Chef Talk with Amy Leithauser & Chef James Veldhouse
By: Sarasota Herald-Tribune
December 7, 2015
Amy Leithauser, the director of culinary operations for Gecko’s Grill & Pub (351 N. Cattlemen Road, Sarasota and six other locations; 378-0077; geckosgrill.wpengine.com), is committed to using fresh, locally cultivated products in her menus. She works with such masters as chef James Veldhouse at the Fruitville restaurant, which is one of six locations under the Gecko’s umbrella. Her daily goal: To bring the meats and produce from area farms to the locale’s plates.
Q: How did you become passionate about food?
A: My passion for food started in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was four. I was lucky enough to be the one in our family who was asked for assistance when cooking authentic German and Middle Eastern cuisine. We would spend hours in the kitchen and every ingredient had a story. Those sessions with my grandmother are among my favorite childhood memories. I attended Central Michigan University to study business, and I had the pleasure of taking an internship with McDonald’s, where I learned the business side of restaurant operations. After college, I traveled with other large corporate operations as part of their opening, training and menu development teams. Then, I planted my feet in Sarasota.
Q: What are a couple of the most delectable items on the Gecko’s menus right now?
A: The bison meatloaf, which is sourced from Three Suns Ranch in Punta Gorda. It is grass-fed Florida bison, which is raised with no steroids or hormones. There is no way it could get fresher or cleaner than that. James’ Swamp Stack includes gator sirloin from 4F LLC Gator Farm in Arcadia and veggies from Honeyside Farms in Sarasota. This is an authentically local dish—one that Florida crackers and Native Americans could have enjoyed, but with chef James’ innovative modernization.
Q: What sets Gecko’s apart from other restaurants in the local dining scene?
A: The Gecko’s family of restaurants is deeply local. Our owners, Mike Quillen and Mike Gowan, grew up in Sarasota and raised their families here. Our strong commitment to sourcing locally has been in place long before the “localvore” movement had a name. Mike and Mike knew early on that, in order to offer guests the freshest and best-tasting fare, the partnerships with farmers and ranchers in our area would need to be an integral part of our culture. We strive to be fresher, more nutritional and greener, all while supporting our local economy.
Q: What makes you want to get up in the morning and do the work you do?
A: I enjoy my time in the Gecko’s kitchens and working with our chefs. I enjoy contributing to our menu exercises, developing recipes and redesigning our kitchens to help our chefs work more efficiently behind the line. Also, through Mike and Mike’s leadership, the Gecko’s family of restaurants has a commitment to giving back to our communities. We are gratified to have been the National Restaurant Association’s Florida Restaurant Neighbor recipient for the past three years. It is a tenet of our corporate culture that, every day, we have the opportunity to be the best thing that happens to somebody.
Q: Outside of work, how do you stay occupied?
A: Painting. It puts me in another world and helps to clear my head of the hustle and bustle of the restaurant pace. I also like to explore the hidden gems of the Sarasota area. Nature walks and being on the water are two of my favorite things.
JAMES’ SWAMP STACK
1 portobello mushroom
6 ounces gator sirloin chunks
1 zucchini, sliced
1 yellow squash, sliced
1 tomato, sliced
1 eggplant, sliced
2 ounces marinara sauce
1 cup mozzarella cheese
6 ounces orzo
2 cups balsamic vinegar (for mushroom marinade)
For sirloin marinade:
1 small can tomato juice
½ lemon, juiced
Marinate the mushroom in balsamic vinegar. Marinate 4F LLC Gator Farm gator sirloin chunks for three hours, and then lightly blacken them on a flattop grill. Slice fresh Honeyside Farms zucchini, yellow squash, tomato and eggplant, and lightly grill the vegetables. Grill the mushroom until it is tender. Stack the mushroom, squash, eggplant, zucchini and tomato. Top with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Place the completed stack over the orzo and surround it with the blackened gator. Serve with house-made garlic bread.
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