Talking with Executive Chef Jamey Evoniuk
1. How did The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails end up in the Seminole Club with Sweet Pete’s?
When Allison and Pete Behringer were opening their place they wanted to find a partner that could not only run a restaurant, but could also run events — because the third floor of the building is a great event space, and they needed someone who could offer food for Sweet Pete’s birthday parties and in-house events. I’m the Executive Chef at Chef’s Garden Catering & Events. We also run the Cummer Café and are the exclusive caterer for The Cummer Museum. Knowing this, Allison and Pete knew we had the experience to make this happen. They contacted Jennifer and Liz Earnest, who are the owners of Chef’s Garden, and the four of them hit it off. We drew up a business model and it all went from there.
2. Had you spoken to Allison and Pete about doing something like this earlier on?
With Allison and Pete we clicked and it just worked. We ended up collaborating for about a year before anything ever happened.
3. How did you come up with the idea for the Candy Apple Café?
Pete and Allison wanted to grow their candy company into something more than just a store, which is part of why they reached out to Jen and Liz. The four of them had fun brainstorming the ideas that eventually became Sweet Pete’s and The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails. They envisioned the Seminole Club as a destination where people could come for birthday parties, classes, events, and also to shop and get a bite to eat. They wanted a restaurant that would support the idea of the building as a destination. Our vision for The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails was to make it a nice French café with a little Southern influence. We wanted it to fit Jacksonville and to be approachable to both adults and kids. Pete and Allison pitched these ideas to their eventual partner, Marcus Lemonis, and he loved it and made it all possible.
4. What was the idea behind the cocktail theme at The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails?
If we were going to do a restaurant, we wanted to do something that would attract people to the Downtown neighborhood and a full-service restaurant was part of that. Handcrafted cocktails just went with it. We wanted something for adults as well as kids, because adults love this place just as much as kids do.
5. Was there ever pressure to make a restaurant that was totally focused on kids, like a Chuck E. Cheese, to go with Sweet Pete’s?
No. They totally let us develop the restaurant and the business plan. We gave it to them and they loved it.
6. Is the “candy apple” theme a tie-in to Sweet Pete’s?
Partly. There’s an apple in our sign for Chef’s Garden Catering & Events, which is there to signify fresh ingredients. We wanted to reference that idea and connect to the fact that we are in the largest candy store in Northeast Florida. Jennifer came up with the name, which I thought was pretty clever — it just made sense.
7. Who did you envision as your audience when you developed The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails?
It was the Downtown crowd, visitors to Jacksonville, and the daytime business audience - all those people. If you walk through the building you’ll notice that it’s not just candy for kids, there are other things. There’s a whole dessert bar upstairs for example. Kids have parents. We wanted to have something for the parents to do.
8. How did you approach putting together your menu?
I wanted to do simple food, really well. Everything in our kitchen is made from scratch, which I think is essential. All our stocks and soups are made from scratch, as are our dressings, and everything else that goes into our cuisine. I think you can taste the difference.
9. Why did you decide on an all-day breakfast menu?
Who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner? We wanted to bring something Downtown that people could come to at any time to get what they wanted. They could get a burger or an omelette. In larger cities, like Atlanta or New York City, they have diners like that. Although we’re not a diner, we wanted to give the lunch and late night people something more to eat than just a burger or taco. You’d be surprised at how many people have an omelette or eggs Benedict for lunch or corned beef hash for dinner. Our brunch on Saturday and Sunday is packed every weekend. Jacksonville is a real brunch-centric kind of town.
10. Who’s your lunchtime audience?
We really tried to go for the power lunch to appeal to the Downtown business clientele. All these huge buildings around us are filled with people during the day, and they need a place to eat. I wanted a place where you could come for lunch and that had a number of lunchtime staples such as nice salads, some vegetarian items and a few entrée items. However, our valet stays busy, so we are clearly attracting people from outside of Downtown, which is awesome.
11. Why did you want The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails to have a French theme to its food?
French cuisine is simple, approachable, and good. We knew the restaurant would have a certain feel and we wanted to complement that with really good food that wasn't overwhelming to people. My background is in classic French cooking. I want people to come here and know that whatever they order, it is going to be good.
12. What would be an example of a French dish with a Southern influence?
We do a buttermilk fried chicken, which is Southern, and serve it with collard greens. But then we add French fries and gravy, which is a French influence through poutine. That’s one example of fusion. We have a cornmeal dusted flounder which is Southern, but we’ve added a French sauce called gribiche on top. It’s like a tartar sauce but made with hard-boiled eggs, which makes it a little heartier. We serve that with whipped potatoes and brown butter, which is another French touch. Our Rock Shrimp Crepe is something I really wanted to showcase. The crepe represents the French influence and the rock shrimp represents the Southern aspect.
13. Do you have signature items that have become associated with The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails?
Our Candy Cherrywood Bacon! We have a Mac and Cheese entrée that’s made with three different white cheeses — fontina, white cheddar and a gruyere — then topped with onion straws and the Candy Cherrywood Bacon. You can also get the Candy Cherrywood Bacon as an appetizer. That’s one of our most popular items, although our fried chicken is the most popular item on the menu. We sell more fried chicken than anything. Our burger is very popular yet very simple; it comes with a nice French mustard sauce and we serve it on a brioche bun. Our Reuben is also very popular and sells incredibly well. I braise the corned beef in beer for six hours to make it as delicious as possible. Those are some of our lunch items that I wanted to have on the menu and I’m glad they have become favorites.
14. Are there dishes that represent you as a chef particularly well?
All three of the rock shrimp dishes: the Louie salad, the crepe, and the shrimp and grits. They are all classic dishes revitalized and given a local twist. I’m a shrimp and grits aficionado and I love using local ingredients whenever possible. We use rock shrimp from Fernandina Beach. They’re a little sweeter than other shrimp, with a bit of a lobster flavor to them, making the dish even more decadent than normal. We get our grits from Gainesville. They’re stone ground and we cook them for a couple of hours until they’re really creamy.
15. Are there any hidden gems that don’t get ordered as often as you might think they should?
It’s tough to say, because everything sells really well. We have something called Buffalo Chicken Cracklin'. It’s basically dehydrated chicken skins that have the fat rendered down. The skins are not fried, they’re baked. The skin becomes like a crisp that’s served with celery slaw, Buffalo sauce, and our house-made blue cheese dressing. It’s a play on chicken wings, but it’s just the crispy skin. It’s awesome, really awesome, but a lot of people are hesitant to get it. But the chicken skin is the best part of the chicken. So, the Buffalo Chicken Cracklin' for sure.
16. What’s your most popular service?
We’re busy for lunch every day. Saturdays and Sundays are a zoo, in a good way! It’s very busy all day long. We’re just open for lunch, not dinner, on Sundays (we close at 5 p.m.) and Mondays (we close at 3 p.m.). For dinners during the rest of the week, we do pretty well. We’re seeing that service grow, too.
17. What’s leading to the growth of dinner service?
There’s more happening throughout Downtown now. There’s things like Art Walk and events in Hemming Park, which has become much more approachable than it’s been in the past. People really wanted some place to go Downtown and they want a place to come to eat. The key is getting the word out and helping people think of Downtown as a dinner destination.
18. How does the bar fit into The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails?
At night during the week we get a nice happy hour crowd and that attracts people into the restaurant. On the weekends, the bar is full. Seeing the bartenders mix up craft cocktails creates a great environment and energy in the dining room. We have created a line of craft candy cocktails which uses some of Sweet Pete’s signature candy items. They are meant to be fun and our beverage director, Marlon Hall, did a great job of making sure they are balanced and not sugary sweet.
19. Can you tell us about your Porch Parties?
They’re something we do on the first Wednesday of every month during Art Walk, and they’re especially popular when the weather gets a little cooler. It’s a happy hour. It’s live music. It’s a place to hang out. It’s something Downtown Jacksonville didn’t have, but is popular in other cities like New Orleans. People like to just hang out on the porch and listen to music while having a couple of cocktails. It makes being Downtown really enjoyable.
20. You went to college on a tennis scholarship and yet you become a chef - how did that happen?
I started in the kitchen from a young age, helping my grandmother. I didn’t go to culinary school, but I’ve been able to learn under some really talented chefs who taught me a lot. I was fortunate because cooking came easy to me and I was able to excel in the kitchen, which opened the door to a lot of experiences.
21. Do you have a particular style as a chef?
I’m not exactly sure how I’d describe my style. I hate to say it’s contemporary, but it is that. My style is eclectic as well. I like to work with the best ingredients I can get and just keep it simple. Food makes sense. I don’t try to re-invent the wheel, but I like to share my own interpretation of each dish. I start with a solid foundation of knowledge about how to cook things and I don’t try to force anything, but I do enjoy mixing flavors and techniques, like we have with the French and southern cuisine at The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails.
22. Where do you get your menu inspiration?
What inspires me, is what looks the best and what tastes the best. I try not to ruin what nature made. And, I love what good food does: it brings people together.
23. Can you tell us about “The Chef’s Canvas” cookbook?
“The Chef’s Canvas” is a book being created by The Cummer Museum in collaboration with chefs all over Northeast Florida. It pairs a work of art from the museum’s permanent collection with a local chef to celebrate the art of food. It is both a celebration of our city’s growing culinary scene as much as it is a showcase of the museum’s extensive collection. Each chef was able to select a the work of art that inspired him or her.
24. What did you choose?
I was able to choose a few pieces, since we have multiple restaurants. I chose the Cummer Oak, a piece called “Huntsman With His Dogs and Game,” and a painting called “The Concert.” For that piece, I created a bouillabaisse. The bouillabaisse reminds me of a concert because all the different ingredients, while delicious on their own — the lobster, shrimp, scallops and mussels — come together in an even more beautiful way as a vibrant dish.
25. With so much going on, what gave you the idea for HOBNOB?
For the past several years we’ve been doing something called “Dinner Club” through Chef’s Garden. It was a monthly cooking class and cocktail party where we offered a five-course tasting menu and a cooking demo - it was a lot of fun, very interactive and became very popular. We thought it would be a great concept for a restaurant, a very interactive experience. That’s where the idea for HOBNOB started. It was actually conceived before The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails, but took us until now to find the right place and for everything to come together.
26. How did you decide on the location for HOBNOB?
We had a lot of places to choose from and we looked at a lot of spaces, but nothing seemed just right until we found Unity Plaza. We were inspired by the mission, and we love the location. It’ll have lots of programming and concerts, and community connections. Chef Kevin Sbraga will be next to us, so the space will be brimming with good food and energy. Brooklyn will be the hot new area in town.
27. How do you juggle everything going on?
I hire really, really good chefs to run the kitchen. I set the standard and my sous chefs follow that standard and keep it up. It also helps that everything is also close by, from Chef’s Garden’s headquarters to the Cummer Café in Riverside, to The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails in Downtown and now HOBNOB in Brooklyn.