Chef of the Month: Down home food with love, imagination

Pam Griffin
Chef Blake Van Zant (left) with his crew at Camille’s at Crystal Beach.

An award-winning chef known for his gumbo packed with flavor and Destin’s finest seafood, Executive Chef Blake Van Zant at Camille’s at Crystal Beach is The Log’s Chef of the Month for August.

Van Zant has been a chef for more than 14 years for Charles Morgan, first for three years at Dharma Blue in Pensacola and now for 11 years at Camille’s. He showcases his talents in his super fresh seafood and in dishes featuring steaks to gourmet burgers.

Raised in a big family, Van Zant grew up in the restaurant business. Even though his family owned a restaurant, Strega Nona’s in Pensacola when he was nine, Van Zant never realized he wanted to be a chef — he just enjoyed cooking.

“Cooking and baking started when I was four years old, from breads, muffins and cakes to vegetarian food, as I was raised a vegetarian,” Van Zant told The Log. “I enjoyed creating food that brought happiness to people, and just ended up doing what I love.”

His training, in addition to the years with his family, comes from the places where he has worked, friends, moms and grandmas, and places he visited in the islands.

“I have and always will try to create new things,” Van Zant said.

To keep his menu up-to-date, he is constantly developing and creating cuisine with a Southern, yet contemporary, flair.

“My most favorite cuisine to cook would have to be soul food — down home food that makes you feel good. Mama’s food.”

And what would be the most necessary ingredient in making this down home food?

“Love and imagination,” he said.

Known for his Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese, Van Zant does not really dislike any foods.

“It is just about finding the right foods to go with them, but I am allergic to cream cheese and most soft cheese,” he said with a laugh.

Q: What is most difficult about your job?

A: The most difficult part of my job is getting the customers to try new things — things they would not ordinarily try. As a chef, we must always look for ways to go beyond the expectations of customers.

Q: Any tips for a beginner?

A: Best advice I could give a beginning home cook is watch your fingers, start with what you know and think of ways to take a recipe as simple as grilled cheese and take it as far as you can. And always enjoy what you are creating. Do not be discouraged. If it doesn't work, fix it or start over — and stay happy.

Chef Van Zant’s Jalapeño

Key Lime Shrimp

One fresh jalapeño, sliced and deseeded for amount of heat desired

Pinch of chopped garlic and shallots

1/2 pound peeled shrimp

1 oz. key lime juice

2 Roma tomatoes, chopped

1 oz. white wine

6 Tbsp. butter

Sauté shrimp in skillet with jalapeños, 1 tablespoon butter, tomatoes, garlic and shallots.

Once shrimp are almost done, add key lime juice and wine.

Simmer for a minute; then add butter and stir with wooden spoon until butter is melted. Remove from heat and serve with whatever you want.

 I typically serve with white rice and corn. It is great over grilled fish.