Kenny Gilbert Turns up the Heat
Chef Kenny Gilbert may be known for his appearance on “Top Chef” Season seven, where he was voted Fan Favorite, but to anyone lucky enough to visit one of his Northeast Florida restaurants, he is known for great barbeque and his modern spin on traditional Southern dishes. Kenny started his career at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company as an apprentice in the garde manger kitchen of their Amelia Island property; by age 23, he worked his way up to Chef de Cuisine. Kenny has cooked at the James Beard House, participated in wine & food festivals around the country and appeared as a contestant on Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” both of which he won. The chef returned to Florida in 2015 and opened Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Fernandina Beach with his wife Anna, followed by the opening of Gilbert’s Social the following fall on Jacksonville's Southside. Recently we were able to keep pace with him (barely) in the kitchen to learn more about his latest concepts, Gilbert’s Southern Kitchen & Bar and Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp, located in the former Seachasers space at Jacksonville Beach. A third space within the building, called Seachasers Lounge, will host live entertainment four days a week.
You are partnering with Seachasers owner, Jim Franks, to take over the space and revamp the building and menus. What was the inspiration for your latest culinary offerings, Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp and Gilbert's Southern Kitchen & Bar?
With Hot Chicken, I wanted to create a simple concept based on what has worked at my other restaurant, Gilbert's Underground Kitchen with the spicy version of my Fried Chicken, Fish and Shrimp. I thought casual, spicy fried food would be appreciated at the beach. For Southern Kitchen, I wanted to create something that was a step up from any of my other restaurant concepts - slightly elevated with the same Southern flare and delicious Southern eats.
Why expand into Jacksonville Beach, and what is the motivation for putting down roots in this area?
I had history in Jacksonville Beach from my early day’s at Nippers, so it made a lot of sense when I was approached about the space.
What's been the biggest challenge you have faced running your own restaurants and how are you applying learnings from previous experiences at your new place on the beach?
Challenges include staffing commitment, skills and dedication. You have to go through 10 to find 1 that will stay. A Ritz Carlton philosophy I always use is to train your team to be self directed. Basically, allow the team to grow based on various their strengths and help them to develop those strengths daily.
How have you seen this area change from a culinary perspective since you first began cooking at the Ritz?
Chefs have been stepping up their game year after year. It’s exciting for the city of Jacksonville and for the food scene. Chefs are taking more and more chances with food. It’s all about educating the locals.
What's your favorite flavor or ingredient to work with in the kitchen?
Smoke...Pecan and Oak Wood.
Tell us about cooking for Oprah Winfrey - how did that come about?
One of my very close friends of about 20 years is Ms. Winfrey’s personal Chef, Sonny Sweetman. When he took on the position, he asked me if would be able to come out to cook for some of her special events. I said of course and the rest is history! I’ve been cooking for her 3-5 times a year for the last 3 years.
What's next on your bucket list?
I would love to open a successful food hall somewhere in Jacksonville. I feel that it’s needed.
What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I'm a great swimmer! I was the co-captain of my swim team back in high school.