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.