Hooked on Local Seafood Shack
Within minutes of speaking to Chef Gerard Jesse, he throws out several memorable zingers, including “If it doesn’t swim in these waters, I don’t use it,” and “Instead of following trends, we’re creating them,” and “I want to be known not just for the best food but also for the cleanest kitchen.”
What’s more notable than the sound bites themselves is the complete and utter lack of pretentiousness in his words. He is humble, he is honest, and he is completely genuine in his passion for sustainability, his love of all things local, and his commitment to maintaining a beautiful and delicious world for the future of his three children.
“It just seems like the right thing to do,” he says.
Chef Gerard, whose impressive resume includes The Ritz-Carlton, the Culinary Institute of America, and the James Beard House, is just one component of what’s going right at The Seafood Shack Marina, Bar & Grill, located in the Cortez fishing village, aptly nicknamed “The Kitchen” by locals thanks to its abundance of fish, scallops, clams, shrimp, and other savory sea things.
In its heyday, “The Shack,” a Cortez landmark since 1971, was one of Florida’s 10 top-grossing restaurants, attracting upwards of 3,000 patrons on sunny Sundays in season. But the seaside hideaway fell into disrepair after being declared a “failed operation” in 2002, leading to a love/hate relationship between locals and the restaurant for years. After a decade-long struggle of staffing challenges, economic downturns, and federal government pressures, many folks lost hope that their beloved Shack would ever regain its reign as restaurant royalty.
But in 2014, new ownership and management began the revitalization of the iconic 10,000-square-foot establishment with long-term renovation programs, massive marina amenity upgrades, a new bar, a new chef, and an entirely new menu using fresh and local products.
“We got rid of the freezers and now serve items the fishermen bring in, like snapper and sheepshead, says Chef Gerard. “But it’s not just the seafood that’s sustainable. We have 30 beehives, which produce 2,000 pounds of honey annually. We grow our own veggies on the side of the building too—it’s a holistic aquaculture program using tilapia that creates wastewater, which we then use to feed the veggies,” he says in a tone that is both experienced and excited. “We use artisanal products that have real backstories behind them. We even bake most of our own bread.”
Having fresh ingredients is great, but turning those ingredients into something superb is the real talent, especially when the restaurant won’t waiver on its commitment to continuing its legacy by preserving its “Old Florida feel” no matter how many enhancements The Shack may undergo. How does one preserve an Old Florida feel (read: not fancy) while still dipping a toe into the sea of extravagance?
“We offer dishes like black grouper marinated in koji mold to give it an umami flavor,” says Chef Gerard. “We are truly serving the highest-quality product in an approachable setting.”
The menu still reads like a familiar lineup of fish house favorites including crab cakes, shrimp and grits, and linguini and clams, though each dish ensures a regional twist from key lime aioli to local Gulf shrimp and Joe Island clams.
“I’ve worked in fine dining for years,” says the chef, “and we’re serving every bit of the same premium quality and techniques. But you don’t have to wear a tie to dine here.”
I wish I had a zinger or two of my own, but I don’t. Instead I’ll steal one from famed Southern Chef Paul Prudhomme: “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.”
Seafood Shack: 4110 127th St W, Cortez; 941-794-1235; seafoodshack.com