Meet Chef James Jernigan: Executive Chef at Key West Yacht Club

This month, we sat down with Chef James Jernigan, Executive Chef at the Key West Yacht Club. In our conversation, we discuss his culinary origins, the development of his unique style, how it’s conducive to the serving the Yacht Club’s membership, and why he sources his seafood from Three Hands Fish. Chef James is fifth generation born and raised Key West, and is one of our first and most loyal customers!

How were you first introduced to cooking?
It began with my grandma. She’s such a terrific cook, and growing up I was completely spoiled by her food. When it came to finding my first job, I figured that because I loved to eat, why not cook professionally? It was a very logical decision, and one that from an early age made sense to me. My first job was peeling shrimp at a local Benihana. It wasn’t glamorous but it validated my intuition that cooking was to be my career. Culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu followed Benihana, and the rest history. I’ve now been at the Key West Yacht Club for over three years and I couldn’t be happier cooking for our members and their guests. Given how much of Key West is tourism, the fact that I get to consistently cook for locals like me is a really unique opportunity, and it’s one that I do not take for granted!

How would you describe your unique culinary style and how did it develop?
When cooking for the same audience on a weekly basis, as I do at the Key West Yacht Club, the dynamic is different than when cooking for tourists who may visit your restaurant only once or twice a year. I need to be acutely aware of what’s working and what isn’t – what’s well-received and what isn’t. However, more than that, my menu and dishes always need to change and evolve to keep things interesting and exciting for our members and their guests. To do this, real world travel is key. You can read all the books you want, and watch countless cooking shows; yet nothing replaces the experience of actually getting on the road, exploring new foods, and experimenting with new ingredients.
Whenever I’m in New York City, I spend time at Cafe Boulud learning from Chef Daniel and his team. I also just recently spent eight months in Los Angeles working with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, Chef Neal Fraser at Red Bird, and Chef Joachim Splichal at Patina. These guys are world-class chefs and there’s so much that can be learned by watching them work and manage their Michelin-rated restaurants.
I’m born and raised Key West so my style will always be heavily influenced by the island. However, the more I travel, experience, and learn, the more that style is infused with these other outside influences.

What’s an example of you infusing your local Key West style with an outside influence? 
Ramen is a noodle-based dish with Japanese origins. In recent years the dish has become quite popular in Los Angeles and many other cities across the country. When I was in LA, I became familiar with and fond of the dish and have since begun to develop my own Key West-style ramen to introduce to the island. It preserves the essence of traditional ramen noodles while infusing it with Key West seafood and flavorings. So many restaurants in the Florida Keys are cooking such similar dishes – the dishes that we’ve become famous for. However, what excites me is cooking that which no one else is cooking, and Key West ramen is a great example of this.
Why do you source your seafood from Three Hands Fish?
My need to source from Three Hands Fish again boils down to the fact that our Yacht Club members are local to Key West and thus know our island’s fresh seafood better than anyone. They can’t be duped! However, prior to Three Hands Fish, it was challenging to reliably source fresh and local seafood from those other fish markets and wholesalers. Most of the time, the seafood I’d receive was garbage that I could not honestly serve my members.
I first heard about Three Hands Fish through one of their co-founders, Tony Osborn. As a commercial fisherman and the manager of The Stoned Crab restaurant, he too was aware of the challenge involved in sourcing fresh and local. He came to me with their idea for Three Hands Fish and I was immediately on-board, ready to sign-up as their first customer. A couple years later and I like to think that we’re their best customer! The fish is always amazing and I’m proud to serve it to the Key West Yacht Club on a nightly basis.
And our members have responded to it! We regularly receive comments that the fish is delicious, and so much better than anything they have elsewhere. While I’d like to take credit for this, I also know that the foundation of any dish is the quality of its ingredients!

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A big thanks to Chef James for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us, and an even bigger thank you to the entire Key West Yacht Club family for being such proud and loyal supporters of Three Hands Fish since Day 1! For more on the Key West Yacht Club, click here.

Meet Jimmy Weekley: Owner of Fausto's Food Palace

Meet Jimmy Weekley, former mayor of Key West and owner of Fausto’s Food Palace, the oldest independently-owned business on the island. Fausto’s was founded by Jimmy’s grandfather, Faustino Castillo, in 1926, just 16 years after he first arrived in Key West by way of Havana, Cuba. Now in it’s third-generation of family ownership, Fausto’s has two Key West locations – on Fleming St. and White St. – and a loyal base of customers who value quality and customer service above all else. Fausto’s began sourcing seafood from Three Hands Fish six months ago and we’re proud to partner with a business that places as high a premium on product quality as we do!

THF: What makes Fausto’s different from the other grocery stores on the island?

Jimmy: For starters, we’re the only independent grocery store on the island. All the rest, at this point, are box grocery store chains with locations across the country. We have two locations, both of which are in Key West, only miles apart from one another. Our small scale has allowed us to focus on that which means the most to us: quality and customer service. We take tremendous pride in each, and are confident that they’re the key differentiators that have provided us with over 90 years of sustained success.

THF: You began working at Fausto’s when you were 10-years-old. What’s your favorite childhood memory of working in the store?

Jimmy: There really are so many of them. I vividly remember the times I spent with my brothers bagging onions and potatoes, and working the cash register. At the time, I don’t recall loving this work but it’s where I was first taught the value of hard work and the importance of customer service. In that respect, those early memories are quite cherished because I have an understanding of how much they shaped my development and future self.

Additionally, and I’d get in trouble if I didn’t mention this, but I actually met my future wife while working at Fausto’s! Originally from New York, she was down in Key West for vacation. When she realized she needed some money to assist in her travels back north, she took up a job at Fausto’s – and the rest is history. While this isn’t a childhood memory, per say, it’s certainly one I’ll never forget!

THF: Why did you begin sourcing from Three Hands Fish and what’s been the reaction of your customers to our fish?

Frankly, I’ve had issues sourcing local seafood for quite some time now. Our previous provider, also a Key West market, wasn’t meeting our standards. The quality was mediocre and inconsistent, and it was actually hurting our business. I was lamenting to a friend about this issue, who’s the owner of two prominent Key West restaurants, and he recommended that I check out newcomer Three Hands Fish. I did, I loved their story, their mission, and the quality of their product. I loved that they promoted freshness and quality just as much as we do, which I didn’t think was possible!

And my customers have actually responded to Three Hands Fish. They too have noticed a difference in the quality and the freshness of our offering, and our seafood sales have increased as a result. Working with Three Hands Fish has been great for our business and for our community as a whole. Key West is a small island and it’s important for local, independent businesses to support one another!

Meet Chef Ryan Shapiro: Executive Chef and Co-Owner at Key West's The Thirsty Mermaid

After traveling to Miami and Seattle to hone his culinary skills, Ryan Shapiro returned to his home of Key West. At the age of 26, he became the co-owner and executive chef at The Thirsty Mermaid, a new boutique raw bar that opened in February of 2016. We got the chance to sit down and speak with Ryan about his ties to Key West, the risks he took to follow his dreams, and how his island roots reinforce his loyalty to Three Hands Fish.

As an island native, the Key West ocean-first culture has always been a part of Chef Ryan Shapiro. While he’s now known as being one of the island’s top young chefs, his affinity for the water began long before he knew how to shuck an oyster. “Growing up, I was constantly skipping school to go diving and fishing with my friends, many of whom are now commercial fisherman,” he said. “My less-than-perfect attendance record eventually caught the attention of my dad, and he ‘recommended’ that I begin working in a kitchen to add structure to my life.”

What started as a means of discipline quickly turned into a choice. “I was immediately drawn to the kitchen because of my childhood passion for fishing and diving,” he explained. “Ultimately, cooking and fishing are very similar. They are both high-adrenaline activities that require complete focus and concentration.”

After graduating from Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Miami and moving to Seattle to work at Canlis under Jason Franey, a James Beard nominated chef, Ryan returned to Key West to join the team at Blackfin Bistro. That’s when, according to him, everything changed. There, he met Tommy Quartararo, owner of both Blackfin Bistro and Antonia’s, and the two hit it off immediately. Their at-work friendship quickly poured over to post-work life. They began fishing and diving together and discussing their culinary philosophies. A dynamic and fresh partnership was born.

“Tommy’s a legend,” Ryan said. “He has the X-Factor – whatever that means or however you want to define it. His work ethic is next level. He’s sharp as hell, always ‘on’ and, most importantly, he has a knack for knowing what’s next.”

One day in early 2015, Tommy called Ryan and said that he’d like to open a new restaurant. While Key West has plenty of large-scale restaurants that shuck thousands of clams and oysters every day, Tommy said, the island doesn’t have a solid boutique raw bar. He wanted to open one himself, with Ryan leading the kitchen. Ryan instantly and enthusiastically confirmed his involvement. They seized the opportunity, and The Thirsty Mermaid was born.

At just 26 years old, Ryan became the co-owner and executive chef at Key West’s newest boutique restaurant and raw bar. And although it’s safe to say that Ryan’s risk in starting a business has already paid off, the move wasn’t without hardship; he invested everything he had– financially, mentally and emotionally– into making the restaurant’s launch a success. “I was immediately dead broke,” Ryan said. “I was honored to be in this position, but scared as hell. I invested everything in The Thirsty Mermaid. While we were building the restaurant, I was barely making it by, but Tommy remained calm and had complete confidence in the business.”

Specializing as a raw bar with simplistic, approachable dishes, The Thirsty Mermaid officially opened in February of 2016 and has been greeted with instant success by the Key West community and tourists alike. “We opened with substantial anticipation, and it did not disappoint,” he said. “I don’t think anyone, including me and Tommy, expected how quickly The Thirsty Mermaid would become a success.”

Aside from its creative dishes and laid back ambiance, part of The Thirsty Mermaid’s appeal can be attributed to the freshness of the ingredients. According to Ryan, when selecting vendors for the new restaurant, Three Hands Fish was the natural and obvious choice to supply the restaurant’s seafood. Three Hands Fish, he said, is the one vendor in which he is absolutely sure of the quality of what he is purchasing.

“When sourcing ingredients – be it meat, poultry, produce, veggies, or seafood – there’s a degree of trust involved,” Ryan explained. “You have to trust that what your vendors are selling is fresh, because you honestly don’t know. With Three Hands Fish, that trust isn’t necessary. Many of the Three Hands Fish fishermen are childhood buddies. I’ve literally been fishing with them in the morning, dropped the day’s catch of at their market, went back to the restaurant where I then received a text message from their Fillet Masters notifying me that what was just dropped off is now available for purchase. There’s zero mystery, just objective truth. I know that their fish is fresh because I’ve helped catch it.”

With just a few months under his belt as the executive chef at Key West’s newest boutique raw bar, Ryan is eager to continue pushing the envelope. “Tommy and I are hungry for success and we’re willing to take big risks and work long hours,” he said. “I think that many people fail to pursue their great ideas because they think they need to have all the information prior to doing so. Sometimes you just have to trust yourself, your abilities, and your partners, and just go with it.”

Meet Chef Russ Ferstle: Executive Chef at Key West's Firefly

We recently sat down with Firefly’s executive chef Russ Ferstle to talk about his culinary philosophy, his journey to success, and his appreciation for fresh and locally sourced Key West fish. Originally from Detroit, Russ worked at Sweets and Savories and Barcello's in Chicago before settling in Key West where he served as chef de cuisine at Louie's Backyard before finally landing the executive chef position at Firefly.

Firefly is a modern, chef-driven Southern restaurant. They focus on using the best ingredients and a mixture of traditional and modern techniques to create the best possible versions of familiar dishes.

Growing up in Detroit with a sparse kitchen, Russ learned to think creatively about food at a young age. “My mother wasn’t around for dinner very often, which meant that I was in charge of cooking for my sister and I,” he recalled. “We would have something like bread and mustard in the pantry, and I would have to somehow cook an edible meal. My situation forced me to have an appreciation for ingredients and their flavor profiles.”

Since childhood, cooking has been his art and his outlet to express creativity. Russ has always been drawn to the transformative nature of food; he has a deep appreciation for the way in which each ingredient contributes significantly to a greater whole. “I vividly remember being fascinated by Jell-O,” he said. “You start with two very different ingredients, a powder and a liquid, and end up with a completely different consistency. This sense of fascination and intrigue is still very present in my culinary preparation.”

Russ’ enthusiasm for individual ingredients came to shape his career. When creating a new dish, he doesn’t begin with what’s traditionally viewed as its base, like meat, fish, or a pasta; he begins with whichever ingredient is currently ripest, freshest, or most in-season, regardless of its size. Sometimes that’s a fresh fillet of fish but other times, like during the summer months, he’ll build an entire dish around Zellwood Triple Sweet Corn or Georgia peaches.

At Firefly, Russ takes pride in using only fresh, locally sourced ingredients in the kitchen. He and his staff prepare meals with immense care. Each dish is homemade – freezers are for ice cream only and industrial-sized can openers are not needed. “We’re a scratch kitchen that finds beauty in the craft of cooking,” he said. “Too many places in Key West are doing what tourists expect, like conch fritters and mango salsa. There’s no soul in it. But cooking at Firefly is about putting your hands in the food and getting a bit dirty.”

Russ’ path has been a long and arduous one, which he says is typical for any prospective chef planning to commit to the industry. After graduating from a culinary school in Chicago, he became one of many chefs working long, late hours with a mop in his hand, as opposed to a chopping knife. But his passion remained steadfast. “Far too many culinary school graduates think they graduate and are immediately deserving of a spot on the line. They aren’t,” he laughed. “It’s a long road, and those first years are a challenge. A certain person needs to have a legit enough passion for the craft, the ‘it’ factor, that allows them to put their pride aside and get shit done.”

When Russ left Chicago for Key West, he was certain that the island’s seafood would be both locally-caught and always fresh, given its position between the Gulf and the Atlantic. “I quickly learned that many local restaurants were actually getting their fish from Miami, or a market that purchased from Miami,” he explained. “Beyond that broad detail, no one knew where their fish was actually coming from. I had a lot of questions.”

Three Hands Fish, says Russ, has answered those questions by delivering just-caught seafood directly from Key West fisherman to market to restaurant. His staff and customers now know with 100% certainty when, where, and by whom their fish was caught.

“As a chef that only works with fresh ingredients, Three Hands Fish is an essential partner,” he said. “It’s great to wake up in the morning to a text that outlines which fish were just caught and delivered to the market. I text back what I want, and it’s delivered hours later. It’s a really special and important program for Key West.”

Beyond what Three Hands Fish does for his restaurant specifically, Russ cares about the impact his buying decisions, and his customers buying decisions, have on Key West’s economy and ecosystem. “Life is really just a series of chain reactions – one thing impacting another,” he said. “The decisions we make in the kitchen and dining room have substantial consequences. If we consistently choose foreign over local, or choose the businesses that support foreign over local, it’s only a matter of time before we feel the backlash. Thankfully, there are programs like Three Hands Fish that make the right choice an easy choice.”