Chef Jim Shirley at Forefront of SoWal Culinary Style
August 11, 2018 by Manny Chavez
SoWal Chef Jim Shirley has imprinted his cooking style across the South Walton landscape with tasty offerings ranging from to-die-for grilled cheese creations to people-pleasing Paella.
The mild-mannered cookmeister sat down with me at his waterfront restaurant, The Bay, on a rain-drenched afternoon to share a little insight about his rise to culinary prominence.
He opened his first restaurant, Madison’s Diner, a wine-centric eatery in Pensacola in 1995 where “Meatloaf and Merlot” topped the menu (meatloaf, mashed potatoes, beans and a glass of merlot for $10).
“We baked our bread for our sandwiches in flower pots and trigger fish was our main fish entree,” remembers Jim.
“At that time, the ‘farm to table’ concept for healthy food utilization in restaurants was in its infancy,” explained Jim. “We’ve expanded on that and using local vendors is a big part of our overall restaurant process.”
The Great Southern Café features flavors with a distinctive Southern flair, what Jim likes to call “classic Southern comfort food, a place to get your grits on,” with Grits a YaYa a real customer favorite.
Jim’s signature Grits a YaYa received national exposure on Capitol Hill when congressman Jeff Miller chose the dish to take to Washington for “A taste of the South” event for over 1,000 dignitaries.
His Grits a YaYa had its beginning in 1998 when he was cooking for a Mardi Gras Krew party in Pensacola.
As Jim explains it, “I threw the dish together while listening to the Rolling Stones ‘Get Your YaYa’s Out’!”
In 2010, Jim and partner Kelli Castille opened Meltdown on 30A, a hip Airstream Seaside attraction that has kidsof all ages hooked on first bite. Who doesn’t like grilled cheese sandwiches? But make no mistake about, these are not your everyday grilled cheese sandwiches! Of course, you can get a Classic American Grilled Cheese (served on Texas toast), but other choices include a variety of gourmet meats and cheeses which can be combined with fresh-made roasted tomato soup. Jim’s favorite: The B-A-C: home-made bacon jam, avocado, and cheddar!
“It was funny and so much fun to see what kids were doing on Instagram,” laughs Jim. “They were taking photos of themselves pulling their cheese sandwiches apart with the cheese stringing in-between…. the kids had started their own Meltdown cult!”
The Bay Restaurant, located on Hwy. 331 at the foot of the bridge, has evolved into a favorite local spot with Jim describing the spot as a place for him to express more international dishes.
“The Bay is a place where the community can come together and arrive by car or by boat and, being here on the Choctawhatchee Bay, the shore offers the kids a great place to play and have fun while their parents can listen to great live music, while they dine on our porch, saddle up to the bar, or join them on the shore!
Jim’s most recent Seaside restaurant enterprise is 45 Central, yet another unique place to eat, meet, and greet with indoor and outdoor dining available. An extensive wine selection along with Saturday and Sunday brunches and special Paella Nights make his restaurant a unique setting for outside courtyard get- togethers or sun-filled interior gatherings.
Asked if there is a common denominator for his restaurants, Jim explains, “I think my restaurants are all built ‘from the kitchen out’, chef-driven for people looking for comfort food. We want to cook what people like, food drives everything and this is not a town that will put up with poor food. If a restaurant owner doesn’t take the time to satisfy the customer, the customer won’t take time for them.”
Fresh, seasonal fish is ALWAYS on the menu at Jim’s restaurants and will remain a constant.
At the Bay Restaurant, Jim is now adding fresh micro clippings to his dishes which he takes directly from his Urban Cultivator. Maintained by Coastal Blue Farms, the cultivator allows for a continuous supply of live, fresh herbs. Attention to detail is a hallmark of the Jim Shirley enterprises.
“Local farmers have actually become part of the ‘team’ in our restaurant establishments.,” says Jim.
Coming soon to the Bay Restaurant is a “The Good, the Bad, the Ice Cream Truck” that will be delving out made-from-scratch ice-cream in a variety of new flavors to the tune of the movie - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Having been a restaurateur for 23 years now, Jim is thankful for a lot of things, but he credits his “crew”, all 280 employees, who make it all happen. In the restaurant business, he’s the “man with the plan” and he has managed to take his visions, his dreams, to the next level and we’re lucky here in SoWal to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.