We are having a conversation between Mark Baratto and Chef Bill Hunt.
MARK: This is the Backyards of Key West podcast; my name is Mark Baratto and I’m here with Chef B. Please, I need the name here, all I know is Chef B.
BILL: Bill Hunt is my name and Charlie’s nickname so he uses that, but I don’t know where that came from but I’m okay with it.
MARK: It’s just easier I guess to say Chef B in the house! Or if he’s praising, Chef B! It’s easier for the cheering.
BILL: Yeah, you know I think he has his own language, basically.
MARK: We are going to try to get him on the podcast at some point or another and I think that would be fun to have him on here to hear all the other stories. And, I don’t know I’m sure he’s got a lot of them. I’d like to get his perspective. But right now, we have the most important person, I would say on this podcast because you are the chef of the Smokin’ Tuna.
BILL: Yes, I’m here playing with the food on a daily basis and responsible for the crew and what we’re doing and the teaching of the program. And the purchasing is exciting for me buying all the local food that we use and that’s always been fun for me. So yeah it turned into, and it seems everywhere that I go if I’m lucky, I have some moldable people and people that are really interested in learning and growing and doing different things like that, so that is happening here. I have a few young guys and a couple of old friends that I brought in to work with me, so we have a really nice balance now and I’ve been here doing it long enough together with this crew that we are really excited for next season. And what we’ll be able to put forward that maybe we couldn’t six months ago.
MARK: Like what? Name some of the changes and what you’re doing.
BILL: Well, the changes are turned into instead of what would you do now, it was almost kinda like fix it according to me and using the right products 100%. There wasn’t really a leader who was bringing things and moving things along fast enough, I felt. So, I got that opportunity and I saw the excitement with the people they were very interested to learn and do new dishes and use new products and like that. So, it’s even things like – one guy might be preparing seafood for the last two years but, did he actually cut the whole fish and break it down and be introduced to a different fish that he hadn’t worked with before. Even shucking oysters at a good rate and doing it properly, stuff like that.
MARK: Sounds like more pride in doing that work, than will make you more into wanting to serve the client and the customer better.
BILL: Yeah, you know it’s really how you live your life and then it can be applied to pretty much every job. And anywhere you are, and it’s finding the interest and then having them duplicate it, and feel good about what they’re doing and getting complimented on it and just being able to become better at what you do in any scenario. At any level of the kitchen operation. There’s been a lot of – and I see it – I see the smiles and hey look at what I did and I’m prouder of what I’m putting forward and now I know why and now I understand this and why is it a different olive oil, why is it a better vinegar, why is it always fresh citrus, why… you know. All the questions that they would get a recipe and they can do the recipe, but the didn’t know why they were doing it sometimes, so then they realized that if you just switched this out and that, so it’s always and forever scenario that I try to create. Whether it’s the most simple items that we’re doing, just do them the best they can be done and like that. It almost becomes a competition, look at how I did this, and look at that, so the pride comes out and people and it gives you a happy environment, I think.
MARK: Tell me from a menu perspective, what’s going to be different? I know you’re not just trying to say, “hey come in for the music and the bar only,” which is amazing. You’re going to be producing some great food which people need to come here to check out. So, tell me about that.
BILL: What was great and good for me was Charlie saying “hey, I want you to just run and I know you have the experience, please just do what you’d like to do to make people happier, draw them in and give them something great that they haven’t had before.” So, that’s where we are at, we have succeeded in the transition to better looking plates, cosmetics, always the best seafood, just taking care of the product like that and buying them right, sending them back if they are not perfect. Everybody goes through that. All the delivery guys sent this – you know – things like that so it’s just paying attention will make all the food better and food handling and that’s where you start with that whole thing. But in regards to items that everything is 4 or 5 new items on the menu every day that weren’t here a year ago. Tomorrow is going to be different than today and often times it is never duplicated unless somebody is very excited about it and it sold well and compliments so we will run it back again next week like that. But there’s so many choices and which ways to go and keep that learning process going with everybody and using new products and like that. So, we went with a more upscale steak for the menu so there’s always a great steak on the menu for a great steak and maybe they wouldn’t have one available or like that, so it’s a matter of ordering which is really good and the purchasing, never running out of things, but always having them fresh. That whole mentality so when you have these ingredients in the house like now I got fresh papayas and some really nice local mangoes and things like that, so all of a sudden I can see that my kitchen crew is already remembering something that they did before and they add that to something different and they are excited to get those products out. I know I might be repeating myself on that, but that part of the education is going to put forward, and we do the boards every day so the board is a different soup, different salads and I encourage everybody to come up with their favorite thing and how would they do it? And things like that, so that’s in play and more pieces of equipment that will allow you to do more things are actually in the making, in the works, I rebuilt a smokehouse out back so we have a brand new smoker and a couple of smokers out there and we’re going to have that all dressed out shortly. That’s going to expand again for like tailgate parties and having the best guava, mango, habanero or whatever, ribs and smoked whole turkeys, smoked whole chickens and things that weren’t happening before. They would have some smoked items and it was just like, hit and miss kinda thing. Always done well but it was just the consistency, so now it’s like ‘hey can we have that again?’ and can we get that back and then you put a little spin on it, so it’s keeping it fresh. We do have a room all set up now for this hot weather and the room we are sitting in now we call it the writer’s room and there’s 24 – 30 seats but if you want to have a small party here, a business party, birthday, any event kind of thing we can give you a private room which wasn’t really available.
MARK: For catering.
BILL: Yeah, it wasn’t really available before but even if it’s a group that comes in with two dozen people or a dozen people, and they are in Key West for the first time and they want to do something special, I will give them a choice of a menu with a day’s notice. Things like that, so there’s more available to anybody who wants to come here with small parties or big parties, catered parties, we have weddings coming up in December and lots of new situations that have been created with the staff, having constantly growing the staff, and having a better group of people. They all know what they’re doing and they are all pros and all on the good frame of mind and so, anything is possible. The private parties and take the whole bamboo bar if you want, if you have a big group, stuff like that, so I think all the tools were here to do those things before, but…
MARK: They just needed the leadership.
BILL: Yeah, but now more than ever that we see the possibility and Charlie is very positive behind the whole situation of growing the deal. Had a great year last year and we are looking for a bigger year this year and I think a lot of it is keeping it changing and keeping new things on the menus so people come here a couple of times a week instead of one so three times a week or whatever. Bring their friends over and so that’s my responsibility is to say “wow!” That’s on the menu? Hey, that’s great let’s try that. Oh, I love that, I never had something like that before. Those are the things that are what I need to keep happening all the time to get to our goal of having something for everybody. Again, focus on dayboat stuff, the real pink shrimp, the fresh stone crabs that are big around here when they start up in October so we literally have stone crabs available by any amount all the whole season.
MARK: Right, all the stuff that when tourists come into town, this is what they want. The quintessential Key West experience and being right off of Duval, right in the heart of everything, there’s two key take-aways that I heard in the things that you said; (1) this isn’t a place to come and get bar food, this is a place to come and have dinner. This is like a restaurant that’s here now where you’re providing the freshest food, a variety of food and if you’re here to enjoy Key West and you want amazing drinks and amazing music you can also have an amazing meal, so you don’t have to eat dinner somewhere else and then come here, you could do it all in one place.
BILL: Yeah that’s totally correct.
MARK: And the other thing that I heard that was pretty amazing, and hats off to you, is that it sounds like being the head chef here and being the leader in the kitchen, you’re giving a lot of leeway and a lot of room for creativity for the staff. A lot of times, especially when you’re pivoting and you’re making things different, you just say like, “no, no listen I’m doing all this, you follow orders and you do this.” It sounds like you’re really allowing everybody to have their creative juices growing here.
BILL: It’s being smart enough to tell your crew why you’re doing it, and hey that looks good oh you do that and just give me the recipe and I’ll be a robot. But that’s not the deal, the deal is that you learn it and you know it and it’s your repertoire now and you can do it anytime if I’m not here one day and this comes in and then you can just roll with it. I want everybody to be free thinking and also be totally capable. The people rise up and I’ll say every employee that I had here, one or two people left because it wasn’t for them, they didn’t want to think that much and they didn’t want to do that much, but there were five other people that wanted the opportunity to say I’m getting an education while I’m working. And that’s good for everybody, it’s good for the place, it’s good for me, and it makes my life easier to see that they can do more and it brings the whole level up if things go the way they are supposed to. I think we are totally on to that.
MARK: Did you learn that from other kitchens? If you can’t tell, you can hear that Boston accent in the background. Have you been a chef most of your career? Tell me a little bit about the origin story.
BILL: The origin was that I grew up in Boston and moved down here fulltime after visiting a few times and vacationing and a month camping and stuff like that to get out of the cold winter, but in Boston it definitely was where it all started. The high school I went with had a great opportunity and there was an excellent chef there that an old friend. She actually made me feel like, well she let me know everything that I needed to know, in your face kinda stuff and don’t waste anybody’s time, and don’t go down that road unless you feel like that’s really what you want to do. So, anyhow, I haven’t really been doing many other things, I’ve been doing all the branches of different cuisines, and I was trained classically in hotels and I was a chef at University Club in Boston. Opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace and all over there, so I did a hard firm probably 10-15 years with people that were very talented. I was very fortunate and I’m not going to name drop at this time which would take way too long, but there were many famous and well-known chefs that had all their own places and writers and authors and so on, that I happened to cross their path and spend a year with them. I was very fortunate with that, and every time I would meet one other person that dedicated their life to it and could see how much they loved it and the passion came out of that. First job, first restaurant and while I was in high school taking the culinary program there, placed in a little restaurant in my town and first time I saw service where everybody is dressed up and at six o’clock they open the doors and it’s like an off Broadway or a Broadway play and all of a sudden the energy is there and everybody is talking and it’s all happening and the food is flying and I’m like Wow! It’s like getting your first guitar or something like that.
MARK: Coming into that too, it’s like getting your first guitar but going to play Woodstock. You’re like the rush of everybody coming in and if they are dressed up and if they are going to a show or whatnot, they expect service to be perfect, they expect it to be fast, they expect to love what they want to get and they can’t be late with things. So that was a good baptism by fire for you.
BILL: It was and then luckily enough, as I say, I made this my philosophy and it was just to find out what the best restaurants were and apply to all of them and only give confirmation for one year. So, agree to a one-year program, because I felt like I have to learn all I can at that place and then move to the next. And I actually had five in a row go that way for me, so they knew I was going to leave and that’s that, and then I would go to the next place that I was excited about and maybe a different cuisine and stuff like that. I really enjoyed the flexibility and the people and how receptive they were and willing to teach and all that. I found a really great community in Boston doing that and then before I knew it, it’s like that’s all I am going to do and that’s what I want to do. I love to cook and I’ve always loved to cook, then I got excited about this, and then somebody taught me about that, and then I learned how to do Chinese, and then I learned that and it’s a never-ending deal. It’s like I always look at it like the team in your kitchen is like a sports team or a band and everybody has to do things and you all grow together. I’ve been really lucky to even discovering new people that were coming up and wanted to get all of that and they said “hey, you’ve been all over here and you’ve done this and oh you’re catering and you’re working at this big fancy house and doing private parties and that’s what I want to do.” And if they wanted to put the effort in and play that game then I was more than happy to be a teacher. And here’s your recipes and look at this cookbook, take this for a couple of weeks and so…
MARK: You’ve mentored a lot of people. It also sounds like that you worked in such a variety of cuisines, do you find now that when people want – not traditional – but they want seafood down here, but I love the smoker and I love the steaks and everything like that, do you find that you’re able to now sneak in little different ingredients that are picking from all of those things? Cajun over here and maybe some sauces from Chinese there to like, make things different?
BILL: Absolutely. Absolutely, it just never stops with that and different oils with this and different citrus with that and just today I haven’t done it in a while and I made a puree of fresh papaya vinaigrette with soy and Asian BBQ and that turned into a dipping sauce for a smoked lobster eggroll. So, I had some smoked lobster and I was like, I’m gonna smoke some lobster with the new smoker – boom – what am I gonna do with it? Okay, it goes to eggroll or it can go into any assortment of dishes.
MARK: Yeah, that’s great.
BILL: We are doing a quesadilla and now with the grilled lobster meat and the guy that works with me in his day chef Tim, he’s somebody that I worked with in three or four other places and when we opened something that was just like an open for the people and then get out. I did a lot of that catering stuff, go in consult and stuff. So, I actually consulted probably a dozen or more in Key West in the last ten years that got people off the ground or fixed it, and things like that. I am like a rescue guy, too.
MARK: You’re like a jack of all trades, not just cooking in the kitchen it’s like knowing the business aspect of it because when you’re doing a catering business, you can go bust quick because of the fact that you can over order, you can mess things up and then your whole business can be gone.
BILL: All the varieties and everything that you can do with food, whether it’s a little birthday party for some guy up the Keys and he has his immediate family there. I go shopping and I know what they are going to want, I buy the best quality and boom – just to knock stuff out – and I like that a lot. I do that in my off time and actually have a fishing camp that I’m partner in and it’s fly fishing lodge up the Keys and this is my 12thyear that I did that, so I’ll leave for a short period of time in the spring to do that because I do it with my sons and my family. It’s amazing.
MARK: Then you all cook the fish together? Or is it a catch and release?
BILL: No, it’s 100% catch and release but they all want the best of everything so that’s a whole different story.
MARK: But it’s wonderful to be able to do that and I like the catch and release. I like the fact that you’re not catching and then cooking and then it’s when do you have that time to unplug so that you can spend time with family and do something totally different so that when you come back here you’re like, okay I’m ready now. I’m ready to get back into business.
BILL: I guess it gets to where the experience takes over and you start being very comfortable with, me mentally I think about okay I have to be over here for a couple of days, then I have to be three days here, and a couple of nights here and I gotta keep coming back and making sure everything’s all good and now when we get into full season the Tuna is my 100% focus, and like that. But to be healthy in food and creativity and stay happy with it, for me it was going to Montana and cooking for people up there for one month. I was lucky enough to go to Alaska for a couple of months, for six weeks and cook for a family there at a lodge and it just breaks it up. Makes you stronger, get more ideas.
MARK: Totally different ingredients, I mean completely different.
BILL: Then you get your book of all the different adventures and you discovered how to cook salmon a different way while you were up there and you bring that back once in a while, to people that appreciate it. It’s just the whole thing is a big tree and it just keep and you’re like, I forgot all about that, and then I have my cabinet of 10,000 favorite recipes that have been tested and written out and I haven’t even opened that cabinet because this thing that I’m doing here or there is a different deal. I have a lot of resources and all the experience and then the main ingredient is your team. Then we already got into that and if you can get the right people around you, they make everything stronger where you couldn’t do that yourself. I can’t, nobody can do anything themselves, any great things themselves.
MARK: Let me ask you this, on a busy night are you and I’m not a chef so I just see what you see in the movies and stuff like that, where the head chef is the person that is directing everybody to do the things that they do. Is that how it is here? Or are you in there cooking yourself? Or a combination of both?
BILL: It’s all of that, it’s daytime is basically the creative time. You can actually go to sleep thinking about it and writing notes and what would work and what wouldn’t work and it depends on where it is and what’s available now. And then, oh by the way lobsters are here now and I just saw some great pink shrimp when I was at the fish market so I kinda steal that for myself, that I bring these things in and then I show everybody and I’m then we can do three different things from that shrimp we got, or that beautiful mutton fish the guy just caught and told the story about it, and then you bring it back and then it ends up being two or three different specials. I’m selfish that way if I find these things, I already know somethings I want to do with it and then ultimately it trickles down and everybody can respond. They can use the same products and then they’ll say, “what would you do with this? I’m thinking that” and bah-bah-bah.
Then I’ll say, “well what if you did this? Or maybe that?” So, don’t do it for them, but give them direction and give them some ideas and then let them grow that way.
MARK: That’s great and again, it’s not the typical story I hear from a chef but when you’ve got all this experience and all these variety of different categories within cooking, it’s almost like you want a mentor. Especially when you get the feedback, right? When you’re getting people that are showing you that they’re loving learning what you have to offer and you’re opening the bank of the million recipes and experiences in your head.
BILL: You know, I’m sure that the chef teachers in my past, and I’ve always respected them so much for passing on what they went through and maybe they are 20 years older than me and they worked in the old school hotels back in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and where you know a lot of the European chefs and the big chefs of hotels and like that, old school, they wouldn’t really teach as much. They would hold a lot of things to themselves and this is what makes me special. I’m going to give you my secrets. I’m the kinda guy that’s just got a secret and I’m sharing it with everybody. The customer can have the recipe if he wants.
MARK: That makes you the most valuable person because of that. What I really love about that is sharing your experiences and all these things with your staff makes them excited to come to work. Because to me, the easiest way to keep people and to have a successful staff in any business, right? Because this is a business type podcast is making them and ensuring that they are happy to come to work. They are not going to be happy all the time, everybody’s got a storm of heck that happens on a day to day basis and no matter what you do, which is important in my opinion because if everything goes perfect all the time, life gets boring. It’s fun to have those things, but if the majority of the time you’re teaching and educating and people that are trying to be chefs themselves or artists themselves and have their own dreams, can actually learn from you. I think that’s one of the reasons why the kitchen and the now expansion of food here at the Smokin’ Tuna will be extraordinary.
BILL: Well, as I said, we have the backing and the attitude and great bosses that want to do the right thing, so why wouldn’t you? If you now how.
MARK: The thing is that this location is like so quintessential Key West and I remember coming here 100’s of times as a tourist when I lived in Miami. It’s an amazing spot – forget about for the music and forget about now for the booze – the location wise and now for food, it’s like come on? I mean, there’s so many different places that I would go before with my wife and we would have food and then listen to a little bit of music but then have to go somewhere else. We would, a lot of times come here for the music. Knowing that I can come here and spend the night is really appealing, especially for a local and especially for a tourist.
BILL: Yeah, we got that a lot this year. In early December and January and January especially, our busiest month in town, lots of people talked about how we came here and we always came here for the music and the beverages and maybe have a snack, but locals were going to their favorite restaurant and then popping over here. Which is totally cool.
MARK: But that’s what we are trying to change that, you’re doing that right now with these recipes.
BILL: Then all of a sudden, it’s like what’s this? We have these offers and that sounds good and I haven’t had that in a while so let’s do that and then it’s not going to happen overnight, but it does happen a lot and it’s spontaneous and then it’s in their head and you know, I like nothing more than having people come in and really enjoy the food. I know they are happy with the program here anyhow, and this is a bonus and a big part of our business now and always was but now probably appealing to a different crowd or other people in addition, too.
MARK: Let me ask you this, before you came onboard and started becoming the head chef and making the changes here, you weren’t permanently working for any other restaurants, right? You were doing your own thing, at least that’s what it sounds like. How does it feel now to first have that free reign from the owner? Being like I want you to take charge and make this menu and now you can do these things that you want. And then also feel like, wow I can make a difference here to a cornerstone place in Key West.
BILL: It’s exciting and I hope to find that when anybody calls me and they want some assistance whether it’s for a year, or they want me to come in and help with problems for a couple of months, and help me do the menu, show me how to do this, show me how to do that, you have new places opening up and stuff and they don’t know all the purveyors and a lot of that experience and friendship you create over the years. I’ve been purchasing in Key West for 30 years. So, you know everybody and now you know their sons and their father and you get the real deal. You get the straight thing and you know where you can go to get what you want and like that, so that foundation is always there. Any place that I go to, I pump myself up and I come in and whatever the need is, or whatever the job is, I decide I’m willing to go there and I just leave it all on the field. I come in and I can read things super well, I’ve been doing it all my life. I read the scenario, read the situation. Well maybe you really don’t have to get rid of that and change that, what if we did this? There’s a lot of hands-on stuff and playing with your food and again, the educational part. I’m an older man now and I need the help of everybody and their energy when we’re busy in a place like this and literally hundreds of people come through here on a day in season. It’s more important that I have a great team because I just can’t run like a young guy anymore.
MARK: Older but wiser. That’s why you’re doing the things that you’re doing and you have the demand to come here and do something like this because if you weren’t then you may be more of a tyrant or you may be more of a person that has to leave his mark. It sounds like you are satisfied with the career path that you’ve had and the work that you’ve done and you feel accomplished in the things that you’ve done that now I’m seeing a glimmer of ‘this is fun for you.’
BILL: With the time frame in your life and all the things that you do then you get more personal about where your time is going to be and what you’re going to do. I am and have had a very fortunate career in the food thing, had my own restaurants with success, ran some really great restaurants, and worked with some people that were just amazing constantly. I seem to just step in it and when we moved here fulltime from Boston and decided we are going to do it here and raise the kids in the Keys and stuff there was a lot of unknown. Okay, I know everything in Boston and I know where I can get jobs all the time, I know where I can be comfortable and what’s going on, got a ton of friends that will keep you busy. But down here, was all brand new and I was just wide open to it, and I’m going to take a couple of weeks off and look around and get settled in and see what’s up and I walked into one of the more famous chefs ever in the history of Key West and just bumped into him on the street and then ended up working for him for a year opening a new spot. Then got placed into a world famous Key West destination and put five years in over there and then I was offered my own fine dining spot and that wouldn’t have happened in Boston. The magic was here. You had to take that leap and sometimes it’s a little more difficult or you know, whatever comes down the road, but Key West has been very kind to me every place I went. I was able to grow when I was ready to make a change, there was always something better. Then in addition to, well okay people approached me and I have a house in Key West and tons of visitors, would you be the personal chef. Well, my schedule is 8-5pm and I have weekends off, so yeah! Let’s do that, I’ll be available as much as I can. Then you’re swinging two jobs and you end up meeting some really cool people out of it and it just goes – if you have the right attitude I think –and right approach, you make things work for you.
MARK: I think the magic of Key West is that if you do right by Key West, it does right by you for sure.
BILL: I agree. I think that it’s really the approach and what you’re willing to do and be flexible and you’ll find out. I found out that some of my best friends in my life I’ve met here and just through coincidence. It never stops, you have an influx of people from all over the world and they love being here and they come here with a great attitude and so you’re in a kind of a party atmosphere.
MARK: It’s positivity almost all the time because people are here on vacation, the majority.
BILL: Everybody is having fun, it’s raining out and they are on vacation and they’re like “hey!” we are going to go over here tomorrow, and everybody’s got positive stories. I recently touched base with a guy that I first came down here with when, we were right out of high school and we came down here just to get away from Boston for a month and it was actually my first connection with him since my wedding about 100 years ago, and I just said, “hey how are you doing?” We ended up talking for an hour and laughing about the things we did and how magic Key West was for us in a pickup truck and camping. It lends that to everybody who comes here and with the right, and if you’re a nice guy a nice person, it will all go great for you in this town. A lot of good stuff here, so anyhow, Key West was even more kind to me in the business than Boston was, and Boston was a lot of you know, I felt I had to give more to learn and the more I learned the easier it was and then you get this and get that, and you’re more comfortable and so forth and so on and get a better job. But great move for me to come to Key West.
MARK: Well, we are glad to have you for sure.
BILL: It’s great to be at Smokin’ Tuna right now and you now, I might have a couple of weeks off here and there in the past and say ‘what am I gonna do next?’ Then before you know it, you get a couple of people that are interested and somebody’s really excited and they are happy with what you’re doing and all of a sudden, it’s like, boom. It’s another little show.
MARK: Do you come out of the kitchen at all? If I’m dining here, am I ever going to see you come out?
BILL: Probably too much.
MARK: Good, that’s great! It’s nice.
BILL: I want to see who’s there. I want to see how they are feeling about everything. I want to enjoy what they are feeling and I want to be a part of that, too.
MARK: I think it’s important.
BILL: There’s no way that the educational part and do this and the technical stuff, we do lots of that. But if I have an opportunity to talk to somebody and the customer wants to say hello, ask you about something, that’s me and I love that. I can do that all day, so.
MARK: I feel that about you that you would really enjoy seeing the fruits of the labor that you’re doing whether it be for that night or over the course of a season where you could come out at say the end of the season and be like, wow. Look at these customers enjoying this food and loving this and I see the needle shift in the change of what people are saying about the Smokin’ Tuna when it comes to dinner and actually coming here to eat. It is definitely amazing to see that.
BILL: It’s another little philosophy thing that if something is not working up to potential, often times it’s just tweaking and paying attention and doing things like that. I some situation, so in that way, they had the stuff and it makes it easier to make people happy once you have the tools to work with.
MARK: It’s like baking a cake with the wrong recipe, it’s not going to work.
BILL: Or you know, if you have to drive 67 miles to work and you go in there and there’s one grouchy person that’s been there for five years and you’re not happy to see them every day and stuff, that’s real-life stuff. But we don’t accept that. I don’t. I’m like, ‘hey!’ and I think that rubs off and I have no reason to get all crazy about anything. You know what I mean? I know this is good, I know that’s right, oh if you’re not happy well we can adjust it.
MARK: We’ll make it work for you. You’re on vacation, come on. I love that.
BILL: So, it is like living on vacation for me. It always has been since I got here. And hey I got this new job and it’s a really cool place and I end up being there for three years and whatever, and I go there for a month and I’m there and enjoying the people and making new friends.
MARK: I have one of the selfish, but most important questions, this is just for my wife and I so anybody listening, you don’t have to listen anymore for this second. Where and when will you bring down New England steamers for me to eat? Because I cannot get steamers, not steamed clams, steamers, you know the ones that smell like barnacles and you know what I’m saying. I miss them and I couldn’t get them in Miami, and I don’t think we can get here, can we?
BILL: You can.
BILL: You can pretty much get shellfish from Peugeot Sound to P.E.I., anywhere and everywhere and if you’re willing to freight it in, and sometimes it can be more expensive, and sometime surprisingly affordable and it becomes a byproduct and whether you want, okay I need 50 lobsters from Portland and I need it for a party on Saturday and that’s all they want, Maine lobsters, they gotta have ‘em. That’s always available and surprising enough, the price on Maine lobsters per pound sometimes can be and when they have a great season and the price drops down and you can have them flown here and be no more expensive than the local Florida. Somebody just happens to want that, so it’s all being a part of the network and talking to people and what if I really wanted these oysters from P.E.I. every Wednesday, how much are they? See if I can fit them into the demographic and like that.
MARK: It’s not just knowing the art, the cooking art, or the business aspect it’s having those connections over time and knowing, like you said the tree branches that go out all over the country when certain people want certain things. It’s like ‘hey I’d like steamers, if 100 people want steamers, and you’re like ‘well let’s put some steamers on that menu.’
BILL: I kind of, like everybody gets well I’m really good at this or whatever, after coming from Boston down here I felt like I knew a lot and I felt like and I feel now like I only knew 10% what I’ve allowed myself to learn since. So, I was mistaken thinking that I could just roll with it from that point on.
MARK: That’s wisdom, too.
BILL: So that was like, hey wait a minute, this guy is onto something and this is going on and I really did, I applied myself strong for about 10 years in Key West to their purchasing of all products. In one particular place could afford to have anything from all over the world and we did that. We had Christmas every day with boxes from FedEx and like that, so we were getting the best mushrooms from California and you were getting the oysters from Peugeot Sound and a variety pack, all the top ones the best ones and you’re getting the best of anything you want. There’s a place in Texas you call for deer and they actually have a preserve and a surgical unit set-up and they go out and pick out your deer and like that. So, if you want to pay for it, you can whatever you want. That I didn’t have any clue about when I was in Boston. I just saw food show up and I played with it. Here I got much more into the buying aspect, and who has what, and there was a company that we used for years and it was, out of all places, in Chicago and it was Chicago Wild Game. Anything, the next day. Anything that you want. If you want quail eggs and this and that, and caviars and foie gras and blah blah blah. Anything that you can possibly want on earth, you can get in one day from people that know what they’re doing. So that is really…
MARK: That’s a huge connection to have, even the knowledge to do that.
BILL: And it’s calling and communicating and say ‘well if you don’t know where to get it, hey, you know, who do you know?’ Who should I talk to? I love that conversing and kibitzing; you know a little bit.
MARK: You like the schmoozing a little with people and working with them.
BILL: Absolutely. That’s who we are, so who are we and then what do we need to do.
MARK: That’s great and sometimes you’ll see chefs that just like to hide in the kitchen and they don’t like to come out and shake hands with anybody. But I think, I personally like seeing all aspects of the restaurant when I’m out. That’s part of my experience is that I would love for you to come out and say hello and that would be nice. It would make me feel special so I’m sure other customers love that, too.
BILL: I wouldn’t understand anybody that is really good at what they do and somebody wants to say thank you, or like that, it’s kind of like, you would be proud of your work and you come out and share and that makes you happy, it makes them happy and it’s like that’s what we do. Let’s say you’re an artist and you are a painter and they come to the gallery to see all your stuff and you’re not going to come out and say hi. Of course, you’re going to be out there with a glass of wine and puttin’ around and how you doing and I’d like you to meet my wife and it’s all, it’s a big world and we are just a little part of it you know. So, I love meeting new people.
MARK: You’ve got strong New England roots giving you that nice foundation.
BILL: Lots of close people in New England and you get comfortable in your skin and if you know what you’re talking about and you surround yourself with good people, how can you go wrong? Again, lucky enough in Key West, many great friends here and my daughter works downtown, my wife worked in town for years, so Key West is a big part of my life.
MARK: Seems like it always will be.
BILL: It’s just a chapter, it’s chapters in the book, ya’ know? And there will be a big Smokin’ Tuna chapter and someday I’ll just be visiting.
MARK: I’ll see a Smokin’ Tuna tattoo on your shoulder something like that.
MARK: Uh, maybe?
MARK: Well, that was a great ending of the business aspect and the artistry aspect of that, now we get into the personal questions. Which aren’t that personal so you don’t need to worry, it’s not that crazy. Because you’ve been in Key West so long, what is your favorite event to attend?
BILL: I think the thing that I like to do, attend like meaning in town events and stuff like that or just things to do, we used to always like the whole Fantasy Fest thing. The kids would come down before dark and all that, so we all our friends would come down and people come in town from Boston to go do it. So, we lived all that and then it became, okay really like Goombay. We want to taste the food and what they have going on there. I think you go through the whole gamut and then the bike events and then the runners that come in town and come up and down the highway and then the boat races and there’s so many things that go on and it’s like a weekly deal. Even if you loved it and you did it for five years it’s like you don’t have time to do that stuff anymore. I do live up the Keys about 20 miles or so, if I’m not working, I usually don’t come in town and I’ll take that one day off to chill up there.
MARK: Spend with the family.
BILL: Go to the beach or do whatever. Go get in the boat or whatever.
MARK: It sounds like boating is something you love to do right? Fishing and boating?
BILL: Yeah, not really seriously fishing, it’s just…
MARK: Right, no bait on the hook fishing, I like to call it.
BILL: Or just get that one fish and hang out and talk about fishing and get one for the grill on your way back. One guy loves diving, okay go get some lobsters or just get us something to eat, we’re not going to buy anything. I catch more fish on the phone than most people catch in their life.
MARK: You’re like an expert fisherman with that telephone.
BILL: In general, I appreciate all the events and I know that a friend of mine is coming in to do this Lost Kitchen deal, celebrity chefs come in and they just work one night and they have wine and great food and kind of like, showcase that particular guy. I would love to attend all of those. That’s something that is right up my alley and I end up seeing people in the biz and people I used to work with and all that kind of stuff. Anything related to the restaurant scene, I like that, or food events, markets, everything.
MARK: What about local hidden spot? It could be restaurant, could be anything, park, anything.
BILL: I used to love that property at Casa Marina. The old Flagler house and I always just loved being on the property. I could feel the history and they’ve changed it up so much and everything with the lobby is all great.
MARK: It has an old feel to it, right?
BILL: I find myself, if I’m driving by once every few months, I’ll get out and walk through the lobby and walk around and just look at it and imagine and had stayed there thirty years ago with the family, we were just in town for the weekend events or whatever and would stay at the Casa. Again, reminiscing and old memories and seeing old friends. I have a friend that has a restaurant and he’s in there every night trying to make it and that would probably be the first pick. Or my favorite bartender is at this place. Let’s stop and see him, so it’s more catching up with your old buddies and like I did 15 or 16 years in Key West when I first got here and then kinda got up the Keys and even into Marathon, then going off to work in the summer and things like that. Go to Boston and so the last couple of years I’ve come back for months at a time and worked in Key West doing things and now I’m back in town. Now I’m tracking down people and seeing people that I used to see all the time and that’s the most fun. My wife loves that to see her old friends and we would come in and catch a movie and go have a dinner and just soak in the whole Key West vibe.
MARK: The reminiscing, I like that because you were here so long. What about a tip of the day? Something that you’re into that is totally not related to anything we talked about. It could be a book you’re reading, these new loafers that you like, a new toothpaste, it can be anything.
BILL: Tip of the day, work in your garden for a couple of hours.
MARK: Yes, I love that.
BILL: I have lots of trees, flowering things in my yard, lost a lot with the hurricane a couple of years ago, but it’s all back better than ever. I have to give it a little more care and that kind of settles me 100%. It’s like something really warm and fuzzy happens, and I go down there and I talk to myself and look at how things are growing and had to do with some of it, you know simple things like that. It’s kinda like you can get real hectic and you can get crazy and jump in your car and you ran out of this, go over there and get back there, there’s a crowd waiting for something, by the way we gotta work extra hard and it becomes intense, so I really appreciate those moments.
MARK: Yeah, digging my hands in dirt too, destresses me, big time.
BILL: It’s like floating on the boat I had an old house boat attached to the back of my house and we would just go out there and sometimes stay overnight and have the kids on the boat and you wanna go in? No! Okay, we stay out and the stars are out and you capture that stuff and it’s a wonderful place. I would say that I am going to add a second tip, one of the hot months in the summer if you live here year-round, get out of town. Go somewhere cooler and go visit somewhere you haven’t been.
MARK: I like that and that’s a great way to end. Chef it was great talking to you. I look forward to coming here myself with the family and trying some of your dishes and saying hello for sure and seeing where you take this. I really appreciate everything you are doing and I thank you very much.
BILL: A real pleasure to meet you Mark. Thank you very much.