Bringing the Sea to Your Table

Bringing the Sea to Your TableSix Emerald Coast chefs share their stories and flavor secrets By Susan Benton

In honor of national Food Day (Oct. 24) we dish up a story centered around the one food that gives the Emerald Coast its “salty” sense of place with every single serving — seafood. It’s no surprise that a large part of the area’s livelihood, tourism and any number of annual events hinge on this versatile protein.

Alice Waters, of famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., may have gotten the simmer going on the national “farm-to-table” movement, but here on the Emerald Coast, thanks to an emerging fraternity of fresh chefs, we are certain that the “sea-to-table” experience enjoyed in our restaurants is a recipe of our own — and, thankfully, not a secret one.

 Chefs Left to Right: Phillip McDonald, Table Five Personal Chef,David Cunningham, V Seagrove, Dan Pettis, One 20 A Modern Bistro
John Jacob, Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro, Dan “Dano” Dunn, H2O Pensacola Beach, Bruce McAdoo, Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood. Photo by Kansas Pitts
















Here is a sampling of some of the Emerald Coast’s top chefs who are passionate about the seafood they serve and the fresh ingredients they get from our local farms, markets and gardens to create mouth-watering delicacies for their patrons, families and friends, along with some tasty tips that you can use to bring a fresh perspective to your dining table.


John Jacob, Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro. Photo by Kansas PittsJohn Jacob, Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro. Photo by Kansas PittsJohn Jacob » Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro

For more than 20 years executive chef John Jacob, co-owner of Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro in Miramar Beach, has satisfied even the most discriminating of celebrity palates, including the likes of Emeril LaGasse.

The 43-year-old hails from Westfield, N.J., and cut his teeth in the food industry by working in an Italian fish market. He later worked in New York, Maine and Washington State, where he fell in love with salmon.

Jacob found opportunity in moving from colder northern climes to the Gulf, mentoring with Irv Miller (now of Jacksons-Pensacola) and developing his love of fresh seafood. His Gulf favorite, and a popular restaurant choice, is flounder. “I stuff it with shrimp, crab and scallops and serve it in a fish broth fume,” he explains.

Jacob builds his menu around seasonal ingredients, the freshest catch of the day, as well as customer favorites such as his molasses smoked salmon. He prides himself on searching for the best ingredients and uses a local fisherman at Harbor Docks for his seafood. He has a personal friendship with the owners of Dragonfly Fields and adds that he is first in line to buy anything local. When asked his cooking style, he says, “I cook unpretentious comfort food, paying attention to detail, and what is on my menu is what I love.”


Dan “Dano” Dunn » H2O Pensacola Beach

At 44, Chef Dan Dunn of H2O in the Hilton Hotel, Pensacola Beach Gulf Front, is a surfer and a chef. He admits his passions lie equally with both, and without one there would not be the other.

As we spoke, Dunn was in the restaurant kitchen at H20, deboning the ribcage and backbone from a whole hog he was stuffing in preparation for that night’s dinner. He describes his cuisine as Asian-Cajun and says that most of his inspiration is drawn from the Gulf. One of his menu specialties, staying with him through his career, is a filet mignon with General Tso’s-style fried lobster and shrimp, wild mushrooms and baby bok choy. Another signature dish is his fresh filet of snapper, stuffed with his award-winning crab cakes, pan-seared and finished with a cognac butter cream sauce.

 John Jacob, Vintij Wine Boutique and Bistro. Photo by Kansas PittsDan "Dano" Dunn, H2O Pensacola Beach. Photo by Howard Robinson

Dunn gets his local seafood from Maria’s in Pensacola and says he “tries to keep things simple and let the flavor of the proteins speak for themselves.” He has been with H2O for the last four years and calls it, “A crazy ride, complete chaos and awesome to be on the beach.”

He recently returned from the Pensacola Celebrity Chef tour, where he was one of five chosen, along with Irv Miller, Jim Shirley, Gus Silvos and Frank Taylor, to represent the city of Pensacola and the seafood industry at the famed James Beard house in New York. It is a far cry from his humble beginnings as the local IGA “chicken boy,” a position he took at the age of 14, cleaning and deboning chickens.




David Cunningham, V Seagrove. Photo by Scott Holstein
David Cunningham, V Seagrove. Photo by Scott HolsteinDavid Cunningham » V Seagrove

David Cunningham, 40, is the executive chef at one of the newest additions to the 30A scene — V Seagrove. Cunningham specializes in Gulf Coast cuisine and builds his menu based on seasonal ingredients, balancing them to the clientele’s tastes. When asked what seafood dish is most requested, he says, “a sexy poached grouper with jumbo lump crab in a morel cream, with phyllo pastry on top.”

Cunningham comes to the V Seagrove from the former Commander’s Palace in Destin, where he was the executive chef, and prior to that, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where he worked under his mentor, the famed Jamie Shannon. Under Shannon’s tutelage he learned devotion for fresh local products and farming techniques. “The best products and the best meals come right out of your own back yard,” he explains. “The food should not be intricate, but clean, local if possible, and the food should present itself.”

Some of the showcase plates at the V Seagrove incorporate Water Street Seafood Apalachicola oysters, Mac Farms heirloom tomatoes and C&D Mill’s stone ground grits. (“The great thing about C&D is they don’t grind them until I call!”) Cunningham hopes that in the near future the supplier will be the customer, on the V’s charter fishing boat, returning with their catch of the day. When asked about buying seafood he says, “I refuse to buy anything imported. I refuse to buy frozen fish or crab. If it’s not fresh, it’s not on my menu.”

 Dan Pettis, One 20 A Modern Bistro. Photo by Kansas PittsDan Pettis, One 20 A Modern Bistro. Photo by Kansas PittsDan Pettis » One 20 A Modern Bistro

Dan Pettis of One 20 A Modern Bistro in Niceville, knew early on that he wanted to be a chef. As a young teenager, he apprenticed at Marina Café, Creehan’s Market and the original Beach Walk Café under local chef Tim Creehan. He gives the nod to Creehan as his mentor, who taught him the most about cooking. Later, after culinary school, he learned Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim styles, as well as sushi skills, from Chef Roy in Palm Beach.

Pettis, 31, draws inspiration from “daily life, what is fresh and what is local.”  The Florida native describes his style as a mix of “South Florida, Pacific Rim and Southern roots.”

The seafood dish that is his favorite of late is a B-liner Snapper. It is prepared whole, fried Vietnamese style, stuffed with citrus and topped with chili lime oil.

Pettis and his stepbrother, Tim Marion, also a chef at One 20, share a bountiful garden that is bursting with fresh herbs, thyme and kaffir leaves. He is passionate about keeping his food local and his newest venture, a farmersmarket located on the side of his restaurant, proves this.

His mantra is, “Know your Roots, Eat Local at the Niceville Farmer’s Market.” Pettis envisions a European style of market where crafts are sold, street food is prepared, artisan breads and fresh flowers are available, and his purveyors are welcome to sell.

 Phillip McDonald, Table Five Personal Chef. Photo by Scott HolsteinPhillip McDonald, Table Five Personal Chef. Photo by Scott Holstein
Phillip McDonald » Table Five Personal Chef

“The beautiful thing about living on the Gulf is that our seafood is certified organic,” says Chef Phillip McDonald of Table Five Personal Chef. He is a Florida native who grew up in Destin, where his father ran the local marina, eating fresh fish, fried shrimp and fresh oysters on a daily basis.

McDonald, 35, contends he became a chef by default after he “started cooking on a whim.” He worked at many of South Walton’s finest restaurants, such as Cuvee Beach, Criolla’s, Fish out of Water and Onano until he came into his own.

He credits mentor Steven Vanderpool, now the executive chef of Brenner’s on the Bayou in Houston, with teaching him clean simple flavors. “Steven values cleanliness and simple straightforward food. If you are not going to eat it, don’t put it on the plate,” McDonald says.

Last summer, with tourism down due to the BP oil spill, McDonald took a culinary sabbatical and worked at some of the country’s premier restaurants in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. He draws his menu inspirations from the Gulf of Mexico, local farms such as Mac Farms, his customers’ tastes and the five senses.

At Table Five, McDonald brings a fresh perspective to the food by catering an authentic dining experience right in your own home. “We provide the simple luxury of staying in for the evening, leaving you to take pleasure in all the senses while you linger at the table in good company. The focus is on flavor, not trends,” says the young chef.


 Bruce McAdoo, Seagar's Prime Steaks and Seafood. Photo by Scott HolsteinBruce McAdoo, Seagar's Prime Steaks and Seafood. Photo by Scott HolsteinBruce McAdoo » Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood

Executive Chef Bruce McAdoo of Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, located in the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa in Miramar Beach, is a classically trained French chef who grew up traveling the world in a military family.

His father, an F-4 Navy fighter pilot, met and married his English mother, and travel is where McAdoo, 42, found his interest in cooking. He was a chef in England, West Virginia and Georgia before settling on the Emerald Coast at Seagar’s and says, “I cook the very best, most pristine food I can.”

An avid fisherman, he says his favorite seafood to prepare would have to be grouper, amberjack and red snapper. Customers love his whole baked Pompano Almandine topped with an Apalachicola soft shell crab, but these seasonal ingredients are not always available. McAdoo stresses he uses only seasonal ingredients and builds his menu to be “exciting and exhilarating” with the customers in mind.  “Food is supposed to be fun and create great conversation,” he says.

Local sources include Destin Ice Seafood Market & Deli, Crestview Produce and Bon Appétit, where McAdoo buys breads from an Armenian baker and his wife. “People come to Seagar’s and while they are here, they trust us for a great meal. After 13 years, I have the challenge to serve them the best.”

 Seagar’s Pompano Almandine

(Pontchartrain denotes the use of soft-shell crab; if unavailable, the dish is simply referred to as Pompano Amandine)


  • 4 6-8 ounce Pompano filets (or any seasonal fish of your liking)
  • 2 whole eggs, whisk with 1 tablespoon of milk for an egg wash
  • Seasoned flour
  • Sliced blanched almonds
  • 4 whale live soft-shell crabs (optional or can be substituted with sautéed jumbo lump crab meat)
  • ¼ cup of sautéed spinach (per person)
  • 1 shallot diced
  • 2 cups of cooking white wine
  • ½ pound unsalted butter
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons of capers (drained of liquid)
  • 3 Idaho potatoes, peeled and diced
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ pound butter and salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 whole lemons (slice and use for garnish)
  • Micro-beets (optional for garnish)


Read this recipe then prepare all of your ingredients and work through according to your time for dinner.

Start with the butter sauce. Sweat 1 diced shallot in a teaspoon of olive oil over a medium heat, cook until translucent, do not burn. Add 2 cups of white wine. Reduce this down to approximately 3 tablespoons of liquid. Add ¼ cup heavy cream and reduce by half. Add lemon juice. Turn heat to low and start to add butter in small amounts. Make sure to incorporate the butter as you add it. Adjust the seasoning with the salt and pepper and keep this sauce in a warm location.

Prepare the potato puree next. Take the 3 peeled and diced potatoes and start them in salted, cold water. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender. Remove potatoes from liquid and place back in pot with butter. Mash them up and add ½ cup milk and 1 cup heavy cream as you whip them until creamy. Adjust seasoning.

Now peel the asparagus, brush with olive oil and either sauté or grill until tender and set aside.

Take your Pompano filets (or any seasonal fish of your liking) and dredge them in your seasoned flour, then into an egg wash, then into sliced blanched almonds. Place in a sauté skillet over medium heat, add oil to pan, turn your oven to 350°. Place fish filets almond side down once pan is hot. Depending on size of skillet you might have to do this process twice. Once they are golden, place all 4 filets on a baking sheet pan, then place in oven to cook. Once the filets are cooked through, but still moist, you are ready to serve them.

Place the potato puree in the center of the plate, place the asparagus in the 12, 5 and 7 o’clock positions. Place the Pompano filets over the asparagus. Sauce the dish with the lemon chive butter sauce. Garnish with lemon.

Pair with a 2007 Russian River Chardonnay, serve and enjoy.

Corner on the Market

When shopping for the same superior quality local ingredients that award-winning local chefs use in their creations, look no further than the Emerald Coast. Below are just a few places you can pick up the freshest seafood, highest quality meats, artisan breads, vine-picked produce or a meal to go.

Destin Ice Seafood Market & Deli
663 Emerald Coast Parkway,
Destin, (850) 837-8333

Cool Fish Seafood Market
104 Redwood Avenue,
Niceville, (850) 729-3474

Maria’s Seafood Market
621 East Cervantes,
Pensacola, (850) 432-4999

Joe Patti’s Seafood and Specialty Food Market
South A Street and Main Street, Pensacola, (850) 432-3315

Off the Vine
11 Eglin Parkway North East,
Fort Walton Beach, (850) 374-2181

Panhandle Fresh
Community based food system model assisting farmers in pooling their resources to sell to a larger market. Sign up online.

Ever’mans Pensacola
315 West Gadsen Street,
Pensacola, (850) 438-0402

Dragonfly Fields
1600 County Hwy 192,
Defuniak Springs, (850) 859-2854

Mac Farms
Santa Rosa Beach

Seaside Farmer’s Market
30A in Seaside