Laird Boles is up early. His daughter Penelope turns one month today. The survival skills of this new father are fueled by passion, even as the innovative chef burns the candle at both ends, prepping Ice Plant for its next service. The restaurant, housed in a circa-1927 ice factory, has achieved acclaim for modern sophistication and handcrafted cocktails. But the drinks only constitute half of the reason to visit. Ice Plant’s seasonally-transforming menu highlights Laird’s inventive take on farm-to-table. Committed to the best local food in peak freshness, if he can’t find it here, he’ll find it regionally. The result: simple, elegant, elevated cuisine.
At the moment, he is immersed in feeding cues and nailing down a bedtime routine for his newborn. After work, he rushes home to the family. With the baby in a bedside bassinet, he’s not getting a lot of downtime. “Three hours never felt so great when you haven’t slept in three days,” he smiles. “It’s my new normal. I’m loving every second.”
The ingredients for his success include work ethic, grit, and great inspiration. His belief that ‘the kitchen is what you make it’ informs his drive to create a healthy work environment for himself and his team. “If you hone in on key flavors while celebrating where you are, you have a better shot at giving people a real taste of culture,” he says. “More northern Florida chefs are finding restaurants where they can really accomplish that. There is a bit of a renaissance, as people become more sophisticated in their food choices. Chefs like me who have made their way in bigger cities are bringing it home to delight their neighbors and build up their communities. It’s something I am proud to be a part of.”
In the past five years, since moving to St. Augustine from Charleston, he’s already seen that renaissance take shape. He’s been pleased to learn that many of the ingredients found in St. Augustine are similar to his own hometown. He doesn’t compromise. He sources fresh crab meat from North Carolina; the Seafood Shoppe brings it in just for him. It is expensive and tedious with shells that require it to be picked through, but it is worth it.
The values he seeks in his team are a willingness to learn and take direction without being flustered, within a high-pressure environment. “It takes a certain personality. I’d rather find someone with a clean slate and less experience than bad or mediocre experience. Building new scratch cooking skills is easier than breaking down bad habits or righting a mentality of cutting corners,” he says. “A cook who sees the value of time-honored techniques cares about making people’s night by serving them something they love. It’s not about the grind but about passion; that’s what I try to bring to my kitchen each day.”
Laird’s love of food was born from frustration. After his parents divorced, his working mother rarely cooked. The middle child of three was 12 when he told his mom that he could improve her salad dressing. His grandmother was a phenomenal cook and much of his inspiration came from watching her and working through her box of recipes. He took his first cooking job at 16 at a commissary kitchen across the street from his high school. It enabled him to buy his first car, a Camaro.
While working at various independent restaurants, a few poignant moments reminded him he was where he needed to be. By the age of 21, he realized that cooking was his calling. By then, he’d started college at UCF and opened three hotel restaurants. At the Delfino Riviera, a five-star restaurant atop the Portofino Bay Hotel, he apprenticed under Massimo Fedozzi, a big-time Italian chef who taught him how to make fresh pasta. At the time, Laird considered himself a pretty good student and okay athlete but hadn’t yet found his niche. Massimo pulled him aside one day to say, “I’m not really sure what you are doing at that college, but you are really good at what you are doing here.”
“I had never heard that before from anyone,” Laid recounts. “It matters when someone tells you that. It changed the course of my life.”
He switched majors from Political Science to Hospitality. A few years later, while finishing school at Johnson & Wales, he apprenticed under Chef Bob Wagner, the first American to own a restaurant on French soil and receive a Michelin Star. Wagner was knighted by the French government, and the Orient Express brought him to Charleston Grill. One night, Wagner popped bottles of champagne in the dining room sharing the news that the restaurant had been nominated for a James Beard Award. “I realized then that I could be part of a team that could really do something great and knew what it took to produce a certain quality of food,” says Laird.
With two degrees in his pocket, Laird began getting jobs at top restaurants in San Francisco, eventually becoming the Executive Chef at One Bal Harbour Resort & Spa in Miami. Running four restaurants made for the longest hours and most physically-challenging job with the largest team. “People would come in after partying all night in North Beach and request lobsters in their $5,000 suites. I’d just get home from a 16-hour shift to turn around to go back.”
He returned to Charleston to buy a restaurant with his father and was offered a chef position at Salt. After two and a half years, he took a sabbatical and went to Mexico before entertaining multiple offers. He arrived in St. Augustine for a two-day working interview with Ryan Dettra and Trish McLemore and loved the vibe. “I’ve never worked with such awesome people. They are worker bees who really care about what they are doing. We have common ideas and similar backgrounds. I knew I wanted to buy a house, start a family, do great food with creative control, and have a great place to live. The stars aligned for me over St. Augustine.”
Ice Plant is located at 110 Riberia Street. Visit them online at www.iceplantbar.com. Photography by Kate Gardiner.