By Bruce Collier
Some people just get born into their life’s work. Chef Jim (“Jimmy”) Shirah is executive chef at Dewey Destin’s Harborside Restaurant. Area residents and visitors are well acquainted (or should be by now) with Dewey Destin’s, which offers not only an extensive menu of fresh fish and shellfish, but a relaxed atmosphere and a boat-owner’s view of the harbor.
Shirah recently took some time just before weekday lunch to talk with Beachcomber. Service starts at 11 AM, but he gets there around 7 to prep with the staff, which worked around us as we talked.
Dewey Destin’s Harborside sits in a former residence, once the home of Shirah’s great aunt and uncle. Jim is a fifth-generation Shirah, and also counts the names Marler and Nelson in his family tree. The family business wasn’t always restaurants—the Shirahs used to be commercial fishermen.
“I grew up on a boat,” says Shirah. Most of the men in the family cooked. It proved to be good practice for when a net ban went into effect, and the family transitioned into restaurateurs. Shirah did his first cooking at an early age, using a cast iron skillet and a bottle of propane. “Anything to get out of work,” he says.
At age 19, he traveled to France and the elegant resort town of Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay, for cooking school. He was in Basque country, and close enough to Spain to sample some of that nation’s cooking traditions along with those of France. “I welcomed all foods.” Upon returning to the Emerald Coast, Shirah worked at the Destin Seafood Market and the Fish Net Restaurant in Crestview.
Starting small, the Shirah family business expanded gradually (as did additions to the former family house at Harborside). The family still does commercial fishing, and still sources locally.
From the start, the plan for Dewey Destin’s Harborside restaurant was to offer Gulf-sourced seafood. Shirah’s recipes are a mix of family favorites and innovations, though he admits he still loves just good old fried fish. His rule is, “If I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t serve it.” Among the local fish and shellfish served in season are grouper, snapper, trigger, Gulf cod, scamp, amberjack, shrimp and crab. The scallops are Atlantic. Depending on the fish, his methods of cooking include grilled, fried, broiled, blackened or bronzed, with steaming available for shrimp or crab.
And then there’s the lionfish. Native to Indo-Pacific waters, the spiny, venomous creature has invaded waters in the Caribbean and off the Gulf Coast of the United States. There’s speculation that the Gulf invasion began with the escape of six lionfish from a south Florida aquarium that was destroyed during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Shirah has an information sheet on the lionfish. According to the sheet, the lionfish spawns 27,000 eggs every two-and-a-half days, eats some 30 other Gulf species (including its own kind), and can reduce up to 90 percent of the native fish populations of some reefs. The good news is that when their spines are removed, the little monsters are delicious.
Shirah says lionfish has the texture of scamp and the flavor of trigger, is good fried or grilled, and makes a great ceviche. He offers it on the Dewey Destin Harborside menu, when it’s available, and will prepare it to order. The kitchen doesn’t always have it, but when they do, “we always sell out.” In January, Shirah conducted an in-class lionfish cooking demonstration at Fort Walton Beach High School.
He also supports the Emerald Coast Open, reportedly the world’s largest lionfishing tournament, which will take place May 16-19. Prizes are awarded for most, largest, and smallest lionfish. Shirah catered the pre-tournament kickoff party.
In addition to doing its part in the lionfish wars, the restaurant has been staging wine and whiskey pairings, which Shirah says always sell out quickly. The chef puts in a long and varied day at work, doing “whatever needs to be done—cooking, cleaning and serving.” The restaurant space continues to expand, with the deck and porch bar the latest additions. In the kitchen, which Shirah is remodeling and streamlining, he and the staff are “getting the system down.”
Currently, the staff numbers around 60 employees, and hiring is underway to be ready for Spring Break and summer season.
When not at work, Chef Shirah’s favorite activity is “just being outside, on the water,” boating or paddleboarding. He has also taken up clay pottery. Potted lionfish, anyone?