m at a place where I can get out and do some of that again.
For more information about Chef Jim Shirley and Jim Shirley Enterprises check out them out online and through their social media sites, but more importantly just get to one of their great restaurants and discover their unique flavor first hand. You’ll be glad you did.