Local Chef “Artfully” Leading the Charge Against Lionfish

Chef Irv Miller of Jackson’s Steakhouse is a familiar face and leader within Pensacola’s culinary community. A pioneer of sorts, in leading the charge to bring a higher-end dining experience to Pensacola in the late 90s, this Chef has now turned his attention to helping eradicate the invasive Lionfish species from our Gulf waters. We recently sat down with Chef Irv to discuss a number of topics, including this effort.

Tell me what you do and why you do it! 

As founding executive chef of Jackson’s Restaurant, my partners and I had a vision for the possibility of becoming the restaurant business model for risk-taking and birthing the downtown dining revival. We wanted to tell the Pensacola community it’s time to start thinking outside the old mindset. Downtown remained stagnate throughout the 1990s. I had spent two decades in Destin and Seaside, experiencing, working, watching, and perfecting the concept of fine dining for Pensacola.

We wanted to bring an exclusive food and service experience to the table. When I move here in 1998, there were only a few restaurants downtown. By the time we opened in March 1999, Jackson’s renovation was anticipated by locals as a high-end restaurant bound for failure in Pensacola. Before we even opened the doors, Jackson’s restaurant concept was considered by many as pricey and too risky for the Pensacola market.

I did it because I wanted to prove them all wrong! I aspired to be known as the culinary benchmark for the revival of downtown. Over twenty-three years later, we can proudly admit we have succeeded!

How has the culinary and beverage scene evolved over time to meet the needs and interests of visitors and locals alike in Pensacola?

Creating approachable yet cutting-edge dishes and menus have been our key to success. Using the seafood bounties of the Gulf of Mexico and supporting plant-based growers quickly became our common point of difference. For example, I used the local Pensacola herb lady for all our fresh herbs, local bison came from Bay Minette Alabama and seasonal tomatoes vine-ripened from Homestead Florida to Stone Mountain Georgia.

Nothing stays the same. Many farmers have quit or changed hands. Several of them have lost everything from severe weather crop destruction. Variegated baby heirloom tomatoes from Holt Florida also have disappeared after a hurricane destroyed their hothouses. This applies to oyster farmers too. Farming oysters along the Gulf Coast began in 2009. We now have dozens of oyster farms growing oysters in cages stretching from Louisiana to Florida. But they too experience severe weather, rain closures, and high mortalities, often leaving the farmer struggling to survive.

What makes Jackson’s Steakhouse? How does Jackson’s represent the artful side of Pensacola? 

The mindset for Jackson’s Steakhouse is to support Florida first (we are only 45 minutes from Alabama) while continuing to broaden our out-of-state farm resources. Our beef is grown and processed in the Corn Belt. However, I have supported small grass-fed beef farmers and bison farmers. Historically I stay with 30-day wet-aged beef. It’s what our customers want.

While we do not claim to be a farm-to-table restaurant, I like to think we do what we can. We are currently offering a variety of full-flavored fresh wild mushrooms from a small grower in Tallahassee. The mushrooms are artful both raw and in a dish without having to gussy them up for enjoying. We design dishes that are artful but easy to replicate efficiently during peak production.

I initially design the dish, show my cooks how to present it, and ask for input for suggestions on how to improve the plate. Often the dish will have several components such as spice rubs, herbs, aioli, oils, and crust used for taste, texture, color, and appearance. I like to see what the younger cooks do with an invitation to be creative, so I often ask them to express their ideas for the same plate.

We want folks to experience the artful design and atmosphere of Jackson’s. Then enjoy the artful cocktails and plates. Now, well-traveled locals and tourists alike say, “we finally have a big city restaurant in Pensacola”.

What seasonal items (food, cocktail, wine) is your team offering this fall/winter?

I have been involved in eradicating Gulf Coast lionfish since I first learned of it in 2014.

Living along the coast has enabled me to serve lionfish sporadically over the years. This was based on local divers surviving the winter season by spear-fishing lionfish.

We purchased a saltwater license for Jackson’s in order to buy directly from our local divers. I would often have hundreds of pounds of whole fresh lionfish delivered to my back door when harvested; however, it became a challenge to sell it all as fresh. We filleted all the fish in the first 24 hours and froze it immediately. We then would pull from that stock until our servers sold them all. Then I would await the next harvest. That was my best plan if I wanted to promote eradicating this invasive species. This was great, but I was unable to serve it during red snapper season because the divers no longer wanted to spearfish dive when they could easily go red snapper fishing. So lionfish diving would come to a halt when the warm weather hit.

What makes your menu of curated food unique? 

To my point, figuring out how to handle and process lionfish locally was unavailable. Seafood markets did not know how to handle them and make it profitable. No one was interested in selling in the local seafood market. About a year ago, some young and brilliant entrepreneurs began homing in on the lionfish market for the Gulf Coast, which did not exist prior to that.

The group began focusing on a hub seafood retailer that would purchase lionfish from divers within the vicinity, process it onsite, and freeze it. Basically, doing the same thing I was doing when I would receive a fresh harvest diver-to-door. I jumped on board immediately. I now serve lionfish year-round.

What do you love about Pensacola and the food scene? 

Pensacola supports a laundry list of successful privately owned downtown restaurants, from simple to fancy. We also have embraced the food truck movement which began about 8 years ago and has assisted in providing alternatives to the sit-down restaurant experience. I love that we continue to provide a first-class dining experience and offer a wide selection of Corn Belt beef and Gulf seafood. As for Jackson’s, we do have a few fantastic weekday promotions (Maine Lobster and Prime Rib night) respectively, and we do not have a dress code, which helps deliver a clear message that everyone is welcome!

How does the food and beverage scene represent the artful side of Pensacola?

The magnificent prehistoric-like looking lionfish with its red striped armor can be served whole or filleted and can easily be paired up with one of the local beers produced from one of our 15 breweries within the vicinity. I believe that for those embarking on their culinary or beverage business, the more food and beverage options the better.

*All Photos courtesy of Jessica Ryberg