Talking about Juliette's Bistro with Executive Chef Kyle Gibbs
1. Tell us about Juliette's.
Juliette's features fresh Florida seafood with a Southern influence. I source as much of our food locally as I can and then prepare the plates in a way that’s simple and reflects a back to basics approach.
2. Do you feature a particular type of seafood?
It's many types of fish along with shrimp, scallops, and oysters - really the whole spectrum of what's fresh and in season.
3. Who's the audience for Juliette's? Is it mostly people staying at the Omni or do you get a lot of people from outside the hotel?
We have a nice mix of hotel guests and non-hotel guests. When there's a symphony or a Broadway show across the street we'll get a good amount of walk-in business from non-hotel guests. I want our crowd to be drawn more from outside the Omni, from people who want to come here. That's one of the reasons I changed the menu - I wanted to give people what I think will encourage them to just come in on a random Tuesday night. Not just because they're downtown for a show, but because they've eaten here before and are attracted to Juliette's as a place to eat.
4. Can you tell us about the new renovation going on at the Omni?
We have gone through a rather extensive refurbishment of the bar and restaurant. They have taken what we already had, which is a nice open restaurant, and given it a more modern, updated feel. It’s clean and wide open. There’s a nice mix of classic styling and modern furniture. The color scheme is vibrant, which goes with the bright, airy feel.
5. Can you tell us about your role at the Omni?
As the Executive Chef I'm responsible for every piece of food served at the Omni. That covers everything from banquets to room service and restaurants. Each has a different menu. With room service we're trying to please everyone so although we mirror what's served in the restaurant we still need a few unique items. And with banquets, you are talking about large menus, with many different items and themes.
6. Is your main focus lunch or dinner?
The new menu focuses on both lunch and dinner along with food for the bar area. Our lunch crowd is pretty good because of our downtown location. There are a ton of businesspeople walking around downtown. We have a lunch buffet Wednesday, Thursday and Friday that does pretty well.
My main focus now is dinner, because there aren't a lot of people walking around downtown Jacksonville at night. It's harder to attract people, but I think we can do it with the right food.
7. How much of the menu have you redone?
Pretty much everything. We thought through the style and theme we wanted and then worked on the dishes that would best reflect our vision of Florida seafood with a Southern influence.
8. What went into creating a whole new menu?
I probably went through 6 or 7 drafts of the menu before getting it to where I wanted it. I originally came to Jacksonville from the Omni Hotel in New Orleans to be on a task force in October (2012) and to just help out. The second day I was here I started writing out menus that I thought would work well. I was stuck in a hotel room with nothing to do and that's where my mind automatically goes. When I came up with ideas I’d try them out and get input from others at the Omni. It was a back and forth process that went on for a while. I made a lot of changes until I got things to where I wanted them. That’s how this whole menu was made. There were a lot of recipes tried out and a lot of things scratched.
9. When you created the new menu did you have a blank slate or were there particular things you needed to incorporate?
There are things that needed to be done just because we're part of the Omni brand but that didn't go to the level of dictating specific dishes. For example, there are promotions the Omni does as a whole. We’ve done a Street Food promotion in the bar area and we have other promotions all the time. Right now [April 2014] we have a Washington wines promotion that pairs select Washington wines with a special food menu. Things like that are done at every Omni Hotel. The actual menu for Juliette’s, however, is a product of this hotel. I created a menu that we all thought would best suit this hotel, this city, and our clientele. There’s a lot of back and forth and input I’ll pick up but my job is to produce a great menu that will appeal to our guests.
10. Does the new menu reflect the restaurant upgrade in any way?
Yes, in the sense that both are more up to date. I think my new menu reflects current food trends. Dishes are more vibrant, just like the restaurant.
11. What trends are you referring to?
The biggest trend is eating local. It's huge now, and has been for a while. There's an understanding that certain things are only available at certain times and people are embracing eating that's more seasonal in nature. I think that's very positive and really amazing.
12. For someone who's never been to Juliette's but wants to get a sense of your new menu, what would you recommend?
Our snapper dish is a great place to start. We bring our snapper in whole every day and cut it in-house so it’s the freshest possible. We serve our snapper blackened with a lemon butter sauce. The lemon butter is a classic French brown butter with some lemon squeezed into it to froth it up. It's simple and not over-produced so it doesn't drown out the dish or take away from the snapper. It’s served on a bed of charred, sweet corn grits and lemon butter. I think that represents the restaurant well because it has the grits and the corn to represent our Southern identity.
Our Grilled Salmon is also another very popular fish dish that’s prepared as a lighter dish. To go over the grilled salmon we make an Olive Salad using a simple red wine vinaigrette. We put a scoop of the Olive Salad over the salmon and pair it with roasted vegetables.
13. Is that simpler approach to fish typical of your style?
Yes. I like to use light sauces and vinaigrettes, especially in the summer. Rich, heavy sauces have their place if they're used sparingly but they can also mask a lot of things. I don't like to take away from the main attraction, which is the food itself and not just the garnish.
14. What can you recommend that's a little more challenging on the menu?
On the lunch menu we have a Mahi Reuben. We have a local bakery make marble rye Kaiser buns. I make pastrami seasoning in-house that I put onto a piece of Mahi. The Mahi is cooked on the flat top. The rest is classic Reuben - sauerkraut, cheese and Russian dressing. It’s me trying to put as much seafood into something as possible. It’s a killer sandwich. When people first see it they think it’s a little strange, but when they try it they love it.
Something else to try that’s a little different is the Alligator Ribs.
None of the food on my first menu is meant to be particularly challenging. Going forward I might venture out a little more. It's all good food that you'll want to eat.
15. What's an alligator rib like? Is it on a massive bone?
No, it’s not a giant bone - it’s more like a piece of cartilage. It’s the real rib, bone and all. I think our Alligator Rib is something that really reflects the theme of our menu. A lot of places in the South will serve alligator but it’s usually from the tail and it’ll be battered and deep-fried or blackened. We wanted to bring a sophistication to the dish and to let you taste the meat. Getting it right though is a real labor of love. The ribs are tough on their own. We braise them for 2 hours and finish them on the grill. I make a glaze that incorporates Worcestershire sauce, citrus, and ancho chili peppers to provide a little sweet, a little bitter and little heat. I add some coleslaw on top. Good barbecue needs good coleslaw. The reaction has been very good. For some people, as soon as they see Alligator Ribs on the menu they instantly want to try them. They’re very different and if you’re visiting from the North it’s something you can try that reflects the taste of the South. Even if you’re local I think our preparation is unique. People ask me what it tastes like and I tell them “it tastes like alligator!” For many people who’ve had traditional alligator tail they end up tasting all the seasoning and sauces and the alligator is sort of overwhelmed. We want to feature the alligator itself and use the glaze to highlight the alligator and not to hide it.
16. Do you have any items you'd consider a hidden gem - things you know are great but maybe don't get tried as often as you think they should?
One gem is the Fish Sandwich, as simple as it is. It can be served fried or grilled. We make a killer tartar sauce in-house that we put onto a ciabatta with house-pickled jalapeños. With a side of house-cut French fries it’s a fabulous lunch.
17. What's a PBLT?
It’s a Pimento Cheese, Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich. It incorporates our Southern theme. I grew up eating pimento cheese and I love it. I wanted to come up with a cool new sandwich so I put the pimento together with a BLT. Most people slather a lot of mayonnaise on their BLT so I just switched out the mayo for pimento cheese. It’s been really popular.
18. Your Fried Crab Salad is very interesting…
I wanted another way to put seafood into a dinner salad. A lot of places crumble up crab meat and put it on top of a salad but I wanted something a little different. I use chunks of colossal lump crab meat that are dipped in tempura batter and fried. The crab goes on top of the salad and takes the place of the croutons. They’re like seafood croutons!
19. Can you tell us about your Seafood Risotto?
Risotto is something I always put on the menu. When it’s done right it’s very good. It’s also a great way to incorporate seafood. We use scallops, shrimp, and crab meat. For the risotto we add saffron, which gives it that nice color and aroma. We infuse oil with red pepper for a little heat and flavor.
20. Do you have a favorite, or signature dish that you'll be featuring?
Over the years I've had a few special dishes but I've never tried to have something I'd consider my signature dish. I've always answered that "my signature dish is what you want to eat." As far as my style is concerned I look to dishes like the snapper that we talked about. I've also done a filet that's stuffed with roasted garlic and has crab meat and spicy butter over the top. It's was very popular at the restaurant I worked at in Baton Rouge. I am a big fan of seasonings, whether it’s blackening, pastrami seasoning or the seasoning we use on the chicken. I make all my seasoning blends in-house, which is a little unique.
As for favorites, it's hard because my favorite dish is going to be the one called "Market Fish." That's because it changes every day. We get these great fish in every day. I clean them and cut them fresh daily. As a cook I get to see and learn something new every day. We'll have Wahoo, Triple Tail, and whole Grouper. That's what's exciting to me. I'm also looking forward to sharing my knowledge of how to make the most from these fish with my staff and then parlaying that knowledge into great dishes for our guests. I'm hoping people will view what we're serving as the best, freshest fish they'll be able to enjoy, short of catching it themselves.
21. Are you a fisherman?
I love to fish. I've been once since arriving in Jacksonville. It was the 3rd day of a cold snap and nothing was biting. But I got on the water, got a line wet, and I was happy.
22. Can you tell us about your background?
I was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I got started professionally in privately owned restaurants before getting into the hotel business with the Hilton in Baton Rouge. I was in New Orleans at the Omni for two and a half years before coming to Jacksonville.
23. Where did you learn to cook?
I was a student at LSU and was working as a bartender, waiter and in construction at times, kind of bouncing around trying to decide what I wanted to do. I always loved to cook and to watch my parents cook when I was growing up. One day I was cooking for my best friend and his parents. His parents knew I had been looking for a career and asked if I'd ever considered culinary school. I thought about it for a while and it seemed like a really good idea. I enrolled at the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge. It's a good program that's done really well. That’s where I learned the professional side of cooking, but I learned to cook from my parents and grandparents. My dad can bake and BBQ really well. My mom cooked every night for us growing up - and still does. We had Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house, and I just soaked all of that up like a sponge.
24. What was the attraction to cooking that made you decide to turn it into a career?
It really started out as something to try and to see where it goes. It ended up taking me to where I am now. I just like to cook. That was the initial attraction to me. Why I stayed with it? I guess I'm a little crazy. You have to be in this profession. It's hard, with a lot of long hours and days where you're working when everyone else is off having fun with their families. Holidays are the busiest times, especially in a hotel. We go 365 days a year. We don't ever close. I just have a passion for food and this is the best way to satisfy it.
25. Have you had any main influences in your cooking?
In New Orleans I worked with Chef René Bajeux. I've probably learned the most from him across my entire career. We only worked together for about 8 months. He and I had a great relationship - we still do. I talk to him pretty much every week. He's one of only 44 French Master Chefs in the United States. When we worked at the Omni together we'd each go off to write a menu and we'd come together and talk about them before we went forward. 9 times out of 10 we'd have 3 or 4 items on our menus that were nearly identical. René was one of my biggest influences. He grew up in France and cooked there for a long time. One day we were sitting in the office and flipping through a culinary magazine that had an interview with the famous French chef Jean Jacques. I mentioned that it would be great to meet him because I had read about his restaurants and his cooking. The next thing I knew, René took out his cell phone and called Jean Jacques. That was a little sobering, to say the least.
On the hotel side of things I learned a lot from working with Chef Gaston Decuir at the Hilton in Baton Rouge. He was a huge influence. He’s one of the smartest and most organized banquet chefs I’ve every seen. It was really impressive to see how he ran his banquet business. We had a small staff and made everything in-house. I learned a lot that allowed me to get ahead in my career in a much shorter time than I would have otherwise.
26. What does it take to be a French Master Chef?
It's a lot. I know what it's like to be a Certified Executive Chef in the United States. You need to get a lot of certifications, take a lot of classes, and then cook for the crème de la crème. It's a huge process. I can only imagine how much more of a process it is in France, where the level of cuisine is so elevated.
27. What drew you to Jacksonville?
The opportunity with this job. I was the Executive Sous Chef in New Orleans and the job here in Jacksonville was a promotion for me. It's given me the chance to be the Executive Chef at a very respected hotel brand. Plus, I like Jacksonville. I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't enjoy the city. I really like it.
28. Where do you like to eat in Jacksonville, when you're not eating at Juliette's?
When I first arrived I basically lived at the hotel for the first few months. For a large part of that time I didn't have my car. I ate at Indochine downtown, which is really good. I also love what Orsay and Black Sheep are doing. When my wife was first visiting and I was trying to sell her on the idea that we might be moving to Jacksonville, I took her to Palm Valley Fish Camp and she really loved it. All the restaurants associated with Palm Valley - Marker 32, Palm Valley Fish Camp and Fish Camp North are excellent - they just do things right.
29. It’s interesting that you cook a lot of seafood at work and when you go out you go out for seafood…
Yes, I just love seafood! There’s nothing better to me then a good piece of fish.
30. Does your wife expect you to cook at home?
No! Actually she does the cooking; it's great. She hates that question. When she tells people I'm a chef they think she must eat so well. But she's really doing the cooking. It's gotten really hard for me to cook for just 2 people. I'm so used to cooking for crowds that there are always way too many left overs at our house. I can't cook gumbo for 2 people; I cook enough for 50.
31. How would you describe your culinary style?
I try to do a little bit of everything to stay balanced and able to do different things. In that way I'm a bit all over the board in terms of what I'm able to deliver. I like to serve people what they like to eat. Whatever you like to eat is what I cook. We have an 8-person Chef's table at the restaurant. When people eat there I'll work with them to see what they like and try to find something they'll really enjoy. I recently had a group who really likes Thai food, so I prepared a Thai meal for them. Ultimately I'm trying to make the guest happy so I go with what they want.
32. That sounds really challenging - to cook so many styles for different tastes. How do you come up with your recipes for that?
Throughout my career I've either prepared or played around with many dishes. Some of the recipes I've written down and others have just stuck in my head. The thing is that there are few original ideas anymore. You're mostly using a recipe that already exists and playing with it to make it your own and to reflect your own unique style. I'm not a huge cookbook guy. I don't own many cookbooks - maybe 5 or 6, and one is just on how to break down an animal. I often just walk into one of our refrigerators to look at the food. If I stand there long enough a dish will just put itself together in my mind.
33. In cooking what people want you also open the door to having to support an incredible amount of variety. How do you manage that from the point of view of training your staff and running the kitchen?
It's a ton of hands-on work. It can be a little nerve racking too. I'm dealing with a lot of different personalities. People aren't the same and need different support. You need to be able to read people and you need to work with them to gain their respect.
34. Who's the audience for your banquet service?
The Omni is a great brand that appeals to many people. Our salespeople also do a great job promoting what we offer. Our audience is made up of high end weddings, business meetings, conferences and things like that. We do some things with the Jaguars - they sometimes do their pre-games with us. We also do events with the Navy and the military. It's all over the map.
35. You mentioned the Chef's Table earlier. What is that and is it something that you oversee personally?
It's in a private room with a stove, a sink and a long metal prep table that can hold 8 people. I do the main prep in advance and then cook some of the items for people while they're watching. They get to have the whole cooking experience. It’s something I really enjoy because I get to interact directly with our guests.
36. How do people arrange to participate in a Chef's Table?
It's done by request. Sometimes organizations have events where they raffle off a Chef's Table evening. Or people can just call up and request that we put something together for them. It's something we want to market more. I'll be creating some sample menus to help people understand their options. Once they book the Chef's Table I'll contact them and we'll work on tailoring a menu for them specifically.
37. What's next after the launch of your new menu? What's your vision for Juliette's?
I want people to come here because we have good food and they want to come eat with us. Now we get a lot of people who come because we're conveniently located when they're going to a show or have a business lunch. I love that and want to continue that business. But I also want to get to a place where people come on any random night, without a special occasion, just because we have great food. I want to be a restaurant first, not just a hotel restaurant.
There’s been a lot of work to make downtown Jacksonville a more inviting place to be. I see definite improvements and our changes are a part of that improvement. People are getting excited about downtown again and I think that’ll keep growing.
Long term my goal is to make Juliette's one of the most talked about restaurants in Jacksonville. We'll continue to build until we're where we want to be. I'm not going to stop until we're in the upper echelon of restaurants in Jacksonville. We'll take baby steps if we need to but we'll keep building until we get there.