It’s standing room only on the outdoor deck/bar at the casually chic Nippers Beach Grille in Jacksonville, Fla. The young hip crowd has come to sample chef Kenny Gilbert’s superb Caribbean cuisine. The popular eatery sits on the shore of the San Pablo River, with lots of slips for the folks who arrive by boat. “Everyone comes for the food but stays for the experience,” says Gilbert.
While working in Abaco Key, Bahamas, he developed an affinity for Caribbean food. It wasn’t long before he had refined the local dishes and made them his own. For instance, he combines fried chicken breasts with guava coconut syrup, and created jerk chicken mac ‘n cheese.
That’s Gilbert’s style; make food taste better. And that’s what the viewers from Bravo’s “Top Chef” liked about him. Fans also appreciated his styling, focus and humility. He was very organized, but also very creative. He says, “I wanted to make a good impression with the judges.” And that’s what he did. He survived the competition until only three weeks remained.
Life After Top Chef
After he left “Top Chef,” he returned to Florida with his teenage daughter. He had previously worked in some of the most prestigious hotels in the Sunshine State, such as the Ritz Carlton Hotels in Jupiter and Amelia Island. Obviously, he felt that Florida was a good fit for him and his talents. It wasn’t long before he was recruited to Jacksonville to open Nippers in May 2011 as a full partner. As it turned out, Jacksonville has been an excellent fit.
This year, he was selected as the city’s best chef, and Nippers was voted Jacksonville’s best Caribbean restaurant. Because of the venture’s overwhelming success, the celebrity chef will be opening a new restaurant, called Sumi, in early 2012 on Jacksonville’s beachfront. It will feature an Asian fusion menu. His culinary philosophy is, “I love to cook lots of styles. So when you come to Nippers, you’re in the Caribbean. When you come to Sumi, you’ll think you’re in Asia.” You can get a taste of his preferred styles in his cookbook and autobiography, “A Chef’s Journal.”
To his credit, Gilbert is determined to pull others to the top, especially young people, since he was only three years old when he scrambled his first egg. Under his parents’ tutelage, he learned cooking at home, even preparing Thanksgiving dinner at age nine. So it surprised no one when, after high school, he entered the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.
He’s establishing the Kenny Gilbert Foundation to help high school seniors and college freshmen. And for the past ten years, he’s been involved with Veggie U., an organization that builds horticulture kits that are presented to fourth-grade classrooms throughout the country. He donated his entire cash award to them after winning first place at this October’s Constitution Cook-Off in Philadelphia.
But he doesn’t miss giving to the community’s youngsters, either. Recently he opened Nippers to Hooks for the Cure, an organization that arranges for sick kids to fish with celebrities. Gilbert says, “To know that when I can help others the way I’ve been helped, gives me joy and happiness.”