Chef Jeff Kaplan Talks About the Celebration of Life…Through Food!
There is a place…a paradise, if you will, centered in a locale that’s name is perfectly suited to the ambiance. The place: The Golden Isles. Off the coast of Georgia lies St. Simon’s Island and the King and Prince Beach & GolfResort and, quite frankly, the elegance and the ‘5-star’ service outweighs any ‘royal treatment’ you could possibly find anywhere else on the planet.
The King’s Tavern is a facet of this incredible resort, and inside its doors dwells a chef who is outstanding at his work. He is as vibrant as his food, and he celebrates life at the King and Prince, which is then transformed into the most amazing meals you could possibly wish for.
The Atlantic Ocean is his daily view. His name, Chef Jeff Kaplan. His goal, to make The King’s Tavern - the unforgettable dining experience. He wants this Eden to shine even brighter (which is hard to do, considering how fantastic it is now). We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with this incredible man and ask him questions about his life, his career, and what makes the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort truly unique.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I actually ‘grew up’ in the business. My family has owned a catering company for almost thirty years now. When I was a freshman in college, I worked at a pizza place as a delivery man. One night, the cook walked out and the owner asked for someone to take over and start cooking. He said the person who stepped up would even get a five-dollar-an-hour raise. So I put down my keys, stopped delivering and moved into the kitchen. It was a great deal of fun – creating the perfect pizza, or the perfect Italian dish. I spent a year there and absolutely fell in love.
Did you study cooking at school?
Actually, no. I attended the University of South Florida which did not, at that time, have a culinary program. I ended up heading to New York, and then – completely by chance – the hands of Fate intervened. The Human Resources Director of Interstate Hotels literally bumped into me on a New York City street and spilled my drink on me. She felt bad and we began to talk. Two hours later, I was set up for an interview out on Nantucket Island.
Now, I’m a Miami boy and it was winter in the East. (LOL) So, I flew out to Nantucket in the snow, but the Chef there had no time to speak with me. I simply hung out and waited for hours to speak with him. He said that, anybody who was willing to go through all this having no real experience in the culinary industry must really want to cook, so he hired me on as a garmonge chef. It was seasonal employment and I was in charge of desserts and salads.
Wow, so all Fate or good timing up to that point?
Exactly. And then irony struck again. A man had come out to the Island for a week to work and he and I hit it off. He asked me to come back to New York and work at an Inn in Great Neck, Long Island. He was just beginning the project and I helped him open it up. I began with the salads and desserts and worked my way up to my first Sous Chef position.
Now I was literally entrenched in the ‘food’ world. Not only was I a Sous Chef, but I was working at a deli in the mornings, and on a third shift in a butcher shop. It was hard, but it was truly amazing working the three jobs because it allowed me to take a lot in and was a great learning experience.
And you moved on to Jacksonville?
Yes, I had an opportunity to transfer within the company and went to the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Jacksonville, Florida. I spent 12 years there and learned a ton. This as a ‘5-star’ resort, and I loved it. In fact, there is a tie-in from there with the King and Prince, because it was in Jacksonville that I met Vinnie D’Agostino, who is now the Food and Beverage Director here at the King and Prince.
I worked with him in Jacksonville. He was the one who called me at the beginning of this year about this position and now, here I am – three months later and I couldn’t be happier.
I’ve met Vinnie; he really is a great individual.
This is true. We had a lot of fun together at the Sawgrass. I call the people here at the King and Prince my ‘family’ now; but anywhere you work – if you’re awake for 14 to 16 hours of the day and working 12 of those hours – you do end up spending more time with the staff than your family at home. You go through trials and tribulations together that truly bring you closer together. Vinnie and I have always worked well together and I love this place. I mean, we’re sitting here in a ‘5-star’ resort that is bubbling over with southern charm and hospitality, looking out at the Atlantic…this is a magnificent opportunity.
I’d like to speak about your ‘Farm to Table’ menu ideas and the changes you are making here at the King and Prince.
I actually love the ‘Farm to Table’ concept. We are working on transferring all of our menus over to that. What we do is work with local farmers, growers, etc. and use their products – all that fresh produce, fish, etc. – for our menus. We used this concept at the Sawgrass where we would alter our menus depending on what was ‘in’ as far as the growing season was concerned at the time.
Here on St. Simon’s, we are reaching out to local farmers, local purveyors, and establishing relationships with them. We have conversations with the farmers and orchard owners, etc., about what they have ‘on tap’ at the time, so that we can only use fresh/seasonal products versus grocery store purchases. That’s the concept we’re embracing.
Vinnie has laid the groundwork for the regional and local products, and I will be getting out there so we can feature local culinary ‘treats.’ Partnering up with local farmer’s markets and touching base with the locals is fantastic, because we can get both our ‘names’ out there. We can celebrate the King and Prince and at the same time help the local economy and our local ‘friends’ increase their business. So it helps everyone.
And it’s a healthier product? I mean, you are staying away from the processed foods.
Exactly. You skip the ‘middle man’ by basing your specials on seasonal menus. You can rotate your selections based on what’s in season and what the farmer’s have ready to yield that month. You can’t beat it; this is as fresh as a product can get. We’re going to do this as well with the local seafood purveyors. After all, we are on the Atlantic so we should have the freshest seafood you can get. The possibilities here are endless.
What is your favorite cuisine?
Actually, I love cooking everything; I don’t have a particular favorite. I truly love using the fresh, local proteins, produce, etc., and really treating them properly and respecting all the flavors. I love enhancing foods with salsas, pan sauces, herbs, etc. – and although I don’t really have a particular ‘favorite’ cuisine, the focus will be southern classics. We featured some of those this week. Fried chicken and waffles was fun. Grits and greens…heck, I could eat fried green tomatoes all day long. And with the fresh seafood and the love the South has for frying things, it’s a good fit.
You mentioned fried chicken and waffles. I have to say, I’ve been all over the South but here, was the first time I ever had that. It’s a traditional southern dish?
(LOL) I actually don’t know how it came to be, but it is infamous in the South. Working in New York, I worked with a lot of different fusion-style foods, but in Jacksonville (which we called South Georgia) I first experienced Southern classics and they definitely sparked my interest Now I want to learn the area, the culture and what’s behind all this. Once I’ve embraced everything, and once these selections are on the menus, I think it will be an amazing combination.
I have to ask, Chef, what motivates you?
I love making people happy with food. I mean, think back to your most memorable and favorite family moments; the best and most happiest of your life usually were some sort of gathering – dinners, holidays, parties – and I have just loved being a part of creating memories like that for people. I love creating that perfect dish. There is nothing better than making something for someone who just loves it, and you know they’ll remember it for a long time to come.
Also, people eat with their eyes. You want to dress it up, and I love working with different presentations and staying on top of the latest food trends
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Gosh, I can go back and think of so many things, but one that sticks out is one week in 2007 when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl. The Sawgrass hosted the team – the Philadelphia Eagles – and it was pandemonium for ten straight days. We actually did three million in revenue in one week. I was very proud, because we handled it all, we pleased all the guests – including the team – and it definitely stands out as a major accomplishment.
I’m also very proud of all the hard work I’ve put in over the years. I didn’t go to culinary school, I like to think I went to the school of ‘hard knocks.’ I loved each and every opportunity. I mean, I admire culinary schools; they teach you about food, proper techniques, etc., but they can’t teach you how to work in a kitchen – all of that is strictly hands-on. I’ve been cooking for 20+ years now and it has been a great accomplishment to be able to achieve the Executive Chef position at this point in my career.
What’s the best cooking tip you could give to a novice?
Make sure you have salt and pepper! You must have the basic seasonings. I, personally, love heavy, rich flavors – but everything has to be seasoned. You have to make sure that when the food leaves the kitchen it’s at the highest level it can be. But that would be my tip…make sure the salt and pepper is handy before you begin.
What’s your funniest kitchen experience?
One year on my birthday – we had these huge eighty gallon kettles for cooking soups, stocks, sauces, etc. – and my culinary team decided to fill one with ice and water and I was then chased down. They picked me up and dunked me in there. Even though I put up a fight, that was how they said, “Happy Birthday.”
There were also several birthdays of being ‘pied,’ which was a long-running tradition at the Sawgrass. It was the big joke on everyone’s birthday to receive pies in the face, so I have several memories of being chased around the kitchen with cream pies at the ready.
Do you have a favorite cookbook? Or, is there even such a thing?
I have two I work with quite a bit. One is, The Food Bible, which covers every food there is out there. It tells the origin, what goes well with that particular item, seasonal information – everything.
There is also, The Food Lovers Guide, which is really a food dictionary. Any word that is even culinary related to products, techniques – everything is in there. I would like to think that in twenty years I have the experience to know all, but that’s not possible. There is always plenty to learn, and I go there to learn it.
What is your ‘vision’ for the King and Prince dining experience?
I told Vinnie when I came here that my goal was to put our cuisine on the map. I want to make this the best restaurant on the island and one of the top in all of Georgia. I want to embrace that ‘southern hospitality,’ bring in fresh product, new ideas, new recipes, and treat the food with the respect it deserves.
I want a line out the door every night with the restaurant always rockin’. This incredible resort speaks for itself, and I just want to bring the culinary program to the highest of heights. I want people to flock here, enjoy the food, and want to bring their families here. …It’s all about making people happy.
Certainly this amazing environment really sets the stage.
Exactly. Again…visual. The King and Prince is pure class – great views, elegance to the nines – which makes the food even better. It certainly doesn’t hurt to eat your meal in the lap of luxury as you watch the sun rise or set over the ocean.
A Georgia Boy Burger, a beer, the salt breeze…?
Exactly. You got me sold!
Yes, readers. You can ‘hear’ the celebration of life in Chef Jeff Kaplan’s words, and it certainly translates onto the plate that is set down before you. This is the ultimate Chef who truly sees ‘food’ as being the ultimate spice of life.
What to do after reading this? Look up Southern comfort foods (check out that very cool and delicious, Fried Chicken and Waffles), and make a reservation immediately to come to the King and Prince Resort to make a brand new unforgettable memory!
I’ll meet you there!
For more information, go to:
The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort
201 Arnold Road
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
(912) 638-3631: Phone
(800) 342-0212: Reservations
(912) 638-7699: Fax