DESTIN, Fla— Greetings from the remnants of the world’s luckiest fishing village.
As a kid, when driving over the bridge into Destin, I was greeted by a large plywood sign that stated “Welcome to Destin… the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” A few days ago I crested the peak of that same bridge and was welcomed by a behemoth condominium structure being constructed where the pass meets the harbor, some call it progress.
A good portion of my youth was spent in the bars and on the beaches of this town, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that I became a fan of the food.
At that time, regional cooking was just coming into favor. Paul Prudhomme had put redfish on the culinary map a few years earlier. Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower had started the California food movement, and Norman Van Aiken was just getting cranked up in South Florida.
In 1986 Destin had its own cuisine. A classically trained French chef from Baton Rouge was hired to man the kitchens of the Beachside Café. Located at, what was then the center of town, Beachside was one of the first restaurants to deviate from the old-line, stuffed flounder and fried shrimp, tried-and-true dishes from the 1950s Coastal cafes. At the time, Beachside was the hottest restaurant in town.
When the Beachside Café Executive Chef moved to Destin, he brought with him a group of high school boys who had worked in the kitchen of Joey’s restaurant in Baton Rouge. Some came as dishwashers and busboys, others were line cooks. At the time, most of the boys were more interested in playing on the beach and chasing bikinis than working in the kitchen. Before long, the restaurant bug bit the young chefs and their passion for cooking grew and the Destin restaurant industry blossomed overnight.
It was an exciting time. I was working as a waiter and watched, one by one, as each of the Beachside sous chefs ventured out into other restaurants, some built exclusively for them, others long established. Before long, the Flamingo Café, Louisiana Lagniappe, The Marina Café, Paradise Café, Prescott’s, and others began to flourish.
There was one common factor that held all of 1980s new-line Destin restaurants and cooking styles together— The Beachside Café. The dishes that the new chefs were developing came out of the Classical French School of cooking. They used hollandaise and its many variations and paired it with soft shell crab. They used the recipe for Joey’s beurre blanc, one of the classic French butter sauces, to finish filets of fresh red snapper. And veal-stock based meuniere sauces, which were more derivative of New Orleans and Baton Rouge than France, were used to accompany beef and veal.
Overall, the Destin cuisine of that era focused on fresh seafood of the Panhandle treated simply and finished with rich butter sauces. It is the first fine dining food— outside of New Orleans— that I fell in love with. It is the cooking style that I first learned, and one that I revert to, often.
The opening chef at the Purple Parrot Café was one of the Baton Rouge boys that traveled to Beachside Café in the mid 80s. Although he only worked here a few weeks, his touches still show up in some of our dishes.
By the 1990s the chefs had mostly moved on or burnt out. A few remain, others have gone into other fields of work and forgotten the restaurant business altogether. In the early 1990s, Harbor Docks restaurant introduced sushi, and Destin cuisine began to move in a lighter direction blending Asian influences with natural reductions.
Most of the restaurants that popped up in that era are gone. A Mexican restaurant opened in the Beachside Café’s location, and The Marina Café has followed the Asian trend and left its French roots behind. The young chefs have scattered and settled down to become family men and responsible business owners. The next food trend is waiting to be born. I’ll be there ready to embrace it, but I doubt it will replace the excitement I experienced the first time I ate a piece of grilled grouper topped with jumbo lump crabmeat, beurre blanc, and lemon meuniere at the Beachside Café.