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EDIBLE JACKPOT: EARTH TO SEA

Through Chiles Eyes

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Eric Geraldson and Ed Chiles at Gamble Creek Farm

WORDS BY ABBY WEINGARTEN
PHOTOS BY KATHRYN BRASS-PIPER

Ed Chiles’ eyes widen as he peers through his office window at Anna Maria Island’s shoreline.

“I look out at what we’re sitting on out here and I just keep thinking, ‘If I could only make this as good as that,’” he says, alluding to his waterfront eateries.

The eco-minded owner of the Sandbar, BeachHouse, and Mar Vista Dockside restaurants (all under the Chiles Group umbrella) is committed to preserving the island’s past by greenly enhancing its present. That revolution begins with the Earth.

For years, Chiles has been a leading advocate of the locavore movement, which encourages diners to consume locally grown, non–genetically modified food and to understand its story. To this end, Chiles recently signed a lease with the Florida West Coast Resource Conservation & Development Council to re-launch and run Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish, which had been inactive for more than a year.

With the aid of veteran Manatee County farmer Eric Geraldson and supervision from Robert Turnello of 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin (the first USDA-certified organic hydroponic farm in the country), Chiles plans to grow 15 acres of crops and hydroponic vegetables.

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Left: Locally sourced ingredients proudly listed at Sandbar Restaurant;
Right: Fresh from the farm salad.

The aim is to pick the fresh produce in the morning and serve it later the same day at Chiles’ three waterfront restaurants. This would be a huge coup for the Chiles Group, not to mention Manatee County’s culinary scene. It would set an example of food integrity and inspire nearby locales to follow suit.

“We are fortunate to have so many natural resources here in Manatee County,” Chiles says. “It’s important to me that we utilize them in a sustainable way that is both good for us to live around and good for the environment.”

Chiles’ second environmentally conscious plan is to host a bottarga caviar operation inside a kitchen at Gamble Creek Farm. This is a business partnership with Seth Cripe, an Anna Maria native and the owner of LOLA Wines in Napa Valley, Calif. Cripe started Anna Maria Fish Co. in 2007 (the first plant in the United States certified to process bottarga). Currently, more than 1,500 pounds of Cortez bottarga is made there through a process of sun-drying and salt-curing local mullet roe sacs.

Bottarga is Cortez’s top export, and it is shipped to Asia for $6 to $15 a pound, only to be prepared and resold locally as a delicacy at more than $100 a pound. Why not keep the production in-country (and in-county) and collect the monetary rewards? That would be an irrefutable win-win, Chiles says. Delving even further into the seafood market, Chiles is seeking out more local options like red snapper and gray striped mullet—two Gulf fish that are equally indigenous and flavorful. This concept is especially important to Manatee County because of its potential, much like the bottarga initiative, to bolster the fishing trade.

The entire effort has been informally dubbed the “Heritage Seafood Project” and its hope is to take native products, educate the public about them, and serve them in an innovative way. Instead of throwing away seafood portions in Chiles’ restaurants, why not make baby-back ribs out of swordfish and tuna, or fry snapper skin like fried chicken breast? Get American patrons jazzed about snapper collars.

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Front view of the Sandbar Restaurant on Anna Maria Island

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Anna Maria Fish Company Bottarga and Caviar

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Left: Ed Chiles tasting a fresh strawberry at Gamble Creek Farm;
Right: Stone Crab Mac & Cheese, a local favorite at the Sandbar Restaurant.

Inform patrons about the health bonuses in gray striped mullet, like the high omega-3 fatty acids, and prepare the fish deliciously smoked, fried, grilled, or blackened. With less waste and new, exciting tastes, the planet and the people in it will stay happier. That’s Chiles’ idea.

“Mullet is who we are. It’s integrated in our culture from the Indians, from before the explorers got here. It’s really not appreciated and it should be appreciated,” Chiles says. “I want to make sure it is more appreciated.”

Once the perception of products like mullet drastically shifts, Cortez and Manatee fishermen will see a boom in demand, Chiles says.

Their fished leftovers will also be shipped to Gamble Creek and buried 18 inches below the surface of the soil to create crop-enhancing compost— a perfect, Earth-friendly cycle.

As the food production takes a more sustainable slant, the décor in Chiles’ restaurants is paralleling the change. Timeworn designs are being modified to efficiently bring the buildings into the future, without getting stripped of their natural charm.

“We’re achieving the look that’s inherent to Anna Maria Island. Its landscaping differentiates us from everywhere else that has that manufactured, cookie-cutter look where they use too many pesticides and fertilizers,” Chiles says. “That’s the pure Anna Maria I love and know from my first memories, from before I can even remember. We want to stay true to that.”

The Sandbar, which is nestled on the north end of Anna Maria Island, has been a generational staple for decades, reeling in regulars for the famous grouper sandwiches and grouper reubens. The address was the first in the Chiles trio to undergo a total design makeover with salvaged terrazzo bar counters, wooden beams, and local art.

The BeachHouse at the island’s south end, just west of the Cortez fishing village in Bradenton Beach, was the second on the redo list. Its overhaul was completed in the winter, and now patrons are back to relish their crab cakes, stuff ed tilapia, conch fritters, and sesame-seared tuna in a fresher, greener atmosphere.

Mar Vista, on the bayside of North Longboat Key in the center of Longboat Village, was originally constructed in 1912, endured a hurricane in 1921, and is now considered one of the 12 oldest surviving structures on the Key. Soon it will receive a facelift (with integrity, no doubt), and boaters can pull into Intracoastal Mile Marker #39 on Sarasota Bay for their Caribbean grouper, steamer pots, and scallops Rumaki.

“We’re fortunate to live where we live and have all these God-given resources we have, so let’s do the best job we can to protect them and enhance them. That’s how I see it,” Chiles says. “I’m just a steward of these places. I have a responsibility to make them the best I can make them. I’ve watched so many generations dine here and I take that stewardship seriously. It’s what fuels me.”

The Sandbar Restaurant: 100 Spring Ave, Anna Maria Island; 941-778-0444; sandbar.groupersandwich.com

The BeachHouse Restaurant: 200 Gulf Dr N, Bradenton Beach; 941-779-2222; beachhouse.groupersandwich.com

Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub: 760 Broadway St, Longboat Key; 941-383-2391; marvista.groupersandwich.com

RECIPE

Stone Crab Mac & Cheese

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