Passion for food leads to passion for community: Chef Bert Gill and the Gainesville food scene

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Chef Bert Gill is not just present in the kitchens of one or all three of his Gainesville-based restaurants every day, but you can also find him around town picking and choosing his product for the day.

“I believe that when you spend dollars locally, you are committed to your community,” said Gill.

Since the opening of restaurants Mildred’s Big City Food in 1999, New Deal Café in 2003, and Blue Gill Quality Foods in 2011, Chef Gill has maintained a commitment to using the highest quality, freshest product available, and that typically means buying local.

“We’ve made it our mission to help build a sustainable food community in Gainesville by working with local farmers and educating our community on the benefits of supporting locally grown, sustainable agriculture. Our passion for delicious and fresh combinations of flavors can be seen in our eclectic menu that is constantly updated based on the seasonal availability of ingredients.”

There is no denying that “locally sourced and sustainable” foods have exploded as a major trend in the food industry. The National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot survey of chefs cited locally sourced meats and seafood and locally grown produce as the number one and number three top food trends for 2016 respectively.

Chef Gill stresses the importance of staying true to the best product possible while always striving for local availability. From the seafood and produce to the beef, he is continually working with local food sources in the Gainesville community.

However, it’s not realistic to have a restaurant that serves only locally sourced food year-round, he explained. “Florida’s growing cycle just doesn’t work like that,” says Gill. “Lettuce is simply not available in our climate year-round, so we cannot always buy it locally, but we do maximize seasonal foods whenever and wherever possible – simply because that is the freshest product we can buy and that is what we are committed to.”

“Food is the passion component of what we do. I want to cook great food. You have to go out and find it,” says Gill.

And seeking it out is exactly what he does. Possum Hollow Farms, University of Florida Meat Processing and Gainesville-based Northwest Seafood are just a few of the local sources Gill uses regularly.

Northwest Seafood owner Lee Deaderick says, “Bert does in restaurants what locally owned and operated business owners do every day, and that makes a difference in the level of service and quality the customer receives. Bert picks out fish on a daily basis. He puts it in his hands and feels it and says directly to us what he wants and what he doesn’t. That’s just not something larger chain restaurants can do.”

And to Chef Gill, that commitment to high quality, locally sourced food goes hand in hand with his commitment to his community. As his passion in creating great food has grown so has his commitment to promoting that passion in others, including his restaurant guests and employees.

Carlston Watts is one such employee. Two and a half years ago, his commitment to his community was as an intervention specialist with the Gainesville Police Department’s Black on Black Crime Task Force working with at-risk youth in the area. But Watts was ready for a change. With a keen interest in food, he started working at Blue Gill as a dishwasher and steward and quickly became obsessed and passionate about food.

“I used to wash dishes as quickly as I could just so I could watch what Chef was doing on the line,” recalls Watts.

That passion and commitment was quickly recognized by Chef Gill as he became Watts’ mentor. Today, Carlston Watts is the culinary head of Blue Gill Quality Foods.

“Chef taught me the importance of the quality of the work we do – everything has to be perfect. And those techniques are what I now pass down to our newer trainees in the kitchen.” With Chef Gill’s support, Watts is continuing to give back to his community as he has taken the culinary skills and techniques taught to him and now teaches them to up-and-coming trainees at the restaurant.

Mentoring beyond his own restaurants is also on the horizon for Bert Gill.

When asked what he saw for the future of the Gainesville food scene, Gill responded, “We are currently working with Butler Enterprises on the opening of a food hall in Butler Town Center. The idea is to create a turnkey restaurant space within a food hall for independents to learn the skills necessary to become a restaurateur.”

The space would essentially offer shared overhead costs for aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs while they learn the trade and potentially grow word-of-mouth recognition. The new venture is planned for launch as early as 2018.

“Butler Enterprises definitely recognizes Bert Gill as a mentor of talent and innovation here in Gainesville. We are excited about the opportunities ahead,” said Mary Reichardt, Director of Marketing for Butler Enterprises.

When asked about the possible increase in competition for his own restaurant ventures, Chef Gill responded, “There will always be competition, but that just means overall a stronger product. It’s really all about the quality of the work you do individually.”

And to Gainesville business owners, entrepreneurs and foodies alike, that sounds delicious.

Mildred’s Big City Food 3445 West University Ave Gainesville, FL 32607 (352) 371-1711

New Deal Café 3443 West University Ave. Gainesville, FL 32607 (352) 371-4418

Blue Gill Quality Foods 1310 SW 13th St Gainesville, FL 32608 (352) 872-5181

By Kathryn Pizzurro

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