Given his place of birth, Chef Joshua Smith may seem an improbable choice to run a seafood-focused kitchen in a city surrounded by salt water. But despite his being born several hours from the shores of Lake Michigan in the small, industrial town of Galesburg, Illinois, in just two years at the helm of the elevated, seasonal, and seafood-centric menu at Catch 27, Joshua’s played an outsized role in establishing the Charlotte Street restaurant as a historic district staple. As he worked to smoothly guide the restaurant through a relocation effort (a bumpy transition for any establishment), Joshua’s left his mark on Catch’s menu, deepening the restaurant’s connections to local Northeast Florida farms and fishermen, while adding his own idiosyncratic influences born of a unique culinary education, which began (informally) in a pizza shop in Galesburg.
“My great-grandmother worked in a popular pizza place in my hometown and we used to go visit her in the kitchen,” Joshua muses, recalling his earliest food memories. “The smells of the meats and the pizzas, submarine sandwiches — I was probably only four or five when I started going there. She also cooked all of our family’s celebratory dinners, whether Easter, Christmas, or Thanksgiving. She would just feed us stuff while she cooked. It was fun. And she did it all by herself, which was inspiring to me.”
At 19 years old, Joshua left Galesburg for St. Augustine, in search of employment opportunities and a climate that would allow him more warm days to ride his skateboard — a childhood passion that persists to this day. While staying at a week-to-week efficiency rental in St. Augustine Beach, Joshua applied for a kitchen job at A1A’s Café Eleven. Despite never having worked in a kitchen before, he landed the job and subsequently received training on how to prepare a smattering of salads, sandwiches, and breakfast items. Joshua worked at Café Eleven for a year and enjoyed his time in the kitchen enough to enroll in Culinary School in 2004.
Joshua blew through his coursework in just two years as a student at the American Culinary Federation in southeast Iowa, hoping to get back to Florida as soon as possible. But he also reveled in a series of apprenticeships, taking to an eclectic range of skills that included baking, butchering, and ice sculpting. Though mostly devoid of seafood, the Midwestern culinary identity did allow for some essential grounding in the meat-and-potatoes (literally and figuratively).
Fresh from culinary school and back in the Oldest City, Joshua bounced around a series of kitchen jobs in and around St. Johns County from Vilano’s Kingfish Grill to the Murray Bro’s Caddie Shack in World Golf Village, before landing at Christine and Michael McMullin’s now-defunct upscale contemporary American eatery Opus 39 on Cordova Street. “That was one of the best jobs I’ve had in St. Augustine,” he says of working on the five to seven course menus at Opus. “I learned so much there. It was my first exposure to a menu that changed daily, with farm-to-table and seasonal ingredients. It was also my first real experience with fresh seafood.”
Joshua’s time at Opus would be somewhat short-lived, however, as he moved to Chicago to be closer to his young son in 2008. But he used the move as an opportunity to branch out even further. Taking advantage of the Windy City’s diverse culinary culture, Joshua worked in a series of kitchens, specializing in a varied array of cuisines. But Florida kept pulling Joshua back, and in 2010 he was back at Opus 39. When Opus closed shortly thereafter, he moved over to Michael’s Tasting Room. Then in 2013, Joshua took on the Executive Chef role at the newly opened Ice Plant on Riberia.
After two years helping to establish the Ice Plant’s farm-to-table-focused menu, Joshua was on a short hiatus from the kitchen when he got a call from Stephen Hutson, who co-owns Catch 27 with his wife Lindsey. The Hutsons were moving Catch from Hypolita to Charlotte and hoping to expand its Florida seafood-focused menu.
Joshua was up to the task and he set out to improve upon the menu almost immediately. Using the vast rolodex of local suppliers he’d accumulated over years in kitchens throughout St. Augustine, Joshua began expanding the list of providers from which Catch could buy ingredients. “When I started, we had one local provider listed on our menu (The Seafood Shoppe),” he says. “As far as produce, we weren’t sourcing anything local. Now we have 31 local farms on our menu. A lot of [the suppliers] I knew from the Ice Plant,” he continues. “Some have popped up since then. Some I found at the farmers market or social media. I was just trying to find as much local stuff as possible. Now the challenge is not adding more farms, I would like to just work better with the farms we have.”
Firmly established at Catch, it would seem that Joshua’s third time in St. Augustine since first relocating in 2003 is the charm. He lives with his brother and now 13-year-old son, and the trio will often hit the local skate parks on Joshua’s rare days off. Heavily inundated in the new wave of farm-to-table restaurants in the Oldest City, the Illinois native has left his mark on the area’s seafood scene with his twist on Catch’s menu. “Even though it’s my third time living [in St. Augustine], this has been the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was kid growing up in Galesburg,” Joshua says. “I feel like this is home, now. And I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon.”
Catch 27 is located at 40 Charlotte Street. Visit them online at www.catchtwentyseven.com.
Photography by Brian Miller