Chef James “Jimmy” McManus works out of a tidy suite of offices in HarborWalk Village’s theatrical, hivelike Emerald Grande building. From there he supervises an array of culinary operations, including no fewer than three professional kitchens, two for banquets and events, one for Grande Vista Bar & Grill.
Beachcomber last spoke with McManus in 2015, when he was exploring Gulf-to-table cooking at “10” and pairing whiskeys with menus, among other activities, including fishing whenever possible. Since then there have been some changes, but his latest project, Cooking with the Chef, is actually a nod to his past.
The Brooklyn native has been in and around kitchens for more than 30 years, having learned his craft in the restaurant and hospitality business in New York, Salt Lake City and Pensacola, eventually coming here to Regatta Bay. It was at Regatta where he began offering cooking demonstrations to the public. He also did charity raffles, cooking in private homes for the raffle winners. His Regatta sessions drew a regular following, food lovers who showed up for every class. When McManus decided to revive the classes at Emerald Grande in the HarborView Room, many of his old fans showed up.
Cooking with the Chef events are held at noon on the first Tuesday of the month, except in July, when it will be on July 11, due to the Independence Day holiday. McManus presides, and attendance has averaged between 30 and 40 diners. The class starts around 11:30 a.m. with a cheese tray and glass of wine chosen to pair with the cheese and the day’s food. As diners drink and snack, Mike Dwyer of Southern Wine and Spirits discusses the wine, its affinity to the food, “and other winey things,” says McManus.
Chef McManus then takes over, describing and preparing a main course with sides. As part of his intention to make the class “seasonal and interactive,” he takes time for show-and-tell on the ingredients. A recent class featured blackened cobia with corn maque-choux. McManus brought a whole 30-pound cobia in fresh from the docks (it had been gutted, but was otherwise untouched), and proceeded to butcher the fish for cooking, taking care to show diners the fisherman’s gaff marks on the fish, along with various cutting methods.
McManus does the presentations by himself, but has cooks in the kitchens prepping and readying the planned meal. He assists with plating and serving. The class costs $25, which covers the demonstration, one glass of wine, and the meal, plus a “surprise” dessert that is often some kind of sorbet or ice cream. Additional glasses of wine are available for $6, or by the bottle for $25.
Each diner receives a recipe card for the day’s menu, and a placemat with a photo of the meal and accompanying wine. There’s also space for notes. McManus fields questions while he demonstrates, and while attendees do not assist, they are encouraged to come close and look, ask questions, and follow the action on a screen in the dining room. As the guests eat their lunches, McManus circulates among them conversing, answering more questions, taking comments and posing for photos.
Recent classes have featured pistachio-crusted chicken with Speck, steak medallions Diane, shrimp, scallops and crab, and cobia. The plan for next month’s menu is coffee-crusted pork ribeye steaks with fig bourbon syrup. August and September are slated for crawfish etouffee and red snapper with sunflower seed crust. Flounder meuniere will be served in October. McManus will take the class outdoors on the terrace in November, when he will prepare Cajun-style deep-fried turkey.
Each class description also explains special ingredients (like Speck), and what skill or procedure will be demonstrated, such as stuffing a whole fish or breaking it down into filets, deboning a whole chicken, or trussing a pork loin.
Response, says McManus, has been favorable, with attendance as high as 50, which is about as large a group as he likes to have. “I get a lot of regulars. They seem to enjoy it and the view can’t be beat.”
Reservations can be made in advance, and tickets can also be purchased at the door. For reservations and further details, call Shari at 850-424-0622.