​Some of us have a big crush on Chef Jeff McInnis, partly because of his boy-next-door good looks, partly because he's just so damn down-to-Earth (is he so polite because he was born in Niceville, Florida?). But the number one reason is trghat he can really translate the flavors of the Sunshine State from field to plate. It should come as no surprise to learn he grew up fishing and spending summers on his grandparents' farms in Alabama.

Though South Beach's favorite surfer dude became a household name after his stint on Top Chef: Season 5, he has long been a fixture at the DiLido Beach Club at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach: he'll celebrate six years this October. Before that he worked as a line cook for Norman Van Aken at Norman's, but McInnis traveled widely before settling in Miami. He began cooking while living for eight months in a Volkswagen bus in St. Augustine. Then McInnis went to school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, and stayed in the city for a while (due greatly in part to what he claims was a 7:1 girl-to-guy ratio.) "That's where I met my first ex-wife," he jokes. 

He worked in St. John for a while, then San Francisco, where he got back into his farm groove (though he said the sun didn't come out for 120 days), and then he worked at Orient Express in Virginia for a few years at a plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson. Finally he returned to his home state. 

These days, he can most often be found wielding a liquid nitrogen tank while on the clock and a surfboard after hours. And he has become known as a go-to guy for charities, since he helps out everyone from the March of Dimes to Taste of the Nation. And he even cooks a kick-ass Thanksgiving meal for local police and firefighters. See why we're so smitten? 

New Times: How did you get on Top Chef?

Jeff McInnis: A friend of mine took my resume. She was on the show before -- her name is Sandee [Birdsong]. So they took my resume and said, "Sandee says you're awesome. Please audition with us." And I said, "Cool, where is it?" They said, "Vegas." I said, "I don't think it's going to happen." One of my friends who had a bunch of American Airlines miles... bought the ticket. 

Chef Jeff McInnis Interview, Part One

She worked at Tantra six years ago and that was it. She hasn't cooked since before the show. She's a pharmacist. Her mom owns some online pharmacy. She does a little catering gig here and there on the side. 

So back to you. When you auditioned, did you feel confident you got the gig?

I felt decent about it, but there were 180 people auditioning. 

Are you glad you went on the show?

To be able to cook for Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges [Vongerichen], Emeril Lagasse... to have them talk about me and my food, what I did right and what I did wrong, you can't get that anywhere. These are people you only read about.

Did you really learn anything from their constructive criticism?

Absolutely. I learned that I enjoy going above and beyond, and doing a lot of different components and steps. But when you're totally out of your element, you have to simplify to get the basics of the dish done. 

What was one of your best memories?

I got to cook for Emeril on TV! He called me "an amazing young man." It was one of those moments I was like, wow!

Did you know you were coming back to The Ritz after the show?

Yeah. I love the job here. My boss, Thomas, he's amazing. Before any of this, he sent me to Egypt to work for a couple of months... to Istanbul, to Turkey to learn at the Ritz there. I got to travel around. 

What type of cuisine are you most curious about?

I started cooking Southern in the South. In Charleston I got to refine that and French. Then we refined the menu to add Thai. In the Caribbean I did Caribbean food. Norman's was more Pacific Rim... If there's anything I missed, let me know. 

Hmm, I haven't worked in a straight-up Italian restaurant...

Tomorrow, we'll talk about McInnis' favorite mode of transportation, his plans to return to television, and why he thinks kiwis are just downright silly.

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