From burnt ends to gator ribs, barbecue wizard Kenny Gilbert cooks up perfection at his Fernandina Beach eatery.
Kenny Gilbert is a Southern kid from a Northern town.
Born in Euclid, Ohio, the young Kenny watched his insurance salesman father use barbecue as an escape from work, cooking for family and neighbors and bottling his own sauce in gallon jugs. By the time he was seven, Kenny had his own Weber grill. His mother, from St. Augustine, would send him to school with fried fish and grits while the other kids ate peanut butter sandwiches.
Gilbert moved to Jacksonville after culinary school, working for The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, where he became chef de cuisine at 23. After years of cooking in Georgia, Colorado, New Jersey and Miami, he has returned to Northern Florida with Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, armed with lessons learned in Euclid. It is a stunning homecoming.
The Greater Jacksonville area is an established cultural center, the first motion picture capital in the country and home to a mature and thriving artistic community. It also loves some barbecue.
Gilbert’s has major competition, from stalwart favorite Bono’s, started in 1949, to newcomer John Rivers, whose barbecue behemoth, 4Rivers Smokehouse, opened here in 2013. Then there’s Mojo, Jenkins, The Pig: Jacksonvillers will drive an hour for their favorite ’cue. That Gilbert considered cracking the local barbecue market is admirable. That he creates food this memorable is pure magic.
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, which opened in March 2015, looks like it has been many other things, including the longstanding Merge restaurant. The visual difference is the row of smokers in the parking lot, turning out some barbecue wizardry.
It’s difficult to single out highlights—everything is that good. The moistest burnt ends I’ve ever had, outstanding seven-hour smoked brisket, tender and juicy pulled pork and turkey. The shrimp and grits ($23) takes best advantage of superb shellfish caught just off nearby Fernandina Beach, nestled on stone ground local grits with black pepper queso and roasted garlic. Fernandina Beach Hot Chicken ($21) weds crispy, 24-hour brined chicken with signature hot sauce and pickled hot peppers for one beautiful bit of yard bird.
Gilbert’s take on the standard “meat and three” includes smoked mullet, pulled turkey drumsticks, his amazing brisket and an alligator rib platter. He buys six-foot gators from a Georgia farm and drapes the reptile on a smoker for three hours. The sight of an alligator lying on a smoker, toenailed feet hanging off the side, is both disturbing and hysterical. The result is delicious, especially slathered in Gilbert’s mustard sauce.
Gilbert uses thermal circulators, the much overused sous vide cookers, in a novel way, keeping meats at a stasis temperature of 143 degrees after they are cooked until served. The multi-stage process keeps beef and pork amazingly tender and moist.
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen
Gilbert was an already established chef when Top Chef called in 2010, giving him a slot for season 7. He didn’t win. It didn’t matter.
“Being on TV is basically just people telling me I gotta cook something,” he says. “I can do that. I’ve been cooking all my life.”
Underground Kitchen is located off the standard tourist track, a mile south of Fernandina Beach’s main downtown drag in a well-worn part of town. The location is a conscious decision.
“It would be easy to be right on Centre Street, where people can just wander in,” Gilbert says. “I want to make an impact on the community, to make it a destination. You really have to want to come here.”
You’ve really got to go there.
Newest on the Top Chef’s horizon is Gilbert’s Social, which opened in October in Jacksonville’s Southside area. Serving twists on Southern cooking, the 52-seat eatery features communal tables and a bustling open kitchen. Highlights include smoked turkey and dumplings, brisket Stroganoff, and Southern ramen with smoked ham hock broth and pulled pork. The signature dishes from Gilbert’s UK are there too. gilbertssocial.co