BBQ, perhaps more than any other food, is closely associated with the idea of authenticity and authentic BBQ is intimately linked with its place of origin. The Carolinas do pork exceptionally well, be it whole hog or shoulder, with vinegar-based mops dominating the north as they tout their unique mustard sauce in the south. Memphis is well-known for its dry-rubbed ribs while Kansas City slathers theirs in a tomato-based sauce that gets a bad wrap for being extra sweet thanks to the mass marketing efforts of KC Masterpiece, a far cry from the real McCoy. In Texas (my home state), beef reigns supreme, particularly giant, fatty slabs of slow-smoked brisket and spicy sausages.
Meanwhile, here in Florida, while the state certainly loves its Q, it still lacks to fervent fundamentalism that dominates the BBQ ethos of the previously mentioned smoked meat Meccas. The state has, yet to adopt a singular style–something for the BBQ world to recognize as distinctly Floridian. That may soon change.
Kenny Gilbert, chef and owner of restaurants from Jacksonville Beach to Fernandina, may be the very man to introduce true Florida BBQ to the rest of the world.
“BBQ is something I would consider to be truly American,” he proclaims. “When you think about all the American holidays like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, everyone is doing it around some sort of grill or smoker and there’s always family involved.”
For Chef Gilbert, BBQ is closely tied to community and specifically, the family. “My dad showed me how to cook on a Weber grill when I was 7 years old,” he recalls. “Watching him grill out and smoke meats was awesome. He had his own rubs. He did his ribs a certain way. His sauce was done a certain way.”
Those early experiences would later influence the chef throughout his seasoned career in fine dining, eventually inspiring him to return to his roots and explore new ways of contextualizing Southern food.
“I wanted to take the idea of BBQ and make it my own.”
Tailoring his offerings to the unique micro-cultures immediately surrounding each restaurant, Chef Gilbert takes the connection between BBQ and its sense of place to another level. At Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Fernandina, Kenny’s ribs are rubbed with Cajun spices the way his father taught him. The ribs at GIlbert’s Social on Southside Boulevard receive the chef’s signature chicken rub flavored by coriander, cumin, black pepper and mustard seed. And at his latest venture, Gilbert’s Beach BBQ on First Street in Jax Beach, he hits them with jerk seasoning for a Caribbean vibe.
While Chef Gilbert clearly has no qualms about borrowing inspiration from culinary traditions the world over, he’s simultaneously created a style of BBQ with a uniquely Floridian identity by focusing on that which is abundant here on the First Coast.
“I think there are ingredients that we cook with in Florida that make it Florida BBQ,” Chef Gilbert explains.
To that end, Chef Gilbert created his signature Florida citrus mop. A nod to the vinegar-chile-based mops of Eastern Carolina, the Florida citrus mop gets its clean, acidic flavor from a mix of lemon, lime and orange juices and apple cider vinegar (among other things). But he doesn’t stop there.
“Smoking seafood is BBQ,” Kenny argues. “You’re smoking mullet, amberjack, smoked shrimp, smoked oysters, scallops. Smoked seafood is really Florida.”
And why stop at smoking seafood? How about reptiles?
That’s right, Chef Gilbert has been known to smoke entire 40 to 50-pound alligators for eight hours until the meat falls apart like pulled pork. He describes the flavor as a mix between grouper and chicken.
Kenny admits that this idea isn’t new. Native Timucua and Seminole tribes were roasting whole alligators over wood fires long before the first cows and pigs ever even touched their hooves on American soil. But you can’t argue that he’s leading the charge in bringing it back in a way that could very well help establish it as Florida’s contribution to BBQ culture. Better late than never.