Pensacola Celebrity Chef Dan Dunn is a casual, easy-going guy and a long time, well-loved Pensacola Beach local. When he’s not working, he’s most likely to be found bumming around the beach or enjoying a casual outdoor feast with his family and the large tribe of lifelong surf buddies.
He launched his culinary career working as a ‘chicken-cutter’ in a local grocery store and decided to become a chef because the evening shifts didn’t interfere with his surfing schedule. Today, he’s the Executive Chef of the biggest and busiest kitchen on Pensacola Beach, which services H20 Cajun Asian Grill, as well as catering hundreds of yearly banquets and weddings.
He’s cooked at one of the most prestigious culinary “performance spaces” in the world – the James Beard House in New York City – with four other local chefs. Being invited to cook at the James Beard House is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered only to the best chefs in the country.
This eclectic collective of Gulf Coast cooks struts their stuff in the Big Apple every year. Invited for the first time in the spring of 2011, they served a Southern Gulf Coast inspired menu that included fried seafood, fresh tuna, hand ground grits, collard greens and blackeye pea caviar. It was obviously a huge hit with the New Yorkers.
Dan says, “Our goal the first year was to represent our region after the oil spill. The oil spill was sad. We thought our beaches and lifestyle might be forever ruined. We sent a letter to the James Beard Foundation because we wanted to get the word out that things were okay here and that people should come visit. The fact that we got invited a second and third time is insane. The first year I was really nervous.”
Dan’s culinary style and southern beach lifestyle are inextricably intertwined. Southern hospitality and outdoor cookouts are the focal points of both his work and the time he spends with family and friends. He reigns like a benevolent dictator over countless communal meals at work, at home and on the beach. Most days, he cooks breakfast for his kitchen crew at the Hilton – usually tacos or chicken fried biscuits dipped in honey butter. It’s not unusual to see him grilling up a feast on the beach with dozens of friends after an evening paddle. He is as likely to invite twenty people to his house for dinner as he is two.
He glides through a kitchen like he’s executing a well-choreographed dance, giving the impression that throwing on a gourmet scratch-made meal for thirty is a quotidian endeavor.
It’s not surprising that friends and neighbors are attracted to him like bees to honey and drop by for meals by the dozen. Dan and his wife Dione are true Southern hosts and create an addictive home-like ambiance resplendent with kids, dogs, and satiated friends.
Dan says, “I think it is always good to start and end the day with everyone eating together. I grew up in a home where we sat down for dinner together every night. It is a tradition I’ve carried on with my family. People open up and relax when they gather around a table filled with good food. Hospitality and entertaining are important to me.”
Dan’s menus are inspired by regional dishes and locally sourced ingredients. He says, “We use a ton of local food at the Hilton including fresh tomatoes and spring peas. Almost all the fish we serve is from the Gulf of Mexico. I also love cooking collard greens and fresh ground grits. I think there is an art to cooking collard greens. You need a big old’ ham hock, and it takes lots of time.”
At H2O, he artfully meshes Southern tradition, fresh local ingredients, and international flavor. One of his signature dishes is jumbo Gulf Coast shrimp wrapped in bacon, stuffed with Gouda cheese and topped with an Asian inspired mango BBQ sauce.
He is a passionate and busy guy. He runs a kitchen that on some days caters as many as five weddings and multiple large corporate meetings while always pumping out three meals worth of excellent food in a busy restaurant. He still finds time to cook for his friends and family, go surfing and produce a prolific number of paintings. Dan has an art studio in his garage and recently sold his first piece at a local Gallery Night.
He attributes his success to a sincere passion for what he does. He says, “I love my job. I love where I work and the people that I work for and with.”
This drives him to be one of the hardest working chefs in town. Dan says, “I have a good work ethic, and I think that is the basis for being a good chef. My first advice for young cooks is don’t be afraid to work eighteen hours a day and never complain.”