Chef Paul Papin has worked for the Gecko’s Hospitality Group for 13 years, and is now a kitchen manager at the Clark Road Gecko’s Grill & Pub location in Sarasota. Papin also currently works alongside two graduates of the Vet2Chef initiative, which focuses on reintegrating homeless and displaced veterans through food and brew programs.
Q: What first moved you to become a chef?
A: My dad owned a pizza parlor and arcade room when I was younger. I was 10 when I started helping him make pizza dough, prep sauces, slice vegetables and cook food. My father was a significant influence on me and my decision to become a chef. Mike Quillen has also been a great mentor to me. He has shared with me his love of good food and his goals to always strive to offer the freshest products, and he has instilled in me the importance of giving back to the community. I also get a lot of inspiration from chef Bryan Jacobs, who has taught me to remain humble, always reach out to help others, be passionate and have a purpose.
Q: How would you describe your culinary career so far?
A: I have worked for the Gecko’s Hospitality Group for 13 years, first venturing into our kitchens as a line cook. I was selected to participate in the GHG Management Training Program and am now a kitchen manager at Gecko’s on Clark Road, where I have worked for eight years. The GHG teams are given opportunities to share our skills in our other restaurants, so I have also managed back-of-the-house teams at Gecko’s on Hillview Street, State Road 70, and our original Gecko’s at The Landings, which moved to Stickney Point last summer. My on-the-job training consists of over 25 years of working in local restaurants.
Q: What are three of your signature dishes?
A: Tuna Nachos with seared sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna, topped with wakame salad, wasabi cream and sweet Asian sauces over crispy wonton chips; the Fusion Bowl with farm-fresh Honeyside Farms vegetables sautéed in Asian vinaigrette, minced garlic and ginger, and served over white rice; and the Bacon-Wrapped Bison Meatloaf with grass-fed bison from Three Suns Ranch in Punta Gorda, fried onion slivers and locally-grown grilled vegetables. The freshness of our local, sustainable products is a game-changer, putting a spin on comfort food that really shows in the quality of the flavors.
Q: Tell me about the Vet2Chef program and how it is helping the community.
A: Vet2Chef is a program supported by Vets2Success, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on reintegrating homeless and displaced veterans. The program gives veterans a passion, purpose and sense of belonging in order to progress back into a meaningful place in the community. I am fortunate to currently work alongside two Vet2Chef program graduates: Billy and Stephanie. This valuable program gives GHG an opportunity to help in an authentic way, and it honors a debt that can never be repaid.
Q: What makes you want to do the work you do every day?
A: The motivation comes from knowing what a difference we make in so many people’s lives, either through the timeless ritual of sharing a meal to having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the community. Our work is humbling and an honor. Cultivating a close working relationship with our partners at Honeyside Farms and Three Suns Ranch is tremendously rewarding, and it provides me and my team with the tools to create top-shelf fare in the kitchen.
BACON-WRAPPED BISON MEATLOAF
1/4 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 tablespoon minced onion
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon sage
1/4 tablespoon beef base
4 ounces ground Three Suns Ranch bison
1/8 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon hot sauce
1/4 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 rasher bacon
Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the onions, garlic, sage and thyme, and saute for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, mix in the beef base and allow it to cool to room temperature. Transfer the mix to a large bowl. Beat in the egg and mix in the remaining ingredients until it is all blended. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Portion the meatloaf into a disc and wrap it with bacon. Place the meatloaf on a sheet pan with time-released oil and bake it for 20 to 25 minutes (turning once halfway through, until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees).
Gecko’s Grill & Pub is at various locations throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties; https://geckosgrill.com/.