Chef Jim Shirley Honored as 16th Annual Van Ness Butler Jr. Award Winner
Chef Jim Shirley has seen a lot. It’s hard to surprise someone who has cooked for Spanish royalty, hundreds of politicians and celebrities, and been the featured chef at the famed James Beard House, but that’s exactly what happened when Chef Shirley learned that he was being honored as Visit South Walton’s 2020 Van Ness Butler Jr. Award Winner.
“It’s an incredible honor to get the Van Ness Butler Jr. Award,” he says. “I mean, how does that happen to a chef in South Walton? I’ve seen all the great work done by the people that have received this before and it’s amazing when you achieve something like this.”
The Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award honors and recognizes excellence in the hospitality, service, travel/tourism, advertising and promotion industries, as well as contributions to the local community. Shirley’s contributions to the community throughout the years make him a natural choice for the honor.
Born in Pensacola, Shirley’s father was in the Navy and the family’s travels took them all over the globe, so it should come as no surprise that interesting food and international flavors have always been an important part of the Santa Rosa Beach resident’s life.
The Southern influences on his cooking come straight from his parent’s families who hailed from Georgia.
His hand’s-on culinary education, which includes those broad influences, began innocently enough: Shirley began cooking burgers at the age of 15. But what attracted him to the business? Well, that’s easy.
“I think naturally in my heart, I love to entertain people. I want them to be happy and I’m a natural host,” he says. “Then as I got older, there’s this deep love of cooking that grew deeper and deeper, so when you mix them together you’re at where I am right now.”
He opened his first South Walton restaurant, Great Southern Café, in 2006. At the time, the area’s culinary scene was just starting to emerge. Restaurants like The Red Bar, Café Thirty-A and The Lake House, which would go on to become Stinky’s Fish Camp, led the way.
Since those early days, the culinary scene in South Walton has grown tremendously, as has Shirley’s portfolio, which now includes Great Southern Cafe, 45 Central Wine & Sushi Bar and The Meltdown on 30A in Seaside, in addition to The Bay and Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria in Santa Rosa Beach.
“The fun part has been that personally, I’ve been able to expand into some other types of foods,” he said. “I really enjoy getting to do something a little bit different.”
“Like here (Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria), we’re into pizza and the fun beach bar stuff we’ve got going on. The Meltdown on 30A is a great place for kids and has become this great place for people to mix and meet with friends. There are great wines and sushi at 45 Central,” Shirley added. “For me, it’s been a great exploration.”
There’s no denying the role that a diverse food scene plays in South Walton’s overall appeal. Outside of spending time at the beach, dining in restaurants is often cited by visitors to the area as a top priority.
The continual growth of the local foodie landscape is especially important to Shirley, who has seen the area grow over the years.
“We’re really fortunate in South Walton that we have this space around us, this natural beauty. Between nature walks, the beautiful water and the beaches, and this influx of just really great chefs, we’ve kind of built this area as a culinary destination,” Shirley says, “and I’m really proud to be part of that group.”
As proud as he is of the blossoming culinary scene, Shirley may be just as proud, if not more so, of the giving nature that’s engrained in the South Walton community.
He’s a true believer in giving back to those in need, whether it’s through food or through any of the local charities and professional groups he volunteers with.
“I think you should just give back instinctively,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to think about it. It’s just an immediate reaction — if somebody falls down, you pick them back up. That’s just the way you do things.”
Nowhere was that mindset more evident than in the days and weeks that followed the landfall of Hurricane Michael to the areas east of Walton County. Thousands of people found themselves without housing, food and basic human needs. That’s when Shirley, along with other area chefs and community members, jumped into action.
As a chef, Shirley was uniquely positioned to help feed people. He had tents, cooking utensils, food and the manpower, tools he immediately put to work feeding the hungry, and in some ways giving hope to the hopeless.
“Everybody took turns, really,” he says of the efforts. “The whole area just stepped up.”
All told, Shirley estimates that he and his team served somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 meals. He didn’t do it for press clippings, a pat on the back or for notoriety. For Shirley, it was just the right thing to do.
“It just shows what a great community South Walton is,” he said. “It’s really just an amazing group.”
Despite all of the professional accolades and the honors he’s received throughout his culinary career, Shirley remains down to earth and approachable. He’s not the type to boast about his achievements in conversation. Instead, he continues to take the same simple approach that has brought him to where he is today.
“When I think about what’s happening around me, I just like to think about whether or not people are comfortable. Everything that’s in me is about hospitality,” he says.