Floundering: Embracing my inner Gordon Ramsay in Apalachicola

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My girlfriend Stef and I stopped at a roadside fruit stand at East Point, just across the bridge from Apalachicola. I smelled barbecue somewhere and had to investigate. Frank was cooking ribs and laying pipe in the dirt. I introduced myself and he showed me the ribs, but they weren't for sale.  He had a tough year or so and had been forced out of retirement by the recklessness of the Wall Street gangbangers. But he had made some good investments and owned the piece of property, a choice spot just across the bridge from Apalach. He was converting a saw mill into a restaurant so he could live with some dignity in his later years. We had a lively conversation.

[image-1]His home down the road also had a beautiful guest house, and he invited us to stay the night. I hesitated, so he took us down the road and showed us the place. It was stunning.  We went back to the restaurant property and he asked us to return after he’d finished his chores.

When we returned after a walk on the powdery beaches of St. George Island, he was cleaning up and had an ax in his hand. It was not a good omen, but his smile was genuine. He gave me a rib and told me to follow him. Stef and I tasted and swooned over the slice of smoky rib. We figured that if we didn’t get hacked to pieces at Frank’s, it would be a great time.

[image-2]On the way to his place, we stopped to get fresh seafood at a shack. Perfect little funky place. Frank chose a bunch of beautiful flounder filets caught in the area. I chose some Gulf shrimp.

We got back to Frank's place in time to mix some drinks and watch the sun set over Apalachicola Bay from his dock. The rum I brought, Mount Gay from Barbados, tasted perfect with the club soda, peach nectar, and lime. Frank, Stef, and I bantered away. I relaxed and made another tall drink.

When it came time for dinner, Frank said he would retire to his house to wash up and make his nascent restaurant’s signature salad for dinner. He also asked me to cook the seafood.  I quickly agreed but I shuddered at the thought.

[image-3]As Frank left the guest house, I quickly rifled through the kitchen to see what ingredients were available. Not much. Nothing fresh except the onion that Frank would bring later. There was some great shrimp boil available, so I could handle that. But I’d never cooked flounder, and seafood has never been a specialty of mine. The flesh seemed awfully delicate. What the hell do I do with the skin?

Stef gave the flounder a light seasoning with my help, finished with a little flour/corn meal mixture. I'd seen how much fish had been ruined by the cocksure amateurs on Hell's Kitchen. Visions of ruined seafood flashed before me. I tossed the shrimp into a boiling pot of beer and Creole spices. At least we could fall back on that, I thought.

[image-4]Frank returned with some gorgeous salads worthy of his upstart restaurant, with toasted almonds, dried cranberries, feta, tiny halved tomatoes, grilled pineapple, and so on. Frank and Stef talked on the porch while I got down to business with the flounder.

I greased the griddle with olive oil and melted butter, then draped the filets across the hot griddle, skin side up, and heard the pleasing hiss. I was relaxed, in control, but concerned. My inner critic raved like Gordon Ramsey that night. The inner monologue came in a torrent. “Don't mess this up, Andy. Frank is a cool guy and you’re supposed to be some kind of food expert who has never made flounder before. You just gave a breezy, hour-long lecture last night about Florida cuisine like a scholar. In Apalachicola, where people know something about seafood!” The idea of me lecturing about food seemed silly and asinine. I suddenly saw myself just like a cocksure imbecile given a great opportunity, who had read a couple books and flipped a few burgers and thought he knew something. Some feeble kid on Hell’s Kitchen withering under Ramsay’s vitriol.

While the flounder got started, I worked on a sauce. I sliced the one small onion and browned it. I mixed some oil and vinegar and a little green chili hot sauce, some herbs, and lemon juice in the pan. It tasted awful, just plain awful. My inner Ramsay shouted, “I wouldn’t serve that on a dog turd! Piss off with you, then!” The hot sauce must have been several decades old, and the salt content was totally out of control. I kept adjusting the sauce, but it was total shit. “Fuck me!” Ramsay bellowed in my head. “Shut it down!” I set the sauce aside. So much for Frank’s last onion.

I went back to the fish, which looked pretty good. I flipped the filets and they pleasantly hissed in response.  To my horror, the flounder’s skin immediately seized up and contracted, bending the filets. I gently pushed the centers back down and was prepared to write off the fish.

Now what to do about the sauce? I had very little time to make anything before the fish would be ready or ruined, and would have to serve it immediately. I put a quarter stick of butter into a small saucepan. I took the flounder and griddle off of the stove. Miraculously, the skin had shrunk and slipped gracefully off of the filets. The flesh felt firm yet tender, but inside it seemed a touch undercooked. I got the flaky flounder back on to the griddle.

Then I realized that the shrimp had been quietly bubbling the whole time. What if we couldn’t fall back on the shrimp after all? I pinched one, and it gave a little, felt [image-5]just right. I'll be damned. I strained the shrimp and set them aside. I hustled the flounder onto a serving plate. It was about to fall apart after that extra flip on the griddle. I moved the saucepan to the front burner. After the butter melted and began to bubble, I poured in a couple glugs of golden dark rum. I picked at the fish so I could taste my folly before anyone else. It was perfectly moist and flaky, and the seasoning was spot-on. I was surprised all over again, taken aback at my own competence.

Back to the fuming pan of butter and rum. I lit the rum and the pan went up in a heady Mount Gay whoosh. A pillar of flame over a foot high shot up and danced low over the next ten or fifteen seconds. I added a pinch of salt and decided to leave my slightly thickened rum butter at that. I took a taste and it was like the devil's butter--- hallelujah!

[image-6]“Dinner’s ready!” We whisked the shrimp, flounder, and butter to the table and settled down with our drinks. We all bowed our heads and Frank said a prayer, but mine had already been answered. “Those shrimp pop real nice,” Frank drawled, and they were perfectly boiled. My inner critic echoed, “Spot on.” I was in great company on a beautiful night and in my new favorite place in God's own Florida. The shrimp and flounder were fantastic, and no one was hacked to bits. After dinner, I must have been glowing as I lazed on the porch and looked out into the cool night. Stef and Frank talked cheerily as I took comfort in my own abilities, well on my way to being the next cocksure contestant on Hell’s Kitchen.

A friend recently wondered how I could possibly enjoy the TV show Hell’s Kitchen. I was accused of being terrible because I liked it. The message went, in part,

“While I am the first to admit that cooking for a crowd (of friends) can be stressful, I simply cannot imagine eating any of the food that any of these people prepare ... including 'Chef Ramsay'. I cannot believe that you would really promote this kind of monstrosity regarding food. I still hear your delight with watching this program, and I simply cannot understand it.”

Instead of trying to explain myself or take on the dubious task of defending the show, a story came to mind. I was in Apalachicola to eat, lecture, gather some Florida food research and, unbeknownst to me, cook.

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