219 Capri Boulevard, Isle of Capri, FL
I usually begin by asking the chef du jour what inspired them to become a chef and then explore what brought him/her to the area.
Chef Jeff Detwiller’s story begins when he was a kid growing up on Rockaway Beach, N.Y.
Family is the thread that ties together his coast-to-coast career moves and brought him full-circle to Florida.
“I thought I was a kid back in Rockaway on the beach,” he remembers.
“My grandmother had a German cook and housekeeper who lived in the town of Rockaway, but my grandparents lived on Rockaway Beach. The housekeeper would take me home with her and teach me to bake on rainy days when I couldn’t go swimming. We started with brownies,” Chef Detwiller said, noting that he was one of seven children.
“I was glad because they (older brothers) wouldn’t beat on me if they knew I was baking brownies — it reminds me of my first job in the business.”
Chef Detwiller explained that he tried college for a while then “bounced around another year” before he was eligible to apply to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1977. “I had to have a year’s cooking experience before the CIA would accept me as a student.” Chef Detwiller said, explaining that he got a job in a Hamden, Conn. restaurant.
“It wasn’t a bad job, mostly steaks and chops. We butchered our own meat. Tony, the chef, was a great teacher but very high-strung and although he never beat me physically I endured a lot of verbal abuse. But with five older brothers it was like water off a duck’s back.
“The nice thing about having a big family? I can go anywhere in the country and have a place to stay. Of course, they visit me too. My mom was just here and my three brothers, and now they’re off to Maine. Of course, chefs don’t get off very often but then we close (Pelican Bend) the Tuesday after Labor Day for two and a half weeks and reopen on the third Friday after (Sept. 26).”
“School?” I asked, picking up the conversational thread.
“After a year-and-half of CIA school we were required to do a restaurant internship. I did mine in Los Angeles because I wanted to see the West Coast.
“I wasn’t impressed.” Chef Detwiller recalled. “Funny, the first night we had a three-point earthquake, and on the day I left, another. It was like hello, goodbye and I never want to go there again.” Chef Detwiller stated firmly, adding he headed back to the East Coast, specifically to Fairfax, Va. and a French restaurant called Cheval Rouge.
“Jean Jacque, the chef there, taught me a lot.”
After graduation, Chef Detwiller went back to Boston, actually Wellesley and got a job in a restaurant.
“It was a terrible little place — but you got to pay rent,” he said wryly.
“Then to Cory’s in Lexington, but also a steak and chop house. That’s where I perfected my grilled steak skills – there’s nothing like hands-on. They (schools) tell you to make a fist and press the fold of skin between your thumb and index finger (to determine doneness) but that’s not true — every meat is different,” declared Chef Detwiller and cited examples such as undercooked pork feeling firm to the touch as compared to beef yielding rare when poked.
I guilelessly inquired if he thought culinary schools didn’t teach enough? “Teach? That’s the whole point. You don’t learn in the CIA — it’s experience that teaches you,” he explained. “Back then you could tell a grill cook by the color of his thumb because that’s how he could determine the doneness of the meat.” Chef Detwiller noted it was around this time that he was tiring of the East Coast and decided it was a good time to have a much-needed surgery performed on his leg.
“Nobody would hire me. I’ve never been able to lie — ‘hey, I’m a little gimpy,’ wasn’t what restaurant owners wanted to hear,” he said, explaining he went to a temp agency and they sent him to a general hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. “That taught me about preparing special diets — which is very helpful even in upscale restaurants — you learn to season food differently and it tastes awesome — people complain you used salt and I tell them it’s herbs and spices, not salt.
“Actually, I learned my father had hypertension and it was hit or miss in the kitchen before school taught me how to season — crackers and water to clear the palate after tasting each individual herb. My marinara, I’ve been fine-tuning it for years and it still isn’t perfect!” Chef Detwiller confided, adding that he continued working at the Phoenix hospital for five years because it was a great place to work with wonderful benefits.
“Then, I went to see my brother in Tahoe — that’s when I saw the breathtaking sight of Lake Tahoe spread out before me and I got a job before I left at a casino. That’s where I really learned to cook in bulk — I was slicing as many as 24 prime rib roasts a night and making gallons of hollandaise — after a while it got to be old hat,” he related, noting the people were more into satisfying their hunger rather than enjoying the dining experience. “When the waiter set down his tray, they didn’t mind grabbing the plates off the stand — they just wanted to eat and get back to gambling.
“We put out a good product, but I couldn’t stand the smell of prime beef for the longest time until I came to work at Pelican Bend and that odor, that I was exposed to before, faded. Here, the aroma is really wonderful because of the special seasoning rub — we serve the best roast prime rib — at least I think so,” he said, “And the customers tend to agree because we usually run out of it every night.
“Anyway, I (had been) in Tahoe five years when we had a cold snap so bad that my car was stuck in a cake of ice and I couldn’t move it for a week, but that wasn’t why I left. I was walking to work and my eyeglasses were frozen to my face and my mustache would break off in pieces — the temp was 20 below without wind chill,” Chef Detwiller said, sounding incredulous at the memory. That’s when he decided to take a vacation and visit his mother who was living in Stuart, Fla.
“It was March and I couldn’t believe how warm it was. Basking in the warmth I thought I was a kid back in Rockaway on the beach!
“I didn’t like the East Coast — it was too congested even those days in ’94. While I was in Florida I came to visit family friends on Marco Island and I just decided this was the spot and also because it was on the Gulf and not on the East Coast,” he explained.
“It was just beautiful then — but now we’re also getting into the East Coast mentality — but it’s still wonderful.”
Chef Detwiller started working for the Marriott in 1994 at Quinn’s on the Beach.
“Then they decided to move me to Café Del Sol after three years at Quinn’s — that’s when it (Café Del Sol) was still an old establishment but it was getting upscale and now, of course, it’s Tropic. It was assembly-line cooking and wasn’t that interesting,” he said. Then a friend talked him into coming to the Radisson hotel. “I stuck it out, even after Sept. 11, and kept working there despite the cut hours, and except for a short interval, I came to work at Pelican Bend.
I thought I detected a pattern emerging: Work a number of years at a restaurant and then move on and maybe visit family.
So I inquired “Are you leaving?” Chef Detwiller replied with a smile that said “silly child” and answered, “I’ve been living on Marco 14 years, and this is the job (Pelican Bend) I’ve been looking for all my life. I’ve been working at Pelican Bend for five of those years — I’ve been happy ever since.”