Best known for his appearance on season seven of “Top Chef“ where he was voted fan favorite, chef Kenny Gilbert is expanding his Floridan restaurant empire with two concepts, Gilbert’s Southern Kitchen & Bar and Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp. Both focus on modernized yet traditional Southern fare and are conveniently located inside a new food hall space in Jacksonville Beach.
Gilbert opened his first restaurant, Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, in March 2015 in Fernandina Beach which serves seasonal deep Southern cuisine. Gilbert’s Social opened in October 2016 with internationally-influenced Southern fare on the menu. Back-to-back hurricanes that year did not deter Gilbert who prevailed to not only see both restaurants survive and thrive but also move on to new projects.
On his latest venture, Gilbert shares, “When I first visited the space, I thought it would make for a great food hall, like in Atlanta’s Krog Street Market with all the different concepts in a huge space. That idea, tied into Jacksonville Beach, would be pretty cool. There is nothing like it here.”
In considering what would appeal to the masses, he created Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp after the Nashville hot chicken model but with his own signature sauce, something that locals can look at as a mainstay concept. The menu features not only chicken, fish and shrimp but also vegetarian options, including sides such as lima beans, garlic rice, and creamed kale.
Gilbert’s Southern Kitchen and Bar is a bit higher end with oceanfront views and slightly elevated cuisine. “Everything is well presented and composed. We take smoked meats and other components and put them together where people wouldn’t necessarily think about it, to make something unique,” says Gilbert who has cooked for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay and Jeff Bezos, to name a few.
The menu here emphasizes seafood and barbecue. This is your spot for smoked alligator rib gumbo, smoked conch Bolognese and smoked Wagyu beef brisket. The bar program is heavy on moonshine, whiskey and bourbon.
Bringing Global to Local
Throughout his career, Gilbert has traveled the world, staging in some of the top restaurants in Japan, Spain, France and the Caribbean, and bringing all of those influences to his restaurants in Florida.
“In designing the menu, I wanted dishes that would tell a story about my travels, so everything has a reason for why it is there,” says the Cleveland native.
While working in Barbados with an Indian chef, he prepared a traditional Indian dinner every Thursday night. Those dining at Gilbert’s Southern will find a dish called Southern Curry on the menu modeled after a traditional Indian curry called saag, which is spinach-based, but Gilbert uses collard greens instead.
His affinity for international cuisine is also seen in his line of specialty spice blends which includes the flavors, Moroccan Spice and Raging Cajun Spice. These are available online and at his restaurants where he uses them. They are also used by luxury hotel brands.
Jacksonville’s Culinary Scene
Since placing his knives down in the area in 1992, Gilbert has observed how restaurants and neighborhoods have evolved over the years. “There are a lot of restaurants that have been around for a long time and done very well. There’s Tom Gray of Moxie Kitchen and Town Hall, Matthew and David Medure of M Hospitality who run M Shack and Restaurant Medure, and so many chefs working with different styles of food. The area is so big and still growing,” says Gilbert.
As for the growth of his own brand, everything happened organically. “I was content with my two existing projects and going through my own challenges with the two hurricanes in 2016 when the opportunity for the space on the beach opened,” he says. “You start to learn and figure out from a business standpoint what makes sense.” He invested in training his staff and developing his team to remove himself from one project and move on to the next.
“When you get bigger, the goal is to put someone in your place who is just as good as you, if not better than you,” adds Gilbert. “I am passionate about making sure my team is trained and held accountable at the highest level through leading by example. I am very blessed and fortunate to create jobs for others and I take that seriously. When I grow, they help me grow.”
Photo credit: Kenny Gilbert/Cook Like the Big Dogs, LLC