Jim Shirley of Great Southern Café
One of the most beloved restaurants in Seaside is Great Southern Café, known for its fresh local seafood and produce, fun loving staff and happy hour.
Great Southern Café is owned and operated by Pensacola native Chef Jim Shirley, who opened the restaurant in Central Square in 2006. “I have always loved Seaside. The wine festivals introduced me to this area. Then Dr. Ken Ford of the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola introduced me to Robert Davis, Seaside’s founder, whose passion and interest is about all aspects of sustainability,” he says.
Shirley was working with farmers in Pensacola to get them to grow local specialty food items when he learned 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 brought along a group of city planners, architects, a few chefs and the people who had put together Alice Waters farm-to-table program. 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.”
Shirley’s style of cooking is what he chooses to call Modern Southern cuisine. He grew to learn many food styles traveling as the young son of a Navy pilot who was often stationed internationally, and he learned to enjoy a variety of cultures. When it came to his choice for flavor, he always went back to his roots — his grandmothers’ traditional Southern cooking.
Shirley’s expertise lies in combining the unique and different flavors from his travels in his recipes. Though his famed Grits A Ya Ya is always a coveted menu favorite, the fresh local catch of the day and the Soul Rolls stuffed with local collard greens are not far behind.
Shirley sources his ingredients from local farmers and enjoys shopping at the Seaside Farmers Market each weekend with his 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 and provided us with great local green vegetables,” he says. “When paired with super fresh Gulf seafood, you’ve got a home run.”
Shirley is really looking forward to Grayton Beer Company coming online, being a part of the community and available to order at his bar. Though Shirley uses Southern accents with great skill and spirit, he travels far afield to absorb the newest culinary ideas and select fine wines for his restaurants menu. When at home, it’s all about local, fresh and Southern. “We grill out a lot,” he says. “Mainly fresh local fish, tons of grilled vegetables, and we eat a lot of grits!”
Shirley, who was recently voted as one of 30A.com’s Hottest Chefs, is 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. Shirley knows what it takes to be a leading force behind our local food movement, and how to take action.
As a community leader, Shirley dedicates time to many charities, including the Children’s Home Society of Florida (as a board member of the Western Division) and is also on the board of the Autism Society of the Panhandle. He opened his first restaurant, Madison’s Diner, in Pensacola in 1995, followed by the Screaming Coyote in 1997, and the Fish House in 1998.
Great Southern Café recently won several mentions in 30A.com’s 2014 Hot Spots —Dining, and again received the coveted Wine Spectator Award. It is located at 83 Central Square and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch Monday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The general manager (longtime former Birmingham restaurateur) is Billy Mc Connell. For more information, call (850) 231-7327 or visit thegreatsoutherncafe.com. c
Susan Benton is the owner of 30AEATS.com and partner in GulfCoastRestaurants.com, where she shares her passion for food and travel, and her commitment to promoting local farmers, fisherman, chefs, artisans and the best restaurants along the Gulf Coast.
Jim Shirley’s Grits A Ya Ya Served at Great Southern Café in Seaside
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups grits, such as Dixie Lily
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces unsalted butter
One 14- to 16-ounce can creamed corn
1 cup shredded smoked Gouda cheese, more to personal taste
The Shrimp Ya Ya:
8 strips Applewood smoked
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallots
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound peeled and deveined jumbo shrimp
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
1/4 cup diced scallions
1 portobello mushroom caps, sliced
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black
For the grits: Run the chicken stock into a thick-bottomed saucepan and turn on high till it boils. Mix in the grits and stir like crazy. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little cream if you need more liquid. Then, tumble in the butter, add the creamed corn, drizzle in the rest of the cream and stir until it’s all in the family.
Shake in the shredded cheese and stir very well until it’s nice and smooth.
For the shrimp: While your grits cook, bring a large saucepan to medium heat. Add the bacon and cook for about 3 minutes, then add the garlic and shallots and sauté.
Add the butter and a splash of white wine and cook until the butter is half melted, then add the shrimp. Cook until the downsides of the shrimp become white, then flip them and add the spinach, scallions and mushrooms and saute for 2 minutes.
Remove the shrimp. Pour in the heavy cream and let simmer, stirring, until reduced by one-third. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste. Return the shrimp and stir to combine.
To serve, spoon the sauce and shrimp onto heaping mounds of the cheese grits.