Jeff McInnis Melds Farming, Cooking, and Southern Cuisine, Part One

Jeff McInnis was raised in Niceville, a small town in the Florida Panhandle. He spent his childhood on fishing boats and, in the summertime, on his family's working farms. "Southern food was introduced to me at a young age at my grandparents' farm in Tunnel Springs, Alabama," he explains.

His gastronomical upbringing involved peeling shrimp, cleaning squid, and plucking vegetables from the dirt. He later perfected these crafts at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. After graduating, McInnis traveled extensively and dabbled in Caribbean-Asian fare as sous-chef at Asolare in St. John, Virgin Islands. He then went on to work at Asian-French restaurant Azie, in San Francisco, where he absorbed the basic principles of Japanese cuisine.

In 2004, McInnis returned to his home state and worked with Norman Van Aken at Norman's in Coral Gables. Then, as chef de cuisine, he headed the kitchen at the DiLido Beach Club at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. After traveling extensively in Europe and North Africa and participating in the popular TV show Top Chef, he settled down as executive chef at Gigi -- an urban restaurant in midtown with late hours and fun, Asian-inspired fare.

By coupling a passion for Southern cuisine and local ingredients, McInnis sought to bridge a gap in the Magic City's culinary scene. "Overall, Miami isn't really a destination that folks would come to expecting to eat Southern food, like you would in, say, Charleston or New Orleans," he notes.

So he teamed up with John Kunkel -- entrepreneur, restaurateur, and CEO of 50 Eggs, the restaurant group behind Yardbird Southern Table & Bar. "We opened Yardbird for the locals and for ourselves, really. The city just needed a little soul food."

Even before its first anniversary, the restaurant had already received national attention. Yardbird's Southern charm has earned high praise -- including James Beard Award nominations for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef in the South for McInnis.

At Yardbird, the chef was also able to home in on his deep-rooted appreciation for local ingredients. "I love local flavors, fresh ingredients, and supporting small local farmers -- not eating vegetables that didn't ripen on an 18-wheeler coming in from Mexico," he says.

He applies his childhood knowledge of Southern ingredients too. "Most everything that grows in Georgia and Alabama also grows in the South Florida region," he relates. But there are certain perks to living and sourcing from the area around Miami. "This far south, we are lucky to have things like winter tomatoes and tropical fruits."

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, featuring more on McInnis and his future plans in South Beach and beyond.

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