Few culinary experiences parallel tasting fresh seafood above the dunes of the Atlantic, but what many people don’t consider while dining at The Reef is the man behind the curtain – in the kitchen, that is. Chef Bob Henle isn’t one to boast, and he doesn’t need to. His food and his team speak for themselves in the most delicious way.
Following a non-traditional start to his culinary career, two decades in Spain greatly influenced the chef’s international understanding and inspiration for many of the locally-driven delights offered at The Reef. Many chefs grow up apprenticing with family members in the kitchen as a legacy career, but not Bob. His Dad served in the Navy while his mom served up the best fried chicken Bob and his sisters have tasted since. He has fond memories of eating together as a family during the younger childhood years. But when his parents became overweight and embarked on losing 300 pounds between them, he was challenged to enjoy roast chicken with no salt as a substitute.
Once his father completed his time in the Navy, the family relocated from his birthplace of Fall River, Massachusetts to California in a 1956 Oldsmobile, and he began the third grade near Santa Barbara. In high school home economics classes, his teacher, Mrs. Dowd, encouraged him to attend culinary school.
Instead, he followed his father into military service, spending the next 25 years on Air Force bases all over the country then finally the Rota Naval Station in Spain. Once there, he explored Spanish culture and cuisine for the following decade and a half. It was 1977, and tapas were the main point of reference during Tasca-hopping excursions. Throughout every town, small bars offered eight cent beers and specialty tapas on a paper napkin. The food was deliciously different at each tasca. From mussels and clams to calamari and spiced pork, each was made to delight the palate. Chef Bob continues the tradition at The Reef with starters like the Smoked Duck Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with grated Manchego and a balsamic reduction or the Pan Tomato, made in-house with fresh tomatoes and garlic rubbed French bread.
Returning to the U.S., Bob found St. Augustine and embarked on his culinary school journey after wife Maria spotted Spanish flags on the Lion’s Bridge and declared it home. Soon thereafter, through a nationwide culinary school competition, he won the opportunity to go to school in Barcelona while staging at 5-star restaurant Gaig.
Chef Bob began his Reef career in August 2001. Today his team of eleven includes star nighttime Sous Chef Jessica Green, to whom he extends a special thank you along with Sous Chef Greg Cooper and Pastry Chef Ashley Speer. Of the loyal staff, four of the line cooks are currently attending culinary school. He says none of this would be possible without General Manager Jeremy Twicehurst and the Usina family who believed in him since the beginning.
Charity involvement is a huge element of the restaurant’s community focus. From the Datil Pepper contest, Chowder Challenge, Taste of St. Augustine, Great Chefs of St. Augustine and beyond, being a part of the St. Augustine Independent Restaurant Association, SAIRA, offers an opportunity to set the bar and make a difference.
With a menu focused on seafood, Chef chooses the freshest from local and regional purveyors – Bar Harbor, Mayport Fisheries, Seafood Shoppe and Sea Breeze in Jacksonville. “We order the night before and it arrives by 11am. St. Johns Food Service is always there for us. I have them on speed dial.”
This summer, bone-in Duroc Pork Chop with caramelized onion jam stars on the menu along with a new Florida Cattle Rancher’s Beef (homegrown, raised and processed in Florida.) Turf lovers enjoy the 14 oz. NY Strip, 8 oz. Filet Mignon, all chef-cut and trimmed in house. The chef sources from local, seasonal purveyors and admits he couldn’t do it without Sam Wise who brings everything from green tomatoes to brussel sprouts, broccoli crowns, cauliflowers, red bliss, and fingerling purple potatoes.
On days off, Bob and grandson Alex are often ensconced in a science fiction movie or Bob is riding his 1989 Harley Davidson Sportster. He enjoys meals at The Press, The Manatee Café, and Fusion Point Sushi (Maria loves their green tea). His favorite? Collage, tipping his chef hat towards Chef Matt Brown, of course.
“I love living in St. Augustine,” he says. “There are so many talented chefs providing constant inspiration. Mike Lugo does incredible things in the kitchen as well as the community. Chip Richard at Caps is practically a member of our team and a great neighbor. I can’t begin to name everyone.”