Chefs Dan Dunn, Irv Miller, Jim Shirley, Gus Silivos and Frank Taylor are once again representing the Gulf Coast at the James Beard House in New York City.
Jill Thomas, Director of New Media Marketing for Innisfree, provided this profile on Dan Dunn, the chef at Innisfree’s H20 Cajun Asian Restaurant on Pensacola Beach:
Pensacola Celebrity Chef Dan Dunn is a casual easy going guy and a long time, well loved Pensacola Beach local. When he’s not working he’s most likely to be found bombing around the beach in his classic sun yellow convertible VW bug or enjoying a casual outdoor feast with his family and large tribe of life-long surf buddies. He launched his culinary career working as a ‘chicken-cutter’ in a local grocery store and decided to become a chef because the evening shifts didn’t interfere with his surfing schedule.
Today he’s the Executive Chef of the biggest and busiest kitchen in Pensacola Beach which services H20 Cajun Asian Restaurant as well as catering hundreds of yearly banquets and meetings at the Hilton Gulf Front Hotel. On March 27th he’s cooking in one of the most prestigious culinary “performance spaces” in the world; the James Beard House in New York City. He’ll be traveling and cooking with four other local chefs including Irv Miller of Jackson’s Steakhouse, Jim Shirley of the Fish House, Gus Silivos of Nancy’s Haute Affairs and Frank Taylor of Global Grill.
Being invited is cook at the James Beard House is a once in a lifetime opportunity only offered to the best chefs in the country. This will be the second time this eclectic collective of Gulf Coast cooks will strut their stuff in the Big Apple. They were invited for the first time last spring and served a southern Gulf Coast inspired menu that included fried seafood, fresh tuna, hand ground grits, collard greens and black eye pea caviar. It was a huge hit with the local New Yorkers; in fact they made such a great impression they were invited to come for a return visit right after dinner.
This year the Governor of Florida, Mayor of Pensacola and many other local business people will be traveling to New York to celebrate Gulf Coast inspired cuisine with this superstar culinary team. Dan says, “Our goal last year was to represent our region after the oil spill; to get the message out that Gulf Coast seafood was safe to eat. The oil spill was really sad. We thought our beaches and lifestyle might be forever ruined. We sent a letter to the James Beard Foundation because we wanted to get the word out that things were okay here and that people should come visit. The fact that we got invited a second time is insane. Last year I was really nervous. This year I am just excited.”
Dan’s culinary style and southern beach lifestyle are inextricably intertwined. Southern hospitality and outdoor cook outs are the focal point of both his work and the time he spends with family and friends. He reigns like a benevolent dictator over countless communal meals at work, at home and on the beach. Most days he cooks breakfast for his kitchen crew at the Hilton; usually tacos or chicken fried biscuits dipped in honey butter. It’s not unusual to see him grilling up a feast on the beach with dozens of friends after an evening paddle and he is as likely to invite twenty people to his house for dinner as he is two.
At a recent spontaneous backyard cookout at his home in Gulf Breeze Florida, Dan served tacos with fire roasted Filet Mignon, fresh caught lime marinated grilled Cobia, herb roasted chicken, scratch made black beans, green salsa, saffron rice, homemade guacamole and red salsa. He glides through a kitchen like he’s executing a well choreographed dance; giving the impression that throwing on a gourmet scratch made meal for thirty is a simple quotidian endeavor. It’s not surprising that friends and neighbors are attracted to him like bees to honey and drop by for meals by the dozen. Dan and his wife Dione are true southern hosts and seem to instinctively create an addictive homey ambiance resplendent with kids, dogs and satiated friends.
Dan says, “I think it is always good to start and end the day with everyone eating together. I grew up in a home where we sat down for dinner together every night. It is a tradition I’ve carried on with my family. People open up and relax when they gather around a table filled with good food. Hospitality and entertaining are very important to me.”
Dan’s menus are simple and inspired by regional dishes and locally sourced ingredients; “We use a tonne of local food at the Hilton including fresh tomatoes and spring peas. Almost all the fish we serve is from the Gulf of Mexico. Right now the season is on and I love all the fish that comes in our door this time year. I also love cooking collard greens and fresh ground grits. I think there is an art to cooking collard greens. You need a big ole ham hock and it takes lots of time.” At H20 he artfully meshes southern tradition, fresh local ingredients and international flavor. One of his signature dishes is jumbo Gulf Coast shrimp bacon wrapped, stuffed with Gouda cheese and topped with an Asian inspired mango BBQ sauce.
Dan is a passionate and busy guy. He runs a kitchen that on some days caters as many as five weddings and multiple large corporate meetings while always pumping out three meals worth of excellent food in a busy restaurant. Yet, he still finds time to cook for his friends and family, go surfing and produce a prolific number of paintings. Dan has a art studio in his garage and recently sold his first piece at a local gallery night. The walls of his house are consumed by his colorful surf themed paintings.
He attributes his success to a sincere passion for what he does. He says, “I love my job. I love where I work and the people that I work for and with.” This drives him to be one of the hardest working chefs in town. Dan says, “I have a really good work ethic and I think that is the basis for being a good chef. My first advice for young cooks is don’t be afraid to work eighteen hours a day and never complain.”
This year’s culinary event at James Beard House is hosted by Visit Pensacola and will honor the state’s rich history and Viva Florida 500, which is a statewide campaign commemorating the 500th anniversary of Florida in 2013. Visit Pensacola joined forces with the five chefs in 2008, creating the Pensacola Celebrity Chefs program to highlight Pensacola’s unique culinary offerings. Click here for ticket information.
The three-course dinner is on March 27th. It starts at 6pm with a cocktail hour in the courtyard and dinner at 7pm. The menu will be as follows:
Cracked Conch & Green Tomato Fritters with Key Lime Mustard Sauce
Farm-raised Turtle Soup with Mirliton & Bay Shrimp Relish
Tuna Tacos with Salsa Verde, Manchego Cheese & Pickled Jalapeños
Pensacola Bay Shrimp with Rosemary Worcestershire Barbecue Sauce and Lightly Fried Artichoke Bottoms
Caramelized Calico Scallop Skewers with Crispy Slab Bacon, Sweet Peppers and Spicy Piccalilli Jus
Gulf Red Snapper with Stewed Collard Greens & Roasted Corn – Red Pepper Beurre Blanc
Housemade Seafood Boudin Blanc – Stuffed and Pecan and Country Ham – Crusted Softshell Crab
Grilled Cobia with Sautéed Mustard Greens, Field Peas, Preserved Florida Lemons, Spoonbread, and Smoked Ham Hock Sauce
Sautéed Gulf Grouper on Cantonment Stone-Ground Grits Cake with Cedar Key Clams, Housemade Chorizo, Tomatoes, Jalapeños, and Black-Eyed Peas
Carpet Bag Steak – Seared Snake River Farms Flatiron Steak – Wrapped Fried Apalachicola Oysters on Baby Greens with Maytag Blue Cheese Cream and Caramelized Vidalia Onion – Green Chili Pepper Relish.
Warm White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Candied Pecans and a Fig Bourbon Sauce.