Chef Shirah says ‘food brings everyone together’

Pam Griffin

Executive Chef Jim Shirah at Dewey Destin’s Harborside is well known for his creations using fresh fish.

“One of the first things that I remember cooking was frying fish in a cast iron skillet in the cabin of the old Gulf Queen, one of the net boats I was raised on,” December’s Chef of the Month told The Log. “My mother, Gina Shirah, has a different story, but I was the kid all the other kids looked to when they were hungry.”

The Destin native wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to make cooking his life’s work until he was in his mid teens, so at the age of 18, Shirah left for France to begin his culinary training.

“I was blessed with many options, but this just felt right,” he said.  “Cooking never seemed so magnetic.”

Like any kind of training, at first it is very challenging, both emotionally and physically.

“You’re not sure at first, but the more I learned the more I wanted to learn. And I’m still learning everyday.”

Since they opened Dewey Destin’s Harborside in 2009, Shirah said they have won numerous awards. He even walked away with the 2013 Destin Desserts trophy in a benefit for the Girl Scouts of the Florida Panhandle.

His award winning recipe, Girl Scout Cookie Pudding, incorporated three types of Girl Scout cookies — the original Trefoils, Samoas and Dulce de Leches.

With all Shirah’s meals featuring fish, he says his favorite foods to cook aren’t the fish, but the pastries.

“It’s always a challenge and it makes me learn patience, following a recipe to the exact,” Shirah said. “No rushing or short cuts in baking.”

With his love for baking and also a love for volunteering his time, Shirah began his Holiday Baking Class at the Community Center in 2006, and it is one of his favorite things to do. This year’s class is from 5:30—7:30 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 5. Registration is necessary.

“It is important to educate our youth,” he said. “Most of them are repeat classmates and they also attend the cooking and serving classes in the summer. They all seem to love it as much as me which makes it even more enjoyable. Unfortunately, not all youths have the knack for cooking, but they sure do try. And that’s all that I ask of them, and the rest of them take it and run with it.”

Children can learn and experience about following instructions, understanding recipes, kitchen etiquette, sanitation, kitchen safety and how to start and finish a project.

“The most important thing is learning how to work together with each other as a team. Team work is very important. And my favorite part is getting to make a super mess and not being responsible for cleaning it up.”

Shirah and his students bake a variety of sweets and savories during the two-hour class.

“We bake as much fun as we possibly can,” he said.

Q: What is the most necessary ingredient to use?

A: The most necessary ingredient for all recipes is getting the best ingredients available. Good food starts with good ingredients.

Q: What is the hardest part of cooking for the beginner?

A: The hardest part of cooking for a beginner is not to be intimidated by the task at hand. Do it, and if it doesn’t turn out, do it again.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A: The best advice I can give is don’t be afraid to try new things. Step out of your comfort zone. Anyone can follow a recipe, but make it your own. Add the things you like and don’t add the things you don’t. Food brings everyone together. It’s supposed to be fun.

Chef Jim Shirah's Blue Cheese, Pecan,

Bacon and Artichoke Stuffing

3-5 lbs. bacon cooked crispy, reserve grease

4 cups pecan pieces toasted

3-5 lbs. blue cheese of your choice

1 #10 can of artichoke quarters rinsed and drained

3 lbs. yellow onions, diced

1 cup green onions, for color and flavor

1 Tbsp. fresh garlic, crushed

1/2 box of Ritz crackers, crushed

1 lb. whole butter

In a stock pot wilt the onion in the bacon fat and butter, garlic and bay leaves. Gently toss in artichokes and just warm. Let the hot mixture cool and in the mean time mix the other ingredients, excluding the Ritz.

Mix both bowls together and toss in the crushed Ritz.

This stuffing can be used in anything — fresh fish, shrimp, portobello mushrooms, or just all alone.