It’s really something when a superstar chef switches restaurants.
How about when a whole kitchenful of them has switched to the same place?
AN EGO-LESS KITCHEN
Chefs have the perhaps undeserved reputation of being like brain surgeons — as much ego as performance.
The crew in the transparent back-of-the-house at Manasota Key’s Magnolias on the Bay instead prides itself on lack of ego. (Well, maybe just a little ego here and there. They’re human, after all.)
Magnolias has an open kitchen in more ways than one.
Owners Sue and Rocket Atamanchuk have pushed the concept to the limit, enticing the area’s top talents to come work waterside in a uniquely collaborative environment.
When you walk into Magnolias, or on your way out with full bellies and happy hearts, its cooks are what you see, working away behind nothing but a glass partition.
What you might not realize is that there are five former executive chefs back there. Every hand in this kitchen holds a serious résumé.
There is, of course, an executive chef in charge, who’s been at Magnolias since day one.
Executive Chef Matt Brigham, from the top-rated farm-to-table Laura Alberts Tasteful Options in Charleston, South Carolina, was most recently sous chef at Chef Steve Phelps‘ famously seasonal and sustainable Indigenous in Sarasota.
You’ll see Chef Matt’s special touch in accompaniments like broccolini and in additions like the risotto’s mixed-in asparagus tips, roasted corn and teensy Peruvian pickled peppers (as fun to say five times fast as they are to eat).
A special of delicately lobster-flavored tilefish is as sustainable and responsible as any dish at Indigenous. Its mild sauce is discreetly dubbed “Indian spice butter sauce” so as not to frighten curry-cautious diners.
“But it’s not just me,” Brigham reminds us.
Overseeing the first sushi to hit Manasota Key is Chef Noah Copenhaver, former executive sushi chef at Punta Gorda’s Hurricane Charley’s and The Pier.
Chef Brian Blondun, previously running the show at the Wyvern’s 88 Keys Florida, is right beside Copenhaver, learning the sushi art.
Chef Walter Staples came aboard in mid-January from Port Charlotte’s BLU Grotto Italian Ristorante.
Chef Juan Landaverde, from the demolished Beach Road Wine Bar & Bistro, gets to work in a different kind of open kitchen here.
Chef Wiley Laidlaw comes from the refined High Cotton Charleston Restaurant, and Chef Ruben Celaya rounds out the crew.
All of them get along famously.
Even manager Sam D’Amico, everybody’s favorite maître d’ from Prime Serious Steak, is here working the front of the house with GM Keith Seibel and his wife, Vicky, who manages human resources and accounting. D’Amico says he’s never been happier at work.
A FLEXIBLE MENU
When Magnolias opened a year ago, it started each day with breakfast and lunch, then transitioned into a magical dinner experience. Today it focuses all of its magical powers on that upscale dinner.
Once a month, all the chefs sling ideas around the office conference room to come up with a menu that changes the first Tuesday of every month.
As Chef Noah put it, “Other places, I’ve had to pull other people’s weight. Here, I’m worried about them pulling my weight. But it’s such a team effort that we jump in and help each other. I’m learning daily here.
“It’s a lot of fun, a very collaborative style. I do sushi, but I add other ideas as well.”
His sushi appetizers, like Snow Crab Rangoon and Spicy Tuna Stack, are meals in themselves which change every month, along with half a dozen of his sushi rolls.
Chef Noah gets to play as creatively as he wants with names and fillings for the likes of Magnolias Volcano Roll (sea bass and snow crab), Manasota Roll (tempura-fried tuna, hamachi, salmon and snow crab) and The Rocket Roll (in honor of one of the bosses).
The main proteins — sea bass, filet mignon, sous-vided Heritage Farms pork chop, U-10 (i.e., mammoth) sea scallops, U-12 shrimp — remain, but their accompaniments or treatment might change monthly. Shrimp, for one, can morph from a grits base to risotto or pappardelle.
Crab cake and octopus apps sell so well that they’re constants, as are Caesar and Magnolia salads.
For unrepentant carnivores, the steak of the month might be a bone-in ribeye, Kansas City strip or New York strip.
Does such a flexing menu stress the kitchen?
Not at all, say the chefs. They love it. And because they’re all so experienced and cross-trained on all the different stations, they can handle anything.
Magnolias on the Bay ($$-$$$, O), 941-460-8219, 2395 N. Beach Road, Englewood, is open 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations are recommended and preferred. Valet parking is available.
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