Talking farm to table with owner Matt Gilligan and son Chef Matt Gilligan
1. How would you describe 904 Restaurant?
We’re a casual neighborhood restaurant serving farm to table food. By no means are we fancy or upscale in terms of our ambiance. Our farm to table approach means that our menu on any particular day will be influenced by whatever is available. Because we’re serving fresh, local food you can describe a lot of our dishes as Southern regional but we don’t want to say “Southern, with a twist” because it’s not. It’s just good, quality food for a reasonable price. We’re not over the top frou-frou.
2. Can you tell us about your farm to table approach?
Chef Matt: We want to source locally wherever possible and to help the smaller farms whenever we can. The larger distributors are starting to carry some local items but there are still a lot of local farms here that nobody is utilizing - places like Barnyard Farms and Urban Folk Farm. We spend a lot of time building relationships with these local farmers and, however we can, we're helping to put them on the map. I reached out to Urban Folk Farm on Normandy Boulevard and we’re now the first restaurant carrying their food. We’re also helping to get them exposure in places like the Jarboe Park Farmer’s Market and the Atlantic Beach Farmer’s Market. What we’ve done is to bring people together. Not only do we utilize the farms but we promote the hell out of them. One of our farmers told us we were their only salesmen. Ultimately, what I want is for all these little farms to come together with a catalog, and a truck that delivers for them so they can stay on the farm and tend to their gardens.
3. Has it been difficult sourcing locally?
Chef Matt: We’ve had great success sourcing local produce and seafood, but beef and pork have been more challenging. There’s a pig farm opening up on Urban Road. It’s through Freedom Farms and they have 10 head now. They’re looking for a local processor. The closest is in Lakeland, but that’s a little too far. I’m working hard to find something but unfortunately there’s nothing in Jacksonville at this time.
What’s really exciting to us is that when we visit the local farmer’s markets we’ll meet people who used to be in traditional occupations and have changed careers to become farmers or artisans who can work with us to deliver beautiful foods for our restaurant. There’s a whole ecosystem of small purveyors that we want to encourage and support. We’ve been really excited to work with local farmers who are growing romaine on the north side of Jacksonville or pea tendrils in Palm Valley. We’ll use local wherever possible, but getting consistent supply in the quantities we need is still the challenge. We don’t have a walk in cooler, we don’t have a microwave, and we don’t have a freezer. To keep things fresh we order in smaller quantities, which means we can occasionally run out of certain items. We are always juggling to ensure availability, local supply and fresh, not frozen, food. At times there may not be sufficient quantity to get what we'd like. When that happens we may put something on as a special instead of being part of the regular menu.
4. When do you know what will be available on any particular day?
Chef Matt: There’s a calendar of seasonal produce and then there’s what’s coming from the hydroponic growers locally. We can work with that in advance. When farmers call me I want to know about what’s fresh now - I don’t want them going crazy to get me things that aren’t ready. I want produce when it’s at the peak of its flavor, not before.
Matt: I wish people could see what happens here every Saturday. We have farmers come through the restaurant with 6 foot rolling coolers. The tops are off and they're bursting with beautiful bok choy, red kale and so forth.
We use what’s fresh and work our menu around that. Just before we opened turnips were in season and they were beautiful. Unfortunately we ordered way too many. We played around and came up with a Turnip Latke, and they were unbelievable.
We believe in fresh - when our cauliflower comes in there’s leaves coming out of it, the stem is pure white, with no red dots, no grayness. Our lettuce has sand all over it when it arrives here - it’s harvested the day we get it and we have to wash it like crazy.
Chef Matt: In every season things will change. Even our fish changes with the season. We’ll be able to get black fin tuna in March. I cannot wait to get some tuna in here. We don’t want to have to source from the Keys or the Caribbean.
5. Where do you get your fish?
We use Pirate’s Cove. Sean owns two boats we buy from. Last week we were the only restaurant in Northeast Florida serving snowy grouper. When it came available it was so fresh that we bought all of it. The gills were candy apple red, the eyes looked like they were still swimming.
Our shrimp comes from the Micheala Dawn and the Seafood Shoppe in St. Augustine. The Seafood Shoppe has 5 day boats out shrimping and they bring in shrimp that’s fresh, not frozen. Technically, the term "Mayport Shrimp” is trade marked by Safe Harbor, so the shrimp we get are known as Georgia Whites. We’ve been incredibly lucky this year - there have been a lot of Georgia Whites available and they have that wonderful, fresh flavor.
Chef Matt: I just got a call a few minutes ago that there’s 50 pounds of tile fish available and I have to go pick it up. This is fish that was caught today. I know I can always get beeliners and trigger fish - things like snowy grouper and tile fish, well, I’ll just get a call to say they’re available. Whatever’s fresh and local is going to be on our menu.
We’ve put in an incredible amount of time and effort to build great relationships. When you build those relationships with people you’re able to get those special items when they come in. You can often get things a little cheaper too, and you can make some friends out there in the community.
6. Even your beer is local...
Yes, we only have Jacksonville craft beer on tap. Aardwolf and Veterans United are new breweries and we carry them both. They’re both jazzed about what we’re doing and we like to help out the little guys. We’ll be bringing in some Green Room beers soon too. They have this delicious, delicious stout called Count Shakula. You can cook with it, make ice cream with it. It’s like drinking a dessert beer.
7. Are you using the beers in your menu?
Oh, yes. For instance, on Valentine’s Day we used the Hop Banshee from Veterans United to make a Bacon Vinaigrette. Also, when we smoke our items here we use wood chips that we've soaked in beer. It gives them a beautiful flavor.
8. Did you want to be a farm-to-table restaurant from the start?
Twenty years ago we had a restaurant up north. At that time what we did wasn’t called farm to table, but we still got our fish straight off the boat and our breads from a local bakery. It’s something we’ve always believed in.
9. Can you tell us about your culinary background?
Chef Matt: I went to Endicott College for culinary school and to play lacrosse. At the time I was also driving back and forth to work in our family restaurants. School wasn’t for me so I left and ended up working my way through every possible position you can imagine in a restaurant, including waiting tables. My dream was to be on the creative side of the restaurant. I cooked for the Compass Group for many years - they’re the largest service provider in the world. I was somewhat of a pariah there because they wanted me to cook their way but I really wanted to do things my way. At the same time I was helping building relationships and helping the Compass Group on social media and to get better known. Through the Compass Group I also got an opportunity to work in fine dining and to learn a lot about food safety and how to run a restaurant.
10. How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s a combination of a lot of passion, with a focus on flavor, resourcefulness and creativity to get the most out of what’s available. We try to keep our dishes to a maximum of 5 major components - more than that and the flavor combinations become overwhelming. Everything on the plate is a marriage and everything is there for a reason. There’s no rosemary springs on our plates - there’s no mint leaves on our desserts. Everything on the plate is meant to be consumed. If people want to alter what we’ve put together then we’ll try to educate them as to why we’ve put certain things together and how the flavors are meant to work together.
When you eat, you eat with your eyes first, then your nose, then your tongue. You need heart and passion, along with a lot of talent, to brings all these elements together into a great dish. That caring, and love of what you’re doing is what makes all the difference in the world. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to see how we can use what we have to make better and better dishes.
11. How did you come up with your recipes?
Chef Matt: We all came together. My father and I built a menu to start. Things have been tweaked along the way. We have a lot of specials and we’ll constantly be adding new things to the menu. What determines the menu is availability, what the public wants, and value. Value is very important. As is deliciousness.
12. How would you introduce someone to your menu?
Matt: If it’s your first time visiting us and you like seafood, then I’d recommend starting there. We have some truly beautiful fish dishes on our regular menu and through our specials. Working with local suppliers we’ve been able to source some of the freshest seafood anywhere and we take great pride in the quality of those menu items. Because we’re preparing so many of our seafood dishes based on what’s available that day only, many of our best seafood dishes will be on our specials, so I’d definitely suggest looking at what we have when you’re here.
A lot of people like burgers and we have some great choices. Our hamburger is made from an 8 ounce mixture of short rib, brisket and chuck that produces a really wonderful, meaty flavor. It’s what a burger should taste like. We only use grass fed beef - we want the tastiest and healthiest beef available. You can have the burger simply decorated, or with toppings like a fried egg, artisanal cheese or Smoked Applewood Bacon. On the weekend the Times-Union ran a review that mentioned our burger we ended up selling more than 500 of them. We have a number of sliders that come with a small side of fries. They make a great lunch and they’re very well priced.
13. How does the influence of Southern cuisine show up on your menu?
Our Shrimp and Grits and South Georgia Chicken are the two dishes that are most influenced by Southern cuisine.
Shrimp and Grits is a real cult dish - it’s been a Southern comfort food that people have enjoyed all the way back to when their grandmothers were making it. Our recipe is pretty classic although we cook the grits with beer for that little bit of added flavor and we also use Tasso ham for some added zip.
South Georgia Chicken uses a simple cut of chicken that we roast before adding sautéed greens, mashed potatoes and gravy. It’s simple, flavorful and delicious, which is what comfort food should be.
14. What’s a Surf and Turf Corn Dog?
Chef Matt: We take hush puppy mix, hot sauce, beer, lemon juice, and a little bit of lemon zest to make a pancake batter. Then we mix in Tasso ham to give it a smoky, spicy, pork flavor. A large, fresh shrimp is put on a skewer and dipped in the batter then wrapped with Panko breadcrumbs to give it a crunch. It’s then served with the most amazing datil jelly, home made by my mother. She makes the most amazing jellies in the world. They’ve become ridiculously popular.
15. Can you recommend something that’s a little different?
Osso Bucco is something that may be new to a lot of people, especially how we prepare it. Osso Bucco is Italian for “bone with a hole” and it’s a dish that’s traditionally prepared with veal shanks. One of the things about the South is the love of pork and we took this into account when we came up with our Osso Bucco dish. We start with the best quality pork we can find and slowly braise it. This slow cooking method produces very tender and flavorful meat that works especially well with the Osso Bucco.
16. Who makes your desserts?
Matt: We’re a true family business - my wife makes all our desserts. Lori has been cooking for our family and in our family restaurants for over 40 years. Her desserts reflect the comfort food style of our menu. For example, she has an Apple Crisp that’s made with apples, brown sugar and butter. It’s a classic dish, but we didn’t want to serve it the normal way, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Instead, Lori is making small batches of salted caramel ice cream to go with the Apple Crisp. It’s been hugely popular.
We also use Harvest Bakery, right down from us, for their amazing Midnight Velvet Blues Cake.
17. Any surprises with the menu?
Our Blue Crab and Shrimp Cake appetizers have been a huge hit. We did something a little different, which was to mix shrimp and crab into our cakes. Crab is very expensive; we wanted to have a price point that was very approachable so we came up with a mixture that allowed us to serve a delicious appetizer at an appetizer price. We weren’t sure about how people would respond but these have been one of our most popular appetizers and have become a signature item for us.
Another surprise was our chicken wings. We argued about even including them on the menu because we didn’t want to be viewed as a draft beer and chicken wing bar. The way we prepare our wings is quite different - they’re seasoned, then smoked, making them beautiful smoky and flavorful without being drenched in sauce or so spicy that you lose the taste of the wing.
18. How does your lunch menu differ from dinner?
The lunch menu was very simple - it’s the dinner menu without the entrees. Initially, there was a period of time when we weren’t sure about opening for lunch. When you add lunch to your dinner menu you need to add additional staff and it’s a lot more work all around.
When we made the decision to add a lunch service we thought we’d be serving tradespeople who wanted a burger or one of our hearty sandwiches with a beer. We were so wrong about that. As it turns out, during the day we’ve had a lot of older people who come out to meet their friends and have something special to eat. It’s been great, and we just pivoted along with the change.
Lunch has been so successful that we’re already getting people asking us about brunch or breakfast.
19. So, are you going to add breakfast?
Matt: We have a relaxed brunch with our lunch menu on the weekend. We offer eggs any way you’d like along with simple Southern biscuits and gravy. I can imagine that we’ll expand into a proper breakfast service eventually.
20. When someone looks at the menu it has an air of fine dining, not casual neighborhood...
Matt: I’ve spent 12 years in fine dining. I was the food and beverage director for the Hyatt in Hilton Head and I’ve run 2 4-diamond properties. I know what’s good, what’s expensive, and what goes into great presentation. We took some of those things - we want to present well and we want there to be some excitement around our food. But having things fresh makes a huge difference - our chefs are so excited to be able to cook with such fresh ingredients. When food is really fresh you don’t have to do a lot with it. You can store potatoes for a year and with enough vegetable wax you can make broccoli last for months. But when you do that the food doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to taste.
21. Why don’t you take reservations?
To manage reservations properly is almost a full time job and it’s very difficult to constantly balance the seating. We take really good care of the people who want to be here and we haven’t had any big issues about wait times, so the system is working for us and our customers.
22. What appealed to you about your location? Why not San Marco or downtown?
Matt: I’d had my eye on this location for a long time. Penman connects two busy highways in Atlantic Blvd., and Beach Blvd. From that perspective it’s in a great spot with lots of traffic. I live nearby - this is my neighborhood and I didn’t want to drive into town every day. I believe in this area. It’s family friendly. And rents here are much better that what was possible at the Beach. We’ve got a great landlord here who is very in tune and supportive of what we’re doing.
Why should people in this neighborhood have to drive into town to go to Orsay or Black Sheep? Why can’t we have something funky and of that caliber here, so people can have a great meal in their own neighborhood?
23. Can you tell us about the open kitchen view from the dining room?
It’s a big concept all across the country now and it’s something we definitely wanted. When we open things up people can see everything we’re doing. It’s about trust - people have to have trust in what they’re eating and honesty can make all the difference in the world.
24. For an out-of-the-way restaurant you’ve been able to attract some very high level chefs. How is that?
Chef Matt: We have two former executive chefs as line cooks here. My brother is back there kicking butt. I don’t take credit for what my guys do - they’re so incredibly talented and passionate. We give them the ability to work with food, with no handcuffs. They are free to create and to bring out the best in the food available to us. For a chef, especially one who has a deep pride in his work, that’s very appealing.
25. How is it working together as a family?
Matt: It’s great! Do we have disagreements about how things should be done? Sure we do. But it’s a great partnership. We each bring our own perspectives to the restaurant and we work things out.
26. Any big surprises opening up?
Matt: Social media and its impact in spreading the word about what we’re doing has really surprised me. I knew it was important but things like Instagram surprised me. Using social media to showcase what we’re doing and what’s fresh today is really impactful and has helped us to attract a lot of people quickly. Social media has changed how we approach our marketing.
27. Why did you call your restaurant 904?
It reflects our emphasis on being local. We’re appealing to a local audience and using local suppliers and local food.
28. What’s the longer term plan? Do you see a chain of 904’s in your future?
Matt: I’ve been a restaurateur for a long time and have had ups and downs along the way. This location is my baby and it’s something I can do my way. That’s important to me. My focus is on this location - it’s my retirement. We’ve had people approach us about expanding to other locations and the concept can easily grow so that we have a 305 or some other local venue. But that’ll be something for Chef Matt to decide on down the road. For now our focus is here.
29. Anything else?
Matt: I want sincerity, honesty, and value to come through. We make our share of mistakes but we care a lot about what we’re doing and I don’t want that to ever go away. There’s a natural facade in the hospitality industry. Guests visit to relax and enjoy themselves. To make that happen involves long hours, lots of work and a little chaos that guests don’t always see. It’s important that the passion that drives us to put out the effort, day in and day out, is always there, because people will know when it’s gone. We had a group of 10 or so guests come in the other day and Chef Matt, who’s not a public speaker, spent 10 - 15 minutes talking about farm to table and why it’s so important to him. It was very exciting to see his passion. That’s what I love about this place and I hope our guests will come to appreciate the result of everything we put into 904.