One of the most beloved restaurants in Seaside is Great Southern Café. Known for its fresh local seafood and produce, fun loving staff and a happy hour that is perfect for people-watching from the expansive outdoor porch, the chef and owner who made it all happen is Jim Shirley.
As a member of the state Board of Directors of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), vice president of the Northwest Florida Chapter of FRLA, founder and president of the Society of Great Southern Chefs and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Chef Shirley knows what it takes to be a leading force behind our local food movement, and how to take action. As a community leader, he dedicates time to many charities, including the Children’s Home Society of Florida (a board member of the Western Division), and is a board member of the Autism Society of the Panhandle.
Shirley opened his first restaurant, Madison’s Diner, in Pensacola in 1995, followed by the Screaming Coyote in 1997, and the Fish House in 1998. In 2006, he opened Great Southern Café in the heart of Seaside Central Square.
“I have always loved Seaside,” he says. “The wine festivals introduced me to this area. And Dr. Ken Ford of the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola introduced me to Robert Davis, Seaside’s founder, whose passion and interest is about all aspects of sustainability.”
Shirley had been working with farmers in the Panhandle to get them to grow local specialty food items. And when he found there was a Seaside Institute trip planned to Pienza, Italy, to study the theme “agricultural edge,” he jumped at the chance to attend.
“In Italy, you look outside of the town you are in and really see the food that you will be eating,” he says. “Robert Davis had brought along a group of city planners, architects, a few chefs and the people that had put together the farm-to-table program designed by Alice Waters, who is a pioneer of that food concept. We discussed what was happening in Italy, how we could learn from the Italians, and bring that sustainability home to interject into our community and lives on the Gulf Coast.”
Modern Southern cuisine is what Shirley likes to call his style of cooking, as he grew to learn about many food cultures traveling as the young son of a Navy pilot who was often stationed internationally. When he would reflect on his flavor choices, he found he would always go back to his roots; his grandmothers’ traditional Southern cooking.
Shirley’s expertise lies in combining unique flavors from the area’s region with his culinary travels abroad, to create new and enticing recipes. His famed Grits a Ya Ya is always a coveted menu favorite. With shrimp that is blackened and nestled on a bed of smoked Gouda cheese grits, smothered in a sauté of applewood-smoked bacon, spinach, Portobello mushrooms and cream, then topped with sweet potato hay, it is a dish that is not for the faint of heart. The Soul Rolls stuffed with collard greens and chicken are always on my radar.
Sourcing his ingredients from nearby purveyors, Shirley enjoys shopping at the Seaside Farmers Market each weekend with his young family. You will see Twin Oaks Farms eggs on his menu, and the incorporation of Ocheesee Creamery dairy products in many of his dishes.
“In the last few years, local farmers have really stepped up their game and are providing us with high quality products,” Shirley says. “When used in my recipes at Great Southern Café, we’ve got a home run!”
Though Shirley travels far and wide to absorb the newest culinary ideas while selecting fine wines for his restaurant menu, when at home, he says, “We grill out a lot. Mainly local caught fish, tons of grilled vegetables, and we eat a lot of grits!”
Susan Benton is a food and travel writer with published articles, recipes, and photography in many local, regional and national publications. Her website is 30AEATS.com where she writes about the secrets of Gulf Coast cuisine.