When a restaurant like Rusty’s Bistro wins seven straight Golden Spoon, Florida Trend’s award for the best Florida dining spots and #1 for ‘Best Seafood in St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area’ by USA Today; you want to know the rest of the story. We were staying at Sheraton Sand Key, where Rusty’s is located, and arranged to speak with their award-winning Chef John Harris to get the scoop. We were expecting to hear a story about loving food, but what we heard was a tale of loving life.
We strolled into the Mainstay Tavern in the early afternoon on our romantic getaway at Clearwater Beach. The lunch crowd had dispersed, and Chef John was getting ready to start his workday at Rusty’s, located next door. He was looked to be about our age in his mid-forties with tufts of red hair and freckles like that idiomatic kid next door. We settled down into a back table to hear John’s story.
How Did You Learn to Cook?
Our first question was obvious, how did you get into cooking. It wasn’t a rotund grandmother with secret recipes but a love of skiing. Jenn’s ears perked up. He was speaking her language.
After graduating with a degree in psychology from Colby College in Maine, John moved to Utah to ski at Snowbird. He got a job at Keyhole, a Mexican restaurant at the resort for a ski pass and some walk-around money.
From these humble beginnings came his vision for his critically acclaimed Cuisine of the Sun. That’s how he describes his mixture of Caribbean and Southwestern flavors. They share a little spice, but in the end, he lets the food speak for itself.
An Evening with the Chefs
We asked him how necessary training was to become a chef. He trained under Bernard Gutz, who was a classically trained German chef and his mentor stressed the importance of formal culinary training.
Then he told us about something really cool – the Ryan Wells Foundation’s Evening with the Chefs. We were intrigued. Ryan Wells was an Eagle Scout from Palm County who died in a car accident on I-75.
He was on his way home from an elite summer cooking institute in North Miami. Since the foundation began in 2005, John has been a principal coordinator of the event. It enables students who might not otherwise be able to pursue a post-secondary degree in the culinary arts.
Last year, they raised over $260,000 in one night! Pinellas County needs chefs too with over 1800 new hotel rooms opening in Clearwater alone!
Chef’s Favorite Dish at Rusty’s Bistro
The next question was easy; what’s your favorite dish on the menu at Rusty’s? Without hesitation, he answered the calamari. It’s the signature dish from Rusty’s, which is also available in the Mainstay Tavern.
It’s more than tentacles. Strip steaks are cut from the bodies of Humboldt Squid then tenderized. They get breaded in flour, egg, panko, and parmesan, then sauteed and served piccata style with lemon and capers. He stressed the importance of quality ingredients like locally sourced seafood, produce, and berries. It’s the quality of all the ingredients that make the calamari taste so good.
We asked how he enjoyed living in St Pete instead of Salt Lake. Of course, he missed skiing, but he fell in love with the beautiful beaches of Clearwater and Florida Gulf Coast beaches in general. He enjoys windsurfing in the bay and just relaxing on the sand. He’s an avid scuba diver too.
The Secret to Rusty’s Winning the Golden Spoon
Finally, the question we have been waiting for, how does Rusty’s keep winning the Golden Spoon year after year. John’s formal psychology training came through in his answer. “It’s the management staff headed by Russ Kimball that creates a family atmosphere.”
He cited the passion of the staff, quality of the meals, empowered employees, and always keeping the menu fresh and current — a direct result of a top-notch management team.
Wrapping up our Afternoon with the Chef
We kept chatting with John for longer than we should have, and, for the rest of the weekend, we exchanged a flurry of greetings when we passed him in the lobby.
As for his suggestion, we tried the calamari, and it was exquisite. The tastes, textures, and flavors blended into a delightful symphony. The food was speaking for itself.
It was saying, “please come back and eat some more.” Don’t worry. We will 😉 Between the delicious food and sunset strolls along the beach, visiting Rusty’s is an excellent addition to your Gulf Coast beach trip , romantic thing to do in Orlando, or even a romantic getaway to Florida.
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