Welcome to the 7th edition of my new blog series, “Artists & Innovators,” a series of interviews with campaigners, entrepreneurs, artists, and advocates who are solving problems with passion and innovation.
My next subject, Ed Chiles, was born in Lakeland, Florida, to the late Governor Lawton and Rhea Chiles. A passion for all things Floridian was instilled in him early on. As a child, Ed Chiles hunted game all over Florida with his father. The family always had a passion for cooking, especially when it came to local game, seafood, and favorite Southern fixings. They are still known to spend meals “talking about what they are going to eat for the next meal.” After high school, Chiles embarked on another great family tradition – becoming a Gator at the University of Florida. During his collegiate years, he was a member of Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity and spent time with exotic animals at the Great Adventure safari park in Jackson, New Jersey. Chiles helped open the park in 1974 and served as Lion 19, the warden in charge of the baboon section, running herd on 140 baboons. Chiles also served as a warden in the tiger and lion sections as well.
After graduating UF, he did what any political science major would do and decided to open a restaurant with his father. After a stint at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, he moved permanently to Anna Maria Island to begin his career.
Chiles bought and renovated three waterfront restaurants on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key. In 1979, the historic flagship, The Sandbar, was opened, followed by the Mar Vista in 1990 and The Beach House in 1993. The finest locally sourced Florida fare and products from around the country and world have always been featured on Chiles’ restaurant menus, and in recent years he has become a pioneer in the sustainable tourism industry.
Chiles and his partners developed Pine Avenue in the city of Anna Maria into what is now known as “The Greenest Little Main Street in America.” The street features fabulous shopping and restaurants. All the buildings are green certified and some are historic. One such business is Poppo’s Taqueria. The restaurant–where Chiles is a partner–serves organic produce. Their drink offerings contain no fructose or sucrose additives.
Ed Chiles and his partners are determined to preserve the rich Florida culture and beautiful environment for generations to come.
John Dos Passos Coggin: When and how did your interest in cooking begin? As a child, did you have a favorite restaurant?
Ed Chiles: My mother and father were both good cooks. I remember the Christmas glazed bread rings they would make and take to all of their friends. My dad kept a sour dough starter. We ate a lot of Southern recipes. Fresh creamed corn that we called fried corn. Meat pot pies.
Lots of game. Quail, dove, deer, wild pig, and turkey. I loved cooking with my dad.
The Reececliff Family Diner in Lakeland is probably my earliest restaurant memory. Best pies ever! I think it is still owned by the same family that had it when my dad worked there when he was a teenager.
JDPC: When you were a child, what was Anna Maria Island like? How often did you visit?
EC: Anna Maria was heaven. Laid back, great fishing which still exists today, and the vast majority of the streets weren’t paved. There were lots of sandspurs and lots of ghost crabs running around at night on the beach. We dug coquinas and made coquina soup and we caught tons of Spanish mackerel off the city pier and whiting off the beach. My dad would net mullet and spear flounder with his Hawaiian sling. We were always here in the summer. I don’t ever remember not being at the beach.
JDPC: When you were a young man, what sort of game did you, you brother, and your father cook up after hunting trips? How did you prepare the game?
EC: Dove was our favorite. We treated them with reverence, picking them all the way to the wingtips. Most people just breasted them. We saved the hearts and gizzards and fried them up crispy.
JDPC: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
EC: I had a Political Science degree from University of Florida and I had to find a way to make a living. I had been a pots and pans washer at my ATO fraternity house but I had no idea I was doing an internship at the time.
When I got out of school my dad approached me about doing something together. He had started the Red Lobster chain as a landlord. He owned the land and he did a build to suit for the operators. He owned the first four stores. He had always thought about getting more vertically integrated into the business. He had a tennis partner in Washington, DC who owned a couple of restaurants and had a restaurant brokerage business. His friend had talked to him about doing something together in Anna Maria. His friend suggested they send me somewhere to work for a year to test my commitment.
So, I went to Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami and worked for a season. I started on the dishwasher and worked my way up. After that we bought the Sandbar. It was pretty run down and had an asphalt parking lot on the beach with a couple of broken down picnic tables. I started in the kitchen and worked under a general manager for 6 months and then became the manager. That was 37 years ago.
JDPC: Pine Avenue is a critical part of Anna Maria Island’s heritage. You supported the $10 million Pine Avenue Restoration Project, which began in 2007. Is the project complete? What were its goals? Were they achieved?
It is complete. The project began as a result of three homes that were built on the site of the Pine Avenue Marina. It had a ship store and a little convenience market that had good sandwiches and a high and dry storage and boat works. Nobody new how many lots were there until they scrapped it and subdivided it into five lots. Three big maxed out homes went up and we were very concerned that our precious little small business district could go all residential.
I felt strongly that if our community loses its ability to have that—if you can’t get a newspaper and a coffee and a sandwich and something to wear—that you have lost the most important thread in the fabric of your community. You can’t be a village or a town without that. You are then a subdivision or just a neighborhood.
Our Retail-Office-Residential district was only 2% of the city. We weren’t looking to add more but we certainly didn’t want to lose what we had. We voted with our wallets and tied up 15 lots before anybody really knew what we were doing and then we went to the city. Successive comprehensive plans had implemented stronger language promoting mixed use in the Retail-Office-Residential district. We took in renderings showing what we wanted to do. We said: “We’re local; we will do two-story building instead of three-story.” We believed that better reflected the charm of Anna Maria. We did historic designs. We said we would build the greenest buildings ever built in the city and that we would build them to 200 mph wind loads. We said we would use no pavers or asphalt and that we would do all native vegetation. We would do all small box retail on the bottom and two and three bedroom residences on top. And that’s what we did.
JDPC: Besides the Pine Avenue Restoration Project, what else is going on to ensure Anna Maria Island’s best traditions are preserved?
EC: Anna Maria is paradise. We have very strict zoning regulations. You can’t build higher than 37 feet. Homes sizes have now been limited. We have a wonderful Community Center that does a great job of serving the children and families and our communities senior citizen populations. Thanks to the Pine Avenue projects, we now have over 30 raised bed organic community gardens in our city. We even have bee hives. There is an island-wide trolley that helps a little though traffic is certainly an issue in our high season and on certain holidays. The people here don’t want high-rises or chains. There will never be anything close to a majority here that would expand on development intensity in our community.
People come here generation after generation. We have great shops and restaurants and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We have a great working waterfront heritage in Cortez just across the bridge. We are working diligently to protect and preserve and protect that heritage with our sustainable heritage seafood projects.
We started the first company in the U.S. to produce bottarga, which is the high-end cured product made from the mullet roe. Mullet roe is the # 1 product sold out of Cortez. That’s all about value added and creating more jobs here and keeping the major step-ups in value here instead of Italy or Taiwan where most of our roe is sent to be turned into bottarga.
We are also working with Curt Hemmel to develop and promote Sunray Venus clam aquaculture. It’s a fabulous native clam that has never been raised commercially until Curt successfully did so two years ago. This is a really important project. Currently the U.S. produces 1% of the world’s aquaculture. Ninety-percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported and 50% of that is aquaculture. We have to be in the game. That’s why clams and mullet—which are the ultimate sustainable seafood—are so important. Additionally, clams are filter feeders and they are great for improving water quality and the marine environment.
Curt and I have recently chartered the Gulf Shellfish Institute with Dr. Bruce Barber from Eckerd College. It is an industry-driven shellfish research institute that will promote the development of bivalve aquaculture. It will be based out of The Port of Manatee and will synthesize and develop the work of leading bivalve experts around the world. Few people realize that we are the only place in the country that has three national estuaries on its borders: Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay, and Charlotte harbor. We have 287,00 acres of shellfish-approved waters in the state and only 1 % is leased. This is ground zero for raising bivalves. We have the perfect water temperature, nutrient levels, and water quality. We can be both a model and a hub for getting our area and our state and indeed our country in the game!
JDPC: You recently added wild boar to your restaurant menus. Where is this boar sourced? How is the meat different from domesticated pig? What are the best ways to prepare it?
EC: The wild pig comes from our surrounding areas. They are trapped and processed by our friend Keith Mann. We don’t own any of his business but we have partnered with him to promote what he is doing. We were the first restaurants in Florida to serve Keith’s pigs and we are serving hundreds of pounds a week of what I think is some of the finest meat on the planet.
The meat is rich. It’s not gamey. We roast it, we braise it, and also cook it sous vide with immersion circulators. Each chef at our three restaurants has a distinct presentation. At the Sandbar, I love the wild pig sliders with the organic pickled red cabbage from our farm. The Beach House does a Hog Thai wild pig on a leaf of bib lettuce. It’s braised pig and pineapple with a light peanut sauce and Japanese bubu. Chef Manson at the Beach House also does a great roast pig. He uses our Lola pinot noir—which we produce in northern California—to make a great demi-glace. He pairs the pig with organic kraut from our Gamble creek farm cabbage and his potato cakes. Chef George at the Mar Vista does a braised pig with truffled mash potatoes and Brussels sprout hash that is off the charts. George always has some variations, like the wild boar enchilada with dirty rice.
JDPC: What are your fondest memories of cooking with your Dad? How did he evolve as a chef as he practiced the art over the years?
EC: Just cooking…. That’s what we did. The older we got the more we did it. In hunting camps, at home, in the Governor’s Mansion, in other people’s homes, in our restaurants. We cooked for groups at Florida House. If we liked you, we cooked for you. If we loved you, we cooked with you and for you often.
His cooking got better and better. He made a killer polenta with veal and sauce. And his turkey purloo was all that. Dad may have killed as many turkeys as any man alive. We always made stock out of the carcass. We didn’t waste anything.
As Dad got older his cooking became more refined. But it didn’t get better for me than cooking with Dad and opening a good bottle of wine. We had favorite people to cook with like Dad’s best friend Wilbur Boyd and Wilbur’s son-in-law Jeff Gargiulo, who is the best cook I know. It was always a stitch to see Dad and Will cook together. I will never forget the time they were making swamp cabbage and they kept screwing around with each other’s dish and they got it so salty that you couldn’t eat it. Very few men could cook mullet better than Wilbur Boyd. Cooking with or for friends made Dad really happy.
JDPC: Your mother kept a successful art studio on Anna Maria Island for many years. In 2012, she was the recipient of the fifth annual Edgar H. Price Jr., Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by the Manatee County Rural Health Services Foundation (Anna Maria is in Manatee County). After her service as Florida’s first lady, what role did she play in strengthening the Anna Maria Island community?
EC: Mom created great homes for her family here. The Studio at Gulf & Pine Art Gallery is the anchor of Pine Avenue. A great place for gatherings and lectures and receptions and classes and events. Mom had a unique talent for creating great space and for making people feel great when they were in them. The Studio is one of her great legacies! The island was always a refuge for Mom and it was the place she was most comfortable being after Dad passed away.
JDPC: What are your goals for the Chiles Group in 2016 and beyond?
EC: We are working on continuing to integrate our farm and our wines and our heritage seafood projects into what we do as we finish major renovations of all three of our stores.
I am obsessed with Seminole pumpkins–a heritage food that I never knew about. We stuff the blossoms with local ricotta and goat cheese. Seminole pumpkins are beautiful and the pumpkin meat makes an exceptional gnocchi. We are planning to sell starter plants at our stores so you can have your very own Seminole pumpkin patch at home. I stuffed some of the blossoms last night–with stone crab and our mustard sauce added in to the ricotta and goat cheese–and baked them. It was exceptional. We will continue to integrate our heritage seafood projects into what we do as we finish major renovations of all three of our stores.
We want to see these projects and what we are doing to promote sustainable tourism be a model for other communities to follow. We are excited to be working with the Patel College of Global Sustainability at University of South Florida as well as the United Nations World Tourism Organization on these efforts.