Sporting short, spiky blond-gray hair, a trim goatee and a boyish smile, chef Brendan Orr kicks back under the mahogany canopy that gives the Roof Top Café in Key West its elegant treehouse ambience. The chef who’s called Key West home for the last 13 years recently snagged his sixth consecutive win at the Key West Food & Wine Festival’s Master Chef’s Classic with his New Island cuisine — a unique style that combines fresh local ingredients with Caribbean spices, Asian influences and French technique. Orr admits he’s spoiled by the bounty available in the Keys. He gets his pick of tuna, hogfish, mutton snapper and lobster, not to mention passion fruit, pineapple, avocado, mango and even black mangrove honey. The most requested fish is yellowtail snapper, delivered daily from a Stock Island fish market a few miles up the road. “I serve that with a Key West pink shrimp gravy, which is rue-based — think a lighter, gumbo-style sauce,” he explains. Swiss chard and garlic mashed potatoes complete the dish.
Other fine produce, like heirloom tomatoes, sweet watermelon and crisp cucumbers, is sourced from Homestead, “the breadbasket of South Florida, only a hop, skip and jump away.” Orr turns these items into a tasty salad with goat’s milk feta cheese and a roasted garlic vinaigrette. Buying fresh daily is a habit Orr cultivated while working in France. “In Paris you shop every day, so I appreciated buying gorgeous ingredients and letting them speak for themselves.”
When he returned to the States, he was drawn to Key West. “This was as far away from being in the United States as I could imagine,” he says. “It’s an international city. It reminds me of the European mentality where you actually take the time to sit down and appreciate your food — and that sense of excitement is always here.”
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