Science says an object in motion stays in motion, and Chef Kenny Gilbert never stops moving. Days after learning he was voted Best Chef in our Best of Jax 2018 readers’ poll, Gilbert boarded a plane for California. It was Thanksgiving. He had been invited to cook for Oprah Winfrey.
Gilbert began his culinary career as a 15-year-old at his local McDonald’s. Since then, he has overcome every obstacle in front of him, working in countless five-star establishments and reaching celeb chef status. Gilbert rose to national prominence after appearing in season seven of Food Network’s Top Chef.
Of his culinary contribution to the great and mighty Oprah, Gilbert says, “It’s like going to your Great Auntie’s house who you know is really cool and loves good food.”
Five minutes into our conversation, it’s clear that—celebrity chef or not—Gilbert is a down-to-earth dude, and being recognized locally as Best Chef means a tremendous amount to him. The acknowledgment means that “the community respects what I’m doing.”
“People know that I work hard,” he says “I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea for style of food, but they appreciate what I do. It means they see me.”
If you aren’t familiar with Chef Kenny, pull up a chair and grab a fork. He introduced his “modern and traditional Southern fare with barbecue” to NEFla in 2015 with his first restaurant, Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, on Amelia Island. Since then, he has moved toward Jacksonville, opening up Gilbert’s Social on the Southside and Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp in Jacksonville Beach. He still takes the time to serve samples and act as ambassador at events like Gastrofest and Taste of the Beaches. He also engages with his customers online. With all this on his plate, you have to wonder how he finds the time to do it all.
“If there’s anything I’m really good at, it’s time management!” says Gilbert.
It’s not just his time management and cooking skills that make his three restaurants successful, though. He’s got a lot of ideas about how to run a prosperous enterprise, and it’s not rocket science. He credits his success to a various skill set coupled with passion and consistency. His diverse cooking styles are always in tune with the brand he’s created and fueled by his passion for the food he produces. That passion keeps Chef Kenny on his toes at all times. In a matter of three years, he’s expanded his empire—and he’s not done yet.
His most recent restaurant(s), Gilbert’s Hot Chicken, Fish & Shrimp and Gilbert’s Southern Kitchen, actually share the same location in Jacksonville Beach. The building was previously Seachasers Lounge. The amount of available space gave Gilbert the chance to do something a little different.
“I’ve been talking about a food hall concept for years,” he explains.
When he saw the way Seachasers’ kitchen was laid out, it looked feasible—and necessary. Any food hall concept would be innovative for Jax. (No, the mall food court doesn’t count!) But new and different doesn’t always equal successful. And, although Gilbert may love the concept, he’s a businessman.
“I wish [the food hall] was more successful than it is,” he says. “At the end of the day, it has to make money in order for it to make sense. Is it the right concept for the community to support in its location?”
After trying a BBQ taco pop-up, he isn’t so sure. Still, this is Chef Kenny Gilbert we’re talking about here. If anyone can do it, he will. Keep your eye on this location.
When he’s not in one of his restaurants or answering countless online messages and comments, Gilbert unwinds with Netflix. His top pick right now is Final Table—which sounds, according to Gilbert’s enthusiastic description, like the ultimate culinary cross between the history of international cuisine and the experts who cook it. Will we see our Chef Kenny on a future season of Final Table? He said no more, but I could hear the wheels turning.
When he has time to listen to his media, he can’t get enough of Stephanie Burt’s weekly podcast, The Southern Fork. Based in Charleston, Burt puts an emphasis on Southern ingredients, the places where they are grown and the people who cook with them. She recently interviewed Chef Kenny for episode 121.
Gilbert’s constant internal fire means he doesn’t stop moving. He’s got his sights set on a fast-casual BBQ taco joint in Yulee. There’s no opening date yet, but the build-your-own-taco bar will have everything you’d come to expect from Gilbert: house-smoked brisket, pulled turkey tacos and more. Guests will be able to order and pick up at a drive-through window. The spot is a chance for him to come full circle from his days working the drive-through at Mickey D’s. Watch the window once they’ve opened. You might spot the Best Chef in Jax himself!