The Bounty Hunter

By:

Steve Phelps scours the landscape to bring diners at his Indigenous restaurant a taste of the Florida--specifically, Sarasota--wild.


Steve Phelps pedals his black bike over to a cactus bush in the middle of a canal-front lot on Lido Key. On either side stand homes, the kind of new construction common in Sarasota’s ritzier districts. So far this lot has survived, undeveloped.

The cactus paddles tumble out from the main plant in every direction. Pink globes just a touch smaller than a golf ball hang from a handful of the large green cactus leaves. Phelps snaps off one of the orbs—known as a prickly pear—and pulls it apart. A bright pink goo squirts onto his fingertips. “You see that jelly?” he exclaims.

Phelps starts ticking off the different uses for the fruit—jams, jellies, even beverages. He can’t remember the cactus’ official name, so he reaches into the messenger bag slung over his shoulder for the field guide that’s never out of reach on foraging trips like this. “I have to know the name of it or it’s going to drive me nuts,” he says, flipping through the book.

The 43-year-old Phelps is wearing a long-sleeved rust-colored shirt over a cream T-shirt that reads “Squirrel: The Other White Meat.” His light hair, thinning at the tip of his head, is clipped almost to the skin; sideburns creep down his cheeks. A koi tattoo, a daily reminder of the importance of patience, slithers around his left forearm.

Looking at him, you would never think Phelps is a chef: way too thin. But that’s by design. Phelps works out five days a week to help his body cope with the hard floors and late nights of restaurant life. “Never trust a skinny chef? Well, I would never trust a fat chef,” he says. “A, that guy’s not working real hard. B, his food is fattening and has a lot of preservatives. And C, I don’t think he’s healthy, so how am I going to be healthy?”

He looks up from his field guide. “Nopal,” he says. “It’s nopal.” The pears are too small to harvest today, but Phelps is happy to have made the identification. He’ll be back. And, at some point, should you secure a reservation at Indigenous, the celebrated downtown Sarasota restaurant Phelps has run for a year and a half, this nopal’s fruit just might show up on your plate.

If you follow food trends, you probably already know about foraging. In a certain rarefied culinary milieu, chefs are now judged less by how they handle a sauté pan, and more by how much they know about the food that grows outside their restaurant doors.

The godfather of the movement is René Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma has become ground zero for figuring out how to create world-class dishes with ingredients that can be found within a short car ride. Redzepi and his staff scour Denmark’s forests and beaches for wild parsnip flowers, beach mustard, sea lettuce and more, in search of flavors that best express his nation’s wild bounty.

Noma is now recognized as one of the world’s best restaurants, and the Redzepi chef-as-Boy Scout model has taken hold. In a 2012 episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain traveled to a remote region of Japan to witness Cook It Raw, an annual confabulation of chefs from around the world. They are charged with foraging for their ingredients and then serving bold dishes to assembled dignitaries. The episode’s results ranged from triumphs (Redzepi’s ice cream in sorrel and ginger broth) to ballsy failures (an assemblage of forest floor materials, complete with rock).

Foraging sits at a nexus of several foodie ideals: freshness, seasonality, uniqueness, sustainability, knowledge of one’s primary ingredients, respect for heritage cooking. And in an increasingly developed world, the practice has an insurrectionary appeal. Distanced from the natural world, foragers are forced to deal with the plants around them, the hardy species that have survived our mania for pavement and buildings.

Foraging, of course, is nothing new. Before organized agriculture, foraging was simply what people did to survive. In Sarasota County, Native Americans ate flour made from acorns, smilax and coontie; picked saw palmetto berries; and devoured every type of animal and sea creature they could capture.

Bill Burger, an archaeologist consulting with Sarasota County, marvels at the occasionally fatal experimentation that must have taken place, as people tried to figure what could and could not be eaten. There are plenty of poisonous plants out there (it should be noted: Never try to forage without informed assistance), but some items lose their deadly character when prepared a certain way. “How did people figure that out?” Burger asks.

Laurel Schiller, one of the co-owners at Florida Native Plants Nursery, can rattle off the names of any number of edible local plants. Elderberry, which grows, she says, “in every wetland” in the area. Or the cocoplum, which has seed kernels you can eat like “delicious-tasting nuts.” The sea grape produces fruit that’s used in jams and jellies and can even be fermented into wine. Spicy bird peppers, violets, mints—Schiller’s list is lengthy.

Back at his restaurant, Phelps cooks up sample dishes for his staff to try, while prepping the, with details about the nights menu.

One food category our ancestors could not find: citrus. Although we tend to think of Southwest Florida as a home to tropical fruits, oranges and lemons and their ilk arrived after Spanish colonization. Organized edible citrus cultivation in the Tampa Bay area didn’t begin until the early 1840s. Native Americans did eat papayas, which, while not native, are considered naturalized because they have grown here for so long.

The real basics of local heritage cooking are fish, corn, beans and grains. But Phelps says those native ingredients were usurped during the last couple of decades, after “a couple big chefs started making mango salsa” and the tropical Floribbean craze took over. At Indigenous, Phelps is pushing back against those preconceptions about Florida cuisine.

Foraging is but one component of Phelps’ dedication to the region. The restaurant serves sturgeon bred by Mote Marine scientists and buys as much produce as possible from nearby vendors. The servers tell you the name of the boat and the captain that hooked your fish. The restaurant’s fence and tables were built from reclaimed Florida cypress. Work by such Sarasota artists as Tim Jaeger and Jeff Schwartz hangs on the walls.

At its best (and it’s frequently at its best), Indigenous blends world-class technique with the best ingredients Florida has to offer. “What is a region?” Redzepi asked in a 2011 profile in The New Yorker. “What is the sum of the people we are, the culture we are? What does it taste like? What does it look like on a plate?” Phelps tries to answer those questions with each night’s dinner service.

Stephen Thomas Phelps grew up in Cleveland, where his first culinary idol was his uncle, a “rock star” in the kitchen. By age 13, Phelps was hanging out in his uncle’s restaurant, soaking up the atmosphere. It didn’t hurt that he was making more money than his buddies at the mall, either.

Phelps’ big break came when he landed a position at Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, the expanding Ohio chain that, years later, opened in Sarasota.

“That was the gangster place to be back when I was coming up as a chef,” Phelps says. “It was the highest-profile place in Cleveland.” Phelps had no formal culinary education, but his seven years at Hyde Park taught him everything he needed to know about the business. He worked his way up from the pantry to executive chef.

By 2001, he wanted a change. The band he sang in (with a sound like “good Limp Bizkit”) was on the cusp of breaking up. He had begun dating Kim Longstreet, a busgirl at Hyde Park, and she was looking for somewhere to study photography. Phelps and Longstreet left behind a frigid Cleveland for a visit to Ringling College and fell in love with Sarasota. She decided to enroll, and the couple packed up and moved. They married in 2003.

Phelps bounced around: first to Hillview Grill, then to the now-legendary Alley Cat Café. When that place shut down, Phelps staged with Norman Van Aiken in Coral Gables, before Paul Mattison came calling. Mattison, who was building a small empire in the region’s restaurant and catering world, had been following Phelps’ career, and asked him to take charge of the new steakhouse he was planning for Longboat Key. Phelps’ Hyde Park experience made him a perfect fit for the concept, but the menu was broad enough to let him experiment. Mattison says Phelps “offered a lot of great ideas,” way beyond the “ribeye with a baked potato and a piece of broccoli” that most steakhouses seemed content with.

Phelps is an obsessive fisherman, and Mattison says, “He really shines with seafood.” He loves how Phelps breaks culinary rules—like never mixing hot and cold elements on the same plate. With Phelps, he says, you “get something really crisp and refreshing on top of a savory, wonderful piece of fish.” That spirit of lawlessness is what great American cuisine is all about, Mattison says.

The steakhouse was a hit, earning a Florida Trend Golden Spoon award. “It was three years of really, really good work out there,” Phelps says. “That’s when I started establishing myself here, I think.”

“The folks on Longboat welcomed the reopening of that property,” Mattison says. The size of the kitchen allowed Mattison to shift all his catering business there, but eventually he ran out of room, and closed the restaurant when he acquired the property that bears his name on the South Trail.

Phelps’ exit was unexpected. Mattison fired him after three years. According to Phelps, Mattison wanted to take more of a hands-on role in managing his restaurants. Public perception was that Mattison didn’t actually cook anymore.

“That bothered him, and he was honest about it when he approached me,” Phelps says. “He’s like, ‘I’m going to let you go.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? We’re kicking ass.’ [But] it was a good thing for me. He probably knew I should get out and go do something different, so we parted ways.”

That was right around the time Canvas Café opened in a cozy Towles Court cottage at the corner of Adams and Links. The location was perfect for Phelps to create a unique and imaginative menu, but business was bumpy. After a neighborhood controversy erupted over noisy drag queen bingo events the restaurant was hosting, the owner decided to close the restaurant. Phelps next earned a gig at Bijou Café. He says he “rocked that place for a couple years,” but when the old Canvas Café location went on the market again, Phelps and a business partner (so silent he doesn’t speak to the media) snatched it up.

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“I had the concept of Indigenous in my head for a long time, and it just had to be the right place,” Phelps says. “Obviously, I knew that place.” He describes the Indigenous concept as “Florida Keys meets New York”—friendly, unpretentious service backed by a rigorous dedication to high-quality dishes.

“The concept of local—that’s not to me really a concept. That was just always how it is,” Phelps says. “So going into it, I didn’t say to myself, ‘All right, this is going to be all local. We support local.’ That wasn’t it. That’s just what we do.”

Phelps began renovating the property and calling the best of his former employees. A social media campaign built buzz, and Indigenous opened its doors in September 2011. The place was an immediate success—a validation of Phelps’ long years on the Sarasota culinary scene. In less than a year, the restaurant picked up a Golden Spoon Best New Restaurant award and was named one of America’s Top Restaurants by Zagat.

A typical Indigenous dinner service (the restaurant only serves dinner) is presaged by a staff meeting that’s more doctoral defense than traditional alley rally. Shortly before 5 p.m., Phelps is busy whisking brick-size hunks of butter in a large steel pot. Metal clanging on metal is the only audible disturbance in the otherwise relaxed restaurant. Every design choice in the restaurant is calming. The dark wood floors glow in the fading light, while propeller-like fan blades twirl lazily above. Minimalist artwork, just rectangles printed on brown cloth, is nailed to the walls.

Back in the restaurant’s minuscule kitchen, where there’s just room enough for Phelps and “right-hand man” Dan Charland to turn around without stabbing each other, Phelps is prepping sample plates of tonight’s specials. He gently eases a cobia filet into a crackling pan and assembles the rest of his plates. Tonight’s six servers, dressed in jeans, black and white sneakers and loose white-collared shirts, line up outside Phelps’ prep area, watching the specials pop up one by one. They all scribble in small pocket notebooks.

“Looks like we’ll have a strong night,” Phelps says, showing off the evening’s appetizer special, a cylinder of luminescent tuna tartare topped with a siracha crema and a toasted sheet of sesame nori. On the side sits a crispy disc of fried lotus root; Phelps gives a comprehensive gloss on how lotus root is used in Asian cooking.

Phelps moves on to tonight’s Gulf fish special. “You remember where that fish was from?” he asks. The waiters mumble the names of the boat and captain. “I’m sure you’re telling the guests where the fish comes from,” he says. The cauliflower braised in butter and garlic, “all that stuff is from Florida, guys,” Phelps says.

Phelps calls Indigenous “an educational restaurant,” and praises his service staff for “knowing every bit about” the restaurant, from the art on the walls to the components on the plate. It’s an approach that has earned him their respect. Alberto Fenix’s first job in Sarasota was with Phelps at Mattison’s. All these years later, he’s still at Phelps’ side, as a server. “He knows what he’s doing,” Fenix says, “and I know he knows what he’s doing because he explains it well.”

“Any questions?” Phelps asks his staff. None. “All right, let’s kick some ass tonight.” The pre-dinner meeting wraps up, and the servers devour the night’s specials back in the wait station, offering their own taste notes—unsurprisingly, they’re copious and detailed.

While right now, little on the Indigenous menu is personally scrounged up by Phelps, foraging has become something of a mission over the past two years. A typical day for Phelps begins with a bike ride around Lido Key, his home island, with Kim and their shelter rescue pup, Nyla. With him always are his bag, his clippers, his scissors and his field guide, just in case he spots something special.

On the day that I accompany him, after inspecting the cactus, Phelps zips up to a Brazilian pepper tree—enemy No. 1 of native plant enthusiasts and a tree all local gardeners are encouraged to destroy. But the tree yields papery berries dubbed pink peppercorns that often show up in pepper grinder blends. They make great vinaigrettes, Phelps says, as he crushes a handful and sniffs. Packaged and sold, the peppercorns are costly. A former boss kept them locked in a drawer because he didn’t want them to go to waste. Here on Lido Key, they’re free. (Phelps warns that anyone allergic to sumac plants should avoid the berries.)

On another block, Phelps stops to admire a tall tree loaded with green figs that dangle just on the other side of a manicured hedge. One day, his bike split open a fig on the pavement and Phelps screeched to a halt to find out what the heck it was. There’s a “big difference between foraging and stealing,” Phelps says, so he wrote to the property owners, introducing himself and asking if he could snag some figs to serve. He never got an answer, but the owner stripped the tree bare within a couple days.

We wheel over to a house that’s been on the market for months. Phelps picks a honeybell orange from a tree out front and nestles it in his bag. In addition to his field work, Phelps has begun using social media to forage online. He’ll put out a call for fruits and veggies on the Indigenous Facebook page, and voilà, bags start showing up at the restaurant’s doorstep.    While many homeowners are happy to share their bounty, others aren’t. He pauses before one yard with an avocado tree drooping with ripe fruit. Phelps wrote that owner a letter, too, and got a nasty note in return, insisting the avocados were for personal use only.

“I’m pissed,” Phelps says, pointing out two avocados that are now rotting in the yard. The neglected fruit in suburban
yards all around us represents a terrible waste, he says.

At another house, where the owners are away on vacation (“As criminal as it sounds, I can tell people’s vacation habits,” Phelps says), a tall tree is bursting with 50 or so ripe-looking grapefruit. What could provide breakfast for dozens at a homeless shelter will instead go to waste.

Hostile neighbors, a tough climate, little green space—Phelps faces challenges that many chefs devoted to foraging abroad are spared. Redzepi and the chefs spotlighted on No Reservations roam beaches and fields with a richer biodiversity than our sandy soil can support, and they work in countries with markedly different attitudes toward property rights than in America. Imagine following Redzepi’s example of hopping into a field just off a highway and snagging wild greens. Out east of I-75, you’d probably end up staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

But maybe you don’t need to go gallivanting. Maybe you just need to look out the window. After our expedition, I go home. I dump my bag in a chair in my office, and pull up the blinds on my small bay window. The branch of a Brazilian pepper tree reaches toward me on the other side of the glass, bunches of pink peppercorns bursting from between its leaves. I’ve looked at those berries for three-and-a-half years without knowing I could eat them. They’ve been there all along. It took Steve Phelps to make me see them.

Click here to read our review of Indigenous.

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