It seems Brian Whittington, owner and Executive Chef of Lincolnville’s Preserved, has all the right moves. The 30-something chef parlayed a four-year stint as Executive Chef at Jacksonville’s bustling French-inspired establishment, Restaurant Orsay, into invitations to appear on popular cooking shows, like Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Alton Brown’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and numerous accolades including a 2015 James Beard nomination for best chef in the South.
Preserved is the most recent sign-post on the path charting Brian’s seemingly meteoric rise. And the initial success of the young chef’s elevated Southern cuisine restaurant has prompted him to embark on at least two more concepts — each set to open in 2018. Though he’s undoubtedly developed a Midas touch, as Brian explains it, whatever success he is having now, both in the kitchen and as a restaurateur, is a product of many lessons in what not to do. “Everything I’ve done, especially the things that didn’t pan out, have only served to sharpen my focus,” he says. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in a lot of different places, and I think I know as much about what I don’t want, as what I do want.”
Growing up in East Moline, IL (the home of John Deere tractors), Brian’s father worked long hours as an auto mechanic for major car manufacturers. While he says he gets his restlessness and blue-collar work ethic from his father, cooking was not a big part of Brian’s formative years, as he says the Whittington family dinners were “nothing flashy.” “We ate, but I don’t really have a lot of memories of family cooking,” he says.
He might not have been a culinary prodigy, but it wouldn’t take long for Brian find his place in the kitchen. After the family moved to Crescent Beach in 1997, fourteen-year-old Brian got a job washing dishes at the oceanfront eatery, South Beach Grill. It wasn’t long before he had joined the ranks of the line cooks, toiling over fresh fish and seasonal vegetables. “I was very involved in sports growing up and I immediately picked up on the competitive nature of the kitchen,” Brian says of that first job. “I liked the challenge of being on the line.”
After high school, Brian attended culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Miami, taking to the school’s emphasis on classic French techniques. Shortly thereafter he was invited back to South Beach, this time to serve as the restaurant’s executive chef. Though he was certainly more confident in the kitchen than when he’d left, the owners of the restaurant had ambitious plans for their young chef, installing Brian as the executive chef at a new concept on Anastasia Island called Zhanra’s. Though the restaurant’s menu consisted of a hodgepodge of cuisines from across the world and was well outside his wheelhouse, Brian took it on. In hindsight, says Brian, it was an ill-advised move. “The reality is it gave me the experience of opening a restaurant, but to be honest I had no right to be opening that restaurant for them. They were looking for someone young and willing. But I was buying into a concept that I wouldn’t have ever done.”
Brian left Zhanra’s and jumped over to the small, intimate French brasserie, Rhett’s in the historic district. He took over the menu, which was much more in his wheelhouse, and thrived for a time. But the experience was short-lived. After what Brian calls a “personal and moral” disagreement with the restaurant’s owners, he was out of the kitchen again.
Frustrated with the dining scene in St. Augustine, Brian reached out to the brain-trust at Orsay, who he’d gotten to know a bit over the years. With one executive chef on the way out, owner and chef John Insetta invited Brian to join the line at Orsay in the hopes that he could roll easily into the soon-to-be vacant position. Brian would serve as Orsay’s executive chef for the next four years.
For Brian, who’d, up to that point, had lots of instruction on what not to do, his experience at Orsay and mentorship under Insetta seemed to finally unlock the young chef’s potential. “The number one person I’ve worked for in my life is John Insetta,” Brian says. “There’s something natural about him where he can breed a culture that is aggressively seeking out new and innovative things in a way that is full of integrity.”
It was a turning point,” he continues. “John [Insetta] and I aligned in a lot of ways, culturally and professionally. I’m obsessive and love to be involved all the time. He matched me in that regard. He also had the means to get good ingredients and the vision to want to do it.”
The Orsay experience was like a cannon-shot for Brian’s career. And after the television appearances and award nominations, he left Orsay in 2016 to start Preserved in Lincolnville. Back in St. Augustine, where he’s kept a home for nearly 15 years now, whatever free time he can spare (between all the projects he’s taken on under the umbrellas of his new Strive Restaurant Group –including a barbecue joint and a butcher shop) is spent with his girlfriend and young daughter. “There’s been a lot of enlightening negative experiences,” Brian says of his nearly 20 years in the restaurant business. “But a ton of positive ones, too. I’ve learned that if you’re honest and transparent, if you prioritize quality, and if you work with good people, you’ll be successful.”
Preserved is located at 102 Bridge Street. Learn more about them by visiting www.preservedrestaurant.com. Photography by Brian Miller.