Contributor: Caroline Coker
Q&A with local celebrity chef Tim Creehan, owner of Cuvee Destin, and the newest hotspot, Cuvee 30A at 30Avenue. Susan Benton has participated with Tim Creehan in a number of charitable events, and she has written about him and his restaurants on the local and national level. For more information, visit TimCreehan.com.
I have grown up following your career, and enjoyed dining in your Destin restaurants. Your background is quite extensive with so many accolades. Though you began your first job at Steak & Ale at the age of 14 in Baton Rouge, tell us how your career as a chef unfolded.
I knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business after my first week at work. As long as I could use my hands and be creative I was going to be happy. After a couple years, I decided that the culinary side was what I enjoyed most, and was fortunate to train with Chef Philippe Parola at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He took me under his wing when I was just 16 years old, and gave me a one-on-one apprenticeship in classic French cuisine. Today I am fortunate to call him my friend. I devoured reading cook books and magazines (all well before cooking television, food network fame, and the internet), and I started to develop my own style when I became the executive chef at Lafitte’s Landing in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, redefining John Folse’s original restaurant. I returned to Baton Rouge working as the corporate executive chef for Ralph and Kacoo’s, and later took the position of executive chef at Joey’s restaurant, where the owner of Joey’s and I decided to relocate to Destin to open Marina Café on the harbor. This is where things really started to unfold for me as a professional chef. I began incorporating indigenous Gulf seafood into the classic cuisines I had learned: the French from Philippe, the Italian from my own family heritage, and the Cajun and Creole influences from John Folse. The unexpected style that became a part of my repertoire was Asian. For my own personal desire, I learned to cook Chinese food. I never thought fusion would be something I would see in fine dining, but in the late 80’s, I was ahead of the curve, since I had already mastered the art of Chinese cuisine. After 15 years with Marina Café, and completing my first cookbook (1997) “Flavors of the Gulf Coast”, I struck out on my own to open Creehan’s Market at Silver Sands Premium Factory Outlet. I then opened BeachWalk Cafe at Crystal Beach that won many awards and accolades, the DiRONA (best dining North America), Florida Trend Golden Spoon, Wine Spectator and others. BeachWalk put me on the national stage where I became known on the celebrity circuit, and catered events for the wedding of Vince Gill and Amy Grant which was broadcast on the national television show Extra. I completed my second cookbook, “Simple Cuisine”, began marketing my food product line called Chefs Grill Plus, and became the national spoke chef for DCS appliances by Fisher Paykel. After 13 years, I moved BeachWalk to the Henderson Park Inn, (a smaller venue). During the same time I also opened Copper Grill, and Blues in Miramar Beach. Unfortunately, the economy tanked and I was forced to close the latter restaurants, and sold BeachWalk to the owners of Henderson Park Inn. I then made it my mission to purchase Cuvée Bistro, previously called Cuvee Beach, a beautiful California style restaurant with Tuscan architecture and an excellent wine program. It was the perfect time to take fine dining down a notch to create a more casual coastal upscale dining environment that would serve the locals and tourist alike. After six years, much success, and many of the same accolades that were earned at BeachWalk, the opportunity to move to the rapidly growing area of Rosemary and Alys Beach with 30Avenue came our way. With the second Cuvée and a rebrand adjustment, I’m proud to focus all efforts on Cuvee Destin and Cuvee 30A!
You’ve received great recognition for your hard work as a chef, how important is this kind of recognition to you, personally and professionally?
I’m humbled and honored by the accolades, but it’s not what keeps me going. The recognition for me comes from seeing the guests dining in the restaurant on a nightly basis, while watching their enjoyment of the cuisine as they comment on their world travels, and how they feel we fit into their culinary experiences. The pleasure of creating memories is the best accolade I can get.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
What is your specialty, why did you choose it, and what is your signature dish? I have enjoyed your delicious Grouper Vince, named after Vince Gill.
The Grouper Vince with honey Worcestershire Sauce and crispy garlic potato cake is definitely one of my signature dishes! I created it many years before it was named. When Vince Gill decided to have that dish served at his wedding to Amy Grant, and the television show Extra came down to film the story about the dish, it needed a name change just for the sanity of my waitstaff! Everyone was coming into the restaurant, laying their menus down, and asking for what Vince and Amy liked. With more than thirty years of cooking under my belt, I have so many dishes that I feel are strong signature dishes. The inspiration comes from trying to find great ingredients and to prepare them simply, with clean and healthy flavors. The three that I would add to this list are my Fried Green Tomatoes with warm brie, sautéed crawfish tails, Crystal hot sauce and lemon butter sauce, New Zealand Venison with mashed sweet potatoes, tomato red wine basil reduction topped with tobacco onions, and of course my Black Pepper Crusted Yellowfin Tuna seared rare over braised spinach with a soy ginger sauce.
I know you enjoy sailing, but what do you enjoy most about being a chef?
One part is certainly the creativity! Being able to take a raw product and shape it into a dish that’s exciting and flavorful, is just something I never get tired of. The interaction with employees and guests is also very satisfying. Running the whole kitchen is quite a fun challenge, and when it all goes well after a very busy night, it is extremely rewarding.
What are the tools of the trade that you use most? What are your favorite kitchen gadgets?
I’m not a big kitchen gadget guy, and I can pretty much get through all my work with a 9-inch chef knife and a good pairing knife. I do however enjoy the latest technology in combi oven’s, which allows you to add or subtract moisture in a controlled environment, and to do almost every form of cooking in one oven. They are just amazing!
How much of your work is done outside of the kitchen and restaurant?
Other than some research, very little. My office is basically a table in the dining room, in the bar, in the chef’s office, or sometimes a table in the kitchen! I would say 90% of my work is done in one of the two restaurants.
What are the most important qualities that make a successful chef, other than creating great food?
I’ll never forget when I was a young man and I went to visit my uncle who was a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate. I showed him all the pictures of the fancy food that I had learned to make with the French chef. He pushed the pictures aside and said, “But can you make money?” I asked what he meant, and he explained that while the food was beautiful, I needed to know what the cost would be in putting the plate together, what I would sell it for, and what the margins would be that would keep the doors of the restaurant open. I was initially disappointed, but as time passed, and I have owned my own businesses, I now know exactly what he was talking about! You have to have good business sense to be a great chef.
For those who feel they have the talent already, should they go to culinary school and why?
This is always a hard one for me and I’ve been faced with this question many times. I believe that the road splits depending on the individual. I have no formal culinary training and I never felt the school environment suited me. If self-motivated, interested in getting to the bottom of everything, one can do well by pursuing a career in the kitchen. Working with the right people in good kitchens is key. On the other hand, for those that are school oriented and like that type of environment, I would recommend 3 to 5 years in the restaurant business before attending school, so they can take away the important lessons that are presented, and not be lost by not having the core knowledge.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the restaurant business?
It’s a great business, but you do have to love it! After going to work almost every day for 30+ years, I don’t feel like it’s work. I truly enjoy being in the restaurant. If you don’t feel that way in the early years, it might not be right for you. The job only gets tougher and more challenging as time passes on. If there is any doubt to the commitment of long hours and a lot of missed holidays, and special events with family, than this business is not for you. To be successful in the restaurant business you must be prepared for that.
If you do embrace the challenge, and you do want to put in the time, energy, and effort that it takes to be a successful restauranteur or chef, the passion will just continue to grow. It is such a rewarding career, and I wouldn’t change a thing about where I am today!
Thank you Chef Tim, for sharing your insight and time with the readers of 30AEats.com!
Contributor: Caroline Coker was born and raised on the Gulf Coast, and has been living in South Walton, Florida since the age of five. She is passionate about health and fitness, and is graduating in Nutrition from The University of Alabama in August 2015.
Breaking news: On the date this article was published, Cuvee Destin nabbed Tripadvisors Hall of Fame Award, and their 5th Wine Spectator Award of Excellence! Cuvee’s wine director and partner is Pamela Wellborn CS, CSW.