Keys Chefs Blend Island Flair Into Eclectic Gourmet Dishes

 

A native of Cuba, Chef Luis Pous perfected his skills in cities such as Paris, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York City. He has been with Little Palm Island Resort & Spa since 2006. 

 

 

The Florida Keys harbors an elite group of culinary artists. Here, at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, the food & wine pairings are carefully selected. 

 

 

Chef Ben Loftus is the executive chef at the upscale Pierre's Restaurant, in Islamorada.
Chef Ben Loftus is the executive chef at the upscale Pierre’s Restaurant, in Islamorada. 

 

 

Stuart Kemp, a British citizen who has lived in the Keys for 19 years, owned the Key West nightclub Wax before opening Nine One Five.
Stuart Kemp, a British citizen who has lived in the Keys for 19 years, owned the Key West nightclub Wax before opening Nine One Five. 

 

 

Executive Chef Chris Otten is one of the culinary masters of Nine One Five in Key West, and has been with the restaurant since its inception.
Executive Chef Chris Otten is one of the culinary masters of Nine One Five in Key West, and has been with the restaurant since its inception. 

 

 

Culinary artistry is the norm in the Florida Keys, and a select group of gourmet chefs lead the way with their innovative cuisine created using fresh local ingredients and a unique flair. From Key Largo to Key West, these culinary craftsmen set a high standard for food prepared using interesting and inventive combinations that create an enticing and luxurious menu.

Luis Pous, chef since 2006 at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Lower Keys, along with his culinary team, creates dishes that combine pan-Latin ingredients and traditional French techniques. A native of Havana, Cuba, Pous began cooking with fresh ingredients and working the local farms in his native country. He then attended Sergio Perez Government School of the Culinary Arts, where he developed his technical skills cooking for dignitaries and local celebrities. He later relocated to hotbeds like Paris, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York City where he continued perfecting his skills. In his current stint at Little Palm Island, Pous uses the freshest local seafood paired with unique ingredients to fill his menu with variations of ceviche that include fresh raw black grouper, Peruvian red peppers, cilantro, hearts of palm, orange juice and even foie gras.

He also adds flair to South America’s traditional churrasco skirt steak, preparing the typical parsley-based chimichurri sauce with truffles. Even his risotto, typically made with stock and Parmesan cheese, is prepared using black bean juice and manchego cheese.

Pous is excited about the proximity of the Keys to his homeland.

“Being so close to Cuba, and in this environment, inspires me every day to create and bring something new and vibrant to the Little Palm dining room,” he said.

 

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In Islamorada at Pierre’s Restaurant, the striking waterfront view matches the upscale menu perfected by Chef Benjamin Loftus. A Vermont native who attended Rhode Island’s prestigious Johnson & Wales University, he began in the school’s Student Access Program and completed his freshman year while still a high-school senior.After completing his studies in 1999 and obtaining a four-year degree, Loftus moved to the Florida Keys. He had already worked at a small restaurant in Vermont, and his first experience in the Keys was at the Galley Restaurant at Ocean Reef Club. He followed with a short stint at Dillon’s Restaurant and 18 months at Snapper’s before landing the executive chef job at Pierre’s. While moving from place to place, he worked both the front and the back of the restaurants.

“I started working at Pierre’s in February 2004, making sous chef within two months and executive chef four months later,” Loftus said. “This is where I really blossomed in the chef I am today.”

“Florida Travel & Life” magazine named Loftus one of the top 13 chefs not to miss in 2007 — something he admitted is one of the best accolades he’s received in his culinary career. An ever-evolving menu that changes at least three times a year enables Loftus to develop and create unique signature dishes exclusive to Pierre’s.

Standouts include potato crusted black grouper with roasted tomato butter and a trio of tuna tartar topped individually — one with caviar, another with a poached quail egg and the third with wasabi tobiko. Loftus’ inspiration and love for the culinary world comes from a variety of sources. He credits his team in the kitchen at Pierre’s, the endless selection of fresh local ingredients the Florida Keys offers and his own quest for perfecting signature dishes as his tools for success.

“I enjoy creating food,” he said. “Sometimes that means weeks perfecting a dish, and then also creating a perfect one on the fly.”

 

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Chef August Didier of Butterfly Café, located at Tranquility Bay Resort, is creating an eclectic and unique menu in Marathon. A graduate of the Florida Culinary Institute, Didier credits one person for inspiring him to pursue this career. “My inspiration to become a chef would have to be my mother,” Didier said. “She is an excellent cook, and she taught me the fun of experimentation and the joy of success in the smiles of those we would cook for.”Didier’s dream of living and working in the Keys as a chef became a reality some 18 months ago when he relocated from Stuart, Fla. He loves working in an area where fresh seafood is always available, which allows him to create and develop original dishes.

With local ingredients he has created a jumbo shrimp entrée using prawns sautéed in a sauce of butter, white wine and garlic with artichokes, black olives and sun-dried tomatoes — all served with cheese tortellini. Another specialty is a pan-seared swordfish steak served with a brown butter balsamic glaze, sautéed spinach and coconut rice topped with a micro basil, caper and tomato salad.

Constantly working on new ideas for dishes, Didier defines “gourmet” as well-thought-out flavor combinations of ingredients that guests will understand and enjoy.

 

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Leading the way in Key West are three masters of their culinary domain, Paul Orchard of Mangoes Restaurant and Stuart Kemp and Chris Otten of Nine One Five.Both located on Key West’s renowned Duval Street, Mangoes is a veteran mainstay that’s consistently excellent while Nine One Five is a newer presence making waves with flair and style.

Orchard, a year-round resident of the Florida Keys since 1991, has been at the helm of Mangoes’ kitchen for some 15 years. He’s the second-youngest chef invited to showcase his cuisine for the members of the prestigious James Beard Foundation and he received an Iron Chef distinction at the South Florida International Food Expo. His passion for food began at a very young age.

By 16, Orchard knew his future was in the culinary field. Today, his philosophy is based on using fresh, wholesome ingredients, always learning and constantly fine-tuning skills he has learned in the past. With years of experience have come many unique and original dishes, and at Mangoes there are several signature items that have garnered awards and recognition for Orchard. Among them are tuna raspberry teriyaki, a black-and-white sesame–crusted tuna on a raspberry teriyaki glaze with homemade pickled ginger and wasabi sauce. His citrus snapper Picasso — a pan-fried Key West yellowtail snapper on a Key lime beurre blanc with a papaya orange salsa and lemon avocado relish — took second place in the Florida Department of Citrus Signature Entrée Competition.

Also an award winner is Orchard’s down-island bouride: mahi-mahi and pink shrimp sautéed with shallots, plum tomato, dry vermouth and parsley greens fortified with saffron aioli and served in a golden puff pastry bowl.

Another pair of James Beard alums, Stuart Kemp and his executive chef Chris Otten, opened Nine One Five in Key West in 2003 and have never looked back. Kemp and his young and passionate counterpart Otten combine their talents to run the restaurant, which Kemp describes as having a casual bistro atmosphere.

Owner Kemp brings an international sensibility to the restaurant. A British citizen who has lived in the Keys for 19 years, he owned the Key West nightclub Wax before opening Nine One Five.

Executive Chef Chris Otten, who has been with the restaurant since its inception, has a poise that belies his relative youth. His passionate interest in cuisines from around the world is reflected in his eclectic menus. The menu has garnered recognition from national and international reviewers, and Kemp and Otten were invited to prepare a six-course wine dinner at a James Beard Foundation event. “This is truly in the Academy Awards of dining,” said Kemp. “The night was a resounding success, with many of the foundation members commenting that it was one of the better ones they could remember.” The pair holds themselves to the highest standards with regards to ingredients and preparing the best menu possible each night. Their evolving menu features local seafood and the freshest organic ingredients they can find. From stock to ice cream, everything is made fresh on the premises. “The building blocks of each dish — from the fresh Ahi tuna for the Tuna Dome to the Dungeness crab overnighted from Washington state to the Black Angus filet mignon — are crucially important because our food is very simple,” said Kemp. “Homemade organic beef and chicken stocks, the best cooking wines and even European butter are essential to our dishes.”

 

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Joining this elite group of culinary artists is Peter Tselikis, chef for the past five years at Key Largo’s Fish House Encore and a 16-year resident of the Florida Keys. He was previously the chef at Perry’s Restaurant in Key West. Tselikis has been in the restaurant business for 35 years, and worked in Canada prior to coming to the Keys. Although he has no formal training, his experience in the field and his inspiration from childhood memories in the kitchen have garnered him success as a chef.“My inspiration comes from the freshest products like the fresh Florida Keys seafood we use in our dishes at Encore,” he said.

His unique seafood dishes at Encore include the black-and-blue–style fish of choice topped with a cream sauce with crumbled blue cheese, a dash of Cajun seasoning with white wine and garlic. Another choice is the pan-sautéed fish of choice dusted with flour, dipped in egg wash and sautéed with butter, lemon and sherry. For non-seafood lovers Tselikis recommends the New Zealand roasted crown of lamb specially seasoned with olive oil, oregano and lemon juice, custom roasted and served with mint jelly.

His culinary philosophy, he said, requires him “to take a chance and flirt with food. If you have mild taste and prepare classics well, you always come up with something good.”

 

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For more information on the Florida Keys, call 1-800-LAST-KEY (800-527-8539), or explore this Web site.

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