Jeremy Conner is the head chef at Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant, 900 Jefferson St., which opened earlier this month. Conner also spent six years as executive chef at Village Cafe.
I was born in Opelika, Alabama, and then moved to Pensacola, Florida, when I was very young. The members of my immediate and extended family probably had the most impact on shaping who I am today. I learned everything important from them. Integrity and hard work from my father, the value of something hand-made from my grandfather, who was a church deacon and woodworker; the importance of caring for others and saying so from my mother; the power of food to transcend struggle and evoke the familiar from both of my grandmothers; bravery and fighting through adversity from my paternal grandfather, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease; and the persistence of family from my brother.
I had my first jobs at restaurants. The first thing that I fell in love with about it was the workflow: these tasks need to be completed on this schedule to achieve the desired result for the team. Team is still a big thing for me. I preach it. I started college and switched majors several times. I had the aptitude but not the will. I was cooking as a job while in school and I ultimately realized I loved the former and not the latter. One day after a Differential Equations lecture, I marched to the registrar’s office at the University of West Florida and applied for graduation, took my two-year degree, dove into cooking full time and never looked back.
There are obvious dominant flavor differences between Pensacola and Acadiana cuisines. Louisiana is saltier, a bit spicier and a lot heavier. But having lived here in Lafayette for more than 10 years now, I find it much more valuable to focus on the similarities — big flavors, simple recipes and a love for the foods that are produced and harvested nearby. I loved to fish in Pensacola when I lived there, and I love to fish here now. The major common thread that I apply every day is a passion for the treasures we call Gulf seafood.
One thing I learned at Village Cafe was team. I’m very self-reliant by nature. However, a restaurant can’t run without a team effort, and it can’t be great without that team truly striving to succeed for each other. That notion is now amplified by 1,000 percent now that I’m running my own restaurant. My ownership partners and I have a great team dynamic from our personality types to our varied experiences, and the team I’ve managed to put in place in the kitchen at Spoonbill is the best I’ve ever worked alongside.
I have been cooking professionally for 25 years, and stress goes with the territory. I don’t even quantify it anymore. I identify it when it is there and cope with it (mindful breathing, staying hydrated, delegating and trusting my team), but I don’t fear it. It seems to me that over my career, I’ve learned to harness it. The things that stress me out the most are interpersonal conflict among team members (ultimately my responsibility) and the times when we as a team don’t seem to be on the same page. Most of the time I operate out of a straight passion for what I’m trying to achieve with the cuisine and foster that with everyone I work alongside. If we don’t share the same vision, then I can’t get each team member’s best. That stresses me out.
Stephen Verret and I had been doing projects together as Olympic Grove, which included everything from pizza block parties to Ramen Night popups. People always seemed to enjoy what we were doing. It was for that reason I enjoyed working with Stephen. We started looking at locations to bring that idea to Lafayette in a permanent setting. After the purchase of the building a few years ago, and the delay of that project and the building remained vacant, The Filling Station property slowly crept up our big board of ideal spots. As Stephen and I were trying to find a way to lease it, our other partner, Adam Loftin, a commercial real estate developer, had been in contact with the owner and had landed a sales contract. Stephen and Adam knew each other, and we all began talking. It was such a beautiful Kismet/Serendipity thing. The way it worked out was amazing.
I’ve learned over the years as a chef that diners want a memorable experience more than anything else. There are balances to be struck between bold and subtle, familiar and adventurous, playful and serious. The other part of that is that most food experiences tend to bring people together. We try to give diners at Spoonbill a comfortable space to gather in, enjoy each other’s company in, to find that old familiar flavor in, to try something new in, and ultimately a place to have fun. Fun was a major benchmark criterion for us every step of the way during development. We want our restaurant to be unfancy. We want there to be a value associated with it.
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Jeremy Conner is the head chef at Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant, 900 Jefferson St., which opened earlier this month. Conner also sp…
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