The Top Chef Interview With Kenny Gilbert, Part 2
New Times: You seem to be attracted to working at resorts and clubs. Why is that?
Gilbert: Well, I think it's my specialty; high-end luxury clubs and boutique hotels. And the twist to that is I can really identify with the members. Like at PGA National, for example. It's a resort, hotel, and has a really prestigious golf course, home to the Honda Classic. So being able to connect with the people you're serving every day really drives the consistency of the food. But I also think that I'm extremely well-rounded because of my experiences. On the show, you see me cooking baby food or pies or five-star type dishes. So all that helps. I was actually recruited by the ownership of PGA National, and they contacted me while I was in Colorado.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My style, I classify it as international cuisine with a Southern influence. I feel pretty confident in doing a lot of styles of cuisine, so much so that if I had someone sit down that was Korean, for example, I would feel comfortable doing a Korean dish that would maybe have a twist but would have a base that would make them say "wow."
Do you have a signature dish?
Yeah. I guess the dish that would really represent me well is a stuffed quail with porcini mushroom grits and a truffle Marsala emulsion. I love this dish because you have the Southern accent with the grits and you have classical French technique from the sauce and the way that the dish is stuffed.
How do you do it?
Basically, you take the legs and do a confit of those, then pull the meat apart and add caramelized fennel and garlic and sage and a little bit of Boursin cheese. You stuff that in the breast and wrap it with a nice cured bacon, then sear it off and bake it. And then you have these beautiful, creamy grits with some deep Italian porcini mushrooms. And a nice truffle Marsala emulsion, where the wine compliments the mushrooms. To me, that's kind of my style, incorporating classic technique with a Southern twist.
Wow, you sold me. Do you think you'll put that on the menu at the Ironwood Grille?
Oh yeah, most definitely!
Regarding the menu, how far along are you toward reworking it?
I've already written out all the menus for the entire property, and I'm working on developing the infrastructure, getting things organized and disciplined. And we'll start implementing the menus through the rest of the summer, so about the time we hit October, we'll have everything in line.
So customers should be able to come in by then and taste what you're all about?
One hundred percent. Whether that's at the pool or spa or at the Ironwood Grille, they'll be able to completely get a taste of what we do. We'll be doing great steaks, pairings with wine, great bistro menus, light poolside-fair... every aspect of the love of cooking I have, they'll be able to taste.
What kind of Florida ingredients and styles do you think you'll incorporate into what you're doing?
Well, the part of Florida I really want to incorporate is fresh local citrus and a lot of seafood. But I also want to showcase some Caribbean influences as well. For example, I just did a beautiful Caribbean lobster salad that had coconut and lime, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro. So a very, very light but very bold flavored dish. Ultimately, I want to be able to incorporate all the cultures up and down the coastline.
Do you think the restaurant will be renamed, or will it stay Ironwood Grille?
No, it's going to stay Ironwood Grille. It matches perfectly with the property and theme. They just put $65 million into the project, and they've really thought it out well. That's what attracted me, really. Everything matches well together from a décor and theme standpoint, so I'm good with it.
What made you want to come back to South Florida?
Well, it's interesting, because I was offered opportunities at the Taj Hotel in Boston as well as the Langham Hotel in California where Mike Voltaggio just resigned. So I had a few opportunities. I also have a son, a 3-year-old, who lives in the Bahamas. It's a thirty-minute flight to go and see him from here. So it just made sense from a family perspective. My daughter who turns 17 in August is going to be a junior this year. And she loves Florida; she was born and raised here. So it was a family decision. That, plus I was lucky enough that the resort wanted to bring the food here to another level and had everything in place to do so. So it's a perfect balance for me.
Do you have a favorite restaurant here in South Florida?
More often than not, I tend to go to ethnic restaurants. I crave Thai food. There's a Thai restaurant on Northlake [Boulevard], I want to say it's called Thaicoon. And that's my favorite restaurant right now. That's the place I would go to three times a week. It's delicious, it's not pretentious, it's very casual, and the flavors are authentic.
That's interesting that you have such a strong resort background, but when you go out to eat, it's for casual, ethnic food.
Well, honestly I think most chefs would have to agree that they love the basics, whether it's chicken wings or whatever. And I mean, I love all types of food, whether it's Thai three times a week or a fine dining experience once or twice a month.
Hey, thanks for taking the time with us, Kenny. We'll be rooting for you now that you're part of the home team.
Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it!