by Laine Doss | February 24, 2016
Grove Stand: Cutting the Apron Strings
Taking the best of what his parents taught him about barbeque and Southern food, and combining it with refined influences, chef Kenny Gilbert fires up his grills and the culinary scene in North Florida
Kenny Gilbert is not a native Floridian, but he has strong ties to his adopted home of 24 years. The leading women in his life, his mother, Carlotta, and wife Anna, 40, both hail from the Sunshine State. So the cuisine of Florida earned a special place in the chef’s heart since his childhood in Cleveland. Gilbert, 42, grew up eating foods from his mother’s native St. Augustine—perch and grits, fried green tomatoes and hot sauce—while his schoolmates ate spaghetti and meatballs.
“Growing up with a Southern mother, we didn’t eat what the other kids ate,” he recalls.
The difference in foods didn’t bother him; rather, it enthralled him. He spent more and more time in the kitchen, helping his mother fry chicken and flavor collard greens with smoked ham hocks and turkey necks.
When he researched a spot for his newest restaurant, Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, the sentimental favorite was Fernandina Beach, about an hour from his mom’s old stomping grounds. In March 2015, he opened the warm, inviting eatery and lounge, decorated with childhood pictures, memorabilia and books.
“All the flavors I learned from her,” he says of Carlotta. “They’ve been applied to virtually everything I do here. I took what I’ve grown up eating and cooking with my mom—like potato salad, and fish and grits—and put it into a restaurant.”
In this kitchen, locally sourced ingredients, like field peas, are cooked Mom-style—low and slow. It’s not all tried-and-true recipes here. Gilbert also considers Underground Kitchen to be his laboratory, a place for him to eagerly experiment with different types of cuisine and fun fusions to showcase on weekly pop-up menus.
Fans of Gilbert’s clamor for the chef’s barbeque lunch at Underground Kitchen. His secret? Sourcing local meats and seasoning them with rubs and brines before transforming them on the barbeque. Gilbert uses both hard woods and charcoal in four giant Oklahoma Joes grills and one La Caja China to impart the perfect smoke and flavor to his smoked turkey drumsticks, pulled pork, beef brisket and alligator ribs, a local specialty. His grills/smokers hold more than 80 pounds of meat at a time, a herculean feat he is proud of and attributes to his father Carle’s influence. A line of drum-shaped barbeque grills fortifies the entrance to Gilbert’s restaurant. And when all his toys are fired up, big smoke creates even bigger flavor.
“My dad is from Chicago, and that’s where I learned the barbeque side,” he says.
Gilbert remembers the thrill of being a 7-year-old with his own Weber grill that was set up alongside his dad’s smoker, fashioned from oil drums. Carle was a steady insurance salesman who tapped into his creative side by entertaining friends and family at his house on the weekends. It was at those gatherings that young Gilbert first learned about the differences between barbeque from the Midwest (his father had his own rubs and molasses-based sauces) and the South (his uncle Frank, on his mother’s side, had a mustard sauce).
Although many Floridians may have discovered Gilbert on television during season seven of Top Chef or later on Cutthroat Kitchen, his hard-earned cooking career officially started more than 20 years ago, after graduating from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh in 1992. Before Underground Kitchen, he’d amassed a long, glittering resumé that includes The Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, the exclusive members-only Caxambas restaurant in Naples, and Miami’s 50 Eggs Restaurant Group. Across the state, Gilbert has noticed distinct taste preferences.
“Southern cuisine in Miami is brighter, with more vegetables,” he says. Even the most discerning, and richest, palates have taken to Gilbert’s Florida-fied riff on Southern staples. Oprah Winfrey, who once owned a place on Fisher Island, requested life-changing fried chicken at a gathering at her Maui home on New Year’s Day in 2015. Gilbert nervously watched as Winfrey took a bite.
“She raised her hand and said it was unbelievable,” he recalls. “Then she said it was the best she’d had in her years on earth. That’s all I needed to hear. I could have gone home and been the happiest man on earth.”
Praise from megastars and turns on television haven’t become the pinnacles of his accomplishments. Armed with deep knowledge of Florida’s food sources and Top Chef kitchen skills, Gilbert seems to be thoughtfully plotting a culinary takeover. He’s developing a second restaurant in North Florida and researching a fast, casual barbeque concept to bring to Orlando and Miami, solidifying that Gilbert is a chef to watch—and taste.
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen is located at 510 S. 8th Street, Fernandina Beach. Call 904-310-6374 for hours and reservations. Or visit underground kitchen.co
See our blog page for more recipes by Chef Kenny Gilbert.