Grove Stand: Stocks & Bonds
On the verge of moving to a bigger, better space, Chef Jason Stocks spills about sourcing local foods, adding Southern flavors and enjoying a culinary kinship with Stuart
To start with, Jason Stocks wrote a business plan and hosted investor dinners. Lest that sound too by-the-book, he also borrowed money from his wife’s parents and cashed out his 401(k). When District Table & Bar opened in Stuart in 2013, Stocks had $5,000 to his name, chairs from a defunct Red Lobster and a certain amount of rookie-owner’s apprehension. Four years later, District has become one of the city’s best-known restaurants, regularly drawing posh crowds from Palm Beach and beyond—so much so that by September, it will double in size, relocating a few miles down the road to an all-new space in an old bank building (at 4665 S.E. Dixie Highway, Stuart).
“District was never meant to be upscale,” Stocks, now 36, says wryly. “The clientele dictated that it be more refined.”
His mission, he says, has always been to cook food that he likes to eat. His elevator pitch for what he does at District? “It’s to cook New American food with Southern influence, sourced locally,” he tells me over the phone as he drives, two whole Florida-heritage breed pigs beside him, ready for a weekend pig roast.
District is a homecoming story. Born and raised in Stuart, Stocks graduated from the University of Florida, then from a two-year program at Capital Culinary Institute in Tallahassee. His interest in the kitchen predates his education—two Christmases ago, as gift from his mom, Stocks got a cookbook he’d received as a kid, which he had precociously autographed. His family united a mix of Southern and European traditions, and food featured prominently in young Stocks’s life.
Check out his recipes for watermelon salad, mangrove snapper and buttermilk pie
For a while, he wandered. He did stints at the Greenbrier in West Virginia; Sea Island Resort in St. Simons Island, Georgia; Bedford Springs Resort in Pennsylvania; and the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. By then, he was married to his wife, Mirka, and their son Lukas was approaching kindergarten age. It was time to put down roots, maybe give back to his hometown. They found a suitable building for a restaurant with good bones and a working kitchen hood. The work was all sweat equity, the result of which was a boisterous space with an open kitchen, rustic wooden tables, and cream and burgundy drapes that wouldn’t be out of place at grandma’s house.
What proved trickier, when Stocks opened, was his vision for sourcing ingredients. There weren’t that many local farmers and artisans doing business with individual restaurants.
He started forging relationships: with Kai-Kai Farm in Indiantown for specialty vegetables; with the biodynamic Paradise Farms in Homestead for a range of greens, herbs and tropical fruit; with Palmetto Creek for pork; and with Lake Meadow Naturals for chicken and duck eggs. The list began to grow. On the District menu, you’ll find Key West pink shrimp next to Belle Glade sweet corn and Jacksonville soft-shell crab. Stocks aims to have his ingredients be “90 to 95 percent local.”
“The menu changes when a farmer drops something off. The Southern influence in my food comes naturally, but I’m not scared of anything. I’ll put a ramen bowl on the menu. When we opened, there wasn’t anything like that in town.”
These days the city of Stuart has cultivated several other progressive, ingredient-driven restaurants.
“When I grew up here, it was a sea of chain restaurants. When we got an Outback, it was the best thing ever. It has slowly evolved into a town that’s more receptive.”
The original District Table & Bar, which will be open until the new location debuts in September, seats 83 people. The Version 2.0 will hold 150 and feature a wood-burning oven, an open kitchen and cameras in the pass-through—so diners can catch all the flaming hot action.
Stocks is particularly enthused about the new restaurant’s bourbon-driven cocktail list, a private dining room nestled in the bank vault, and an expanded menu that leans heavily on the savory wood smoke of that oven.
But what has cemented District Table & Bar’s reputation is down-home Southern fare, rigorously sourced.
District Table & Bar
— Location —
900 S.E. Indian St.,
— Hours —
Tuesday–Sunday, 5 p.m.–close