Chef Genie McNally

Native Floridian Chef and co-owner of The Floridian restaurant in St. Augustine, Chef Genie McNally derives her inspiration from local food sources and traditions in the St. Augustine community. In our interview, we had the…

Native Floridian Chef and co-owner of The Floridian restaurant in St. Augustine, Chef Genie McNally derives her inspiration from local food sources and traditions in the St. Augustine community. In our interview, we had the opportunity to speak to her about her culinary experience in St. Augustine and her passions.

Chef Genie McNally at The Floridian

The theme you chose for the Farm-to-Fork Chef Dinner Series is “Storytellers”. Why is storytelling important to you and how does it relate to food?

We find that one of the more interesting things about “Floridian” or southern cuisine is the history behind it: the recipes passed through generations, and the quirks that are at the heart of any food culture. These region-specific foodways develop not just because of the sources available and the crops that can be grown, but through the people who have settled in a given region who bring their own history to the table – literally! Food tells a story, with just as much weight as a written novel or historical text. Getting to the root of a dish makes cooking and consuming it that much more fun.

What is your relationship with St. Augustine, your involvement with the community?

I’ve lived here for over 10 years, and Jeff (husband/co-owner) was raised here and attended Flagler College. We are both born-and-bred Floridians and have a lot of love for our state and our little town.

We are members of Slow Food First Coast and the St. Augustine Independent Restaurant Association, and participants in multiple events throughout the year that benefit Catholic Charities, The GTM Preserve, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Boys and Girls Club and more. One of the most significant things we can do as business owners is to give back to our community, and we are fortunate that there are so many hardworking folks enabling this.

We also hope that through our sourcing we are able to reach a larger swath of the community. Our dollars go directly to the hands of our purveyors, and customers become a part of this transaction simply by dining with us. Essentially, we play the middleman by showcasing the bounty of our region and the talent of our producers – to the benefit of everyone! Tourists are able to engage with our town through the cuisine, and we are able to make connections between the guests and the food, and back to the producers. All links in the chain.

Tell me the story behind how The Floridian started?

We actually had a small catering business with another partner, prior to the opening of The Floridian. We sold farm-to-fork soups, salads, sandwiches and spreads at the Farmers Markets, and established numerous connections with local purveyors through these venues (many of whom remain connected to the restaurant to this day). The restaurant was the natural “brick-and-mortar” progression of that catering business and market stand. With luck we found a location that had recently been vacated downtown, and with the help of our employees/coworkers/friends, very little cash, a lot of (blessed) naïveté, and countless man-hours… The Floridian came to be.

The Floridian Dining Room

Why is Farm-to-Table important to you?

Essentially, we wouldn’t be where we are without our connections to local farmers, ranchers, cheese makers and bread bakers. We set out to be as directly connected as possible with our purveyors, and to embody, as much as possible, the farm-to-table ethos. This means that we place over 15 orders per week with different purveyors, and while it does take some extra effort and coordination, we’ve found that the benefits of maintaining these connections are innumerable. Not only do we contribute directly to the local economy and minimize our environmental footprint, but the quality and freshness of the food is exponentially greater. We are able to sincerely showcase the seasonality of Florida’s cuisine.

What led you to becoming a chef?

Tenacity, curiosity, adaptability, and a Type A personality. And really loving food!

For the up-and-coming chefs/food enthusiasts – If you can give them one piece of advice on what is most important in running a successful unique restaurant what would that be?

Be tenacious, and curious, and adaptable. And “write what you know”: make food that’s important to you, that speaks to your own visceral memory and sense of self, and make it good.

What is the most important factor in your creation(s)?

The ingredients on hand. I know it sounds cliché, but to create a new dish I am most inspired when I can get my hands on new crops and specialty items that our purveyors are trying out. I often tell one of our main growers (Ben Wells Farms) to just bring me what they have, and I will make it work. I also appreciate the challenge in finding touchstones with other dishes or cuisines – taking something new and making it familiar but still surprising.

Fish ‘N Grits and Fried Green Tomatoes

You tend to serve with “Grandma plates” can you explain this in detail? Are they really your Grandmother’s?

Not my grandmother’s specifically, but someone’s, for sure! We love this china that was collected and passed down through generations. These plates had a point of pride on someone’s table, and now we get to put them to “everyday use” – and what better homage is there than that?

If you could pull people from out of town to come in and dine with you, what would you tell them and what do you hope they take away?

We are fortunate to have a tremendous local following, and we have also found ourselves acting as sort of culinary ambassadors to the visitors who come to our fair little city seeking a uniquely “St. Augustinian” experience. It’s allowed us to delve into what makes cuisine from our region unique –  it’s an intersection of coastal and agricultural communities, with heavy influences from Spanish, Menorcan, African, Caribbean and Creole cultures. As a restaurant community in general we are able to pull influences from all of these sources with equal enthusiasm, resulting in menus that focus on seafood sourced from our waters, produce from local purveyors, and livestock raised specifically for us just a few miles up the road. In other words, we are very fortunate!

If you could dine with anyone dead or alive who would it be and why?

My family, always!