Executive Chef Aaron Webb, a Kennesaw, Georgia-born Atlanta area native, has been working his magic in the kitchen of Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant for the past 15 years. Fitting, given that the ‘ah-ha’ moment to become a chef struck him at the tender age of 15.
“I was working in a restaurant and started washing dishes at 15. I was in the dish pit for about four or five months. It was dirty work, dirty and wet, and I saw that the chef was getting all the glory. He wore a clean white jacket. I knew I wanted to be that guy. I’ve never really done anything else since.”
The restaurant at Casa Marina has evolved since Chef Aaron’s arrival. When he was hired, business wasn’t as plentiful and he found himself with a bit of free time. Over the years, they have gained much more business. Now, an abundance of free time is a thing of the past. Casa Marina used to cater about 20 weddings a year; that number has jumped to 120…and growing. Ten years ago, a third floor restaurant was opened, aptly named The Penthouse Lounge.
Working in the kitchen of an oceanside restaurant is as good as you might imagine it to be. It’s one of the perks that Chef Aaron loves. But it isn’t all about the scenery; it’s the people, too.
With a staff of about 12 in the kitchen, including sous chef Phillip Waddell, the team is a tight knit group. They spend so much time together that, as Chef Aaron says, “I see these guys more than I see my wife. And Casa Marina has really great owners. They’re really great people to work for. I can’t imagine working anywhere else that is such a nice location.”
Chef Aaron also welcomes culinary interns to the Casa Marina a couple times a year, as they graduate, and they typically spend about six weeks with him.
Every chef has that one dish that resonates with diners and Chef Aaron is no exception. Many dishes have passed through his capable hands, but the one which causes a stir—and the one he considers to be his greatest culinary creation—is the Red Snapper, a diamond-scored dish he created about 12 years ago. The Red Snapper is a Casa Marina Sunday Brunch mainstay, and it’s the star of the culinary show.
Joked Chef Aaron, “People have come out here for years to look at it and take pictures.”
A dish like that doesn’t just happen overnight, and this one had humble beginnings.
“I was working on a high end wedding menu at the time. One night I went to a Chinese restaurant and they were serving little whole snappers. I started to wonder what it would be like to take a 15-pound snapper and serve it whole to 100 people.”
That sense of curiosity was the catalyst and the Red Snapper was born. However, in the beginning the dish was not without its problems.
“I first tried frying it, and that didn’t turn out so well. I tried different methods but what I really wanted to do was to bake it without messing it up.”
Sounds like the “if at first you don’t succeed” theory worked for Chef Aaron. However, life in the kitchen wasn’t always rosy. Chef Aaron recalls his worst kitchen disaster.
“I was working as a sous chef at a place in Riverside. The pastry chef was out so they took me off the line and put me on desserts. The pastry chef had prepped soufflés and I ruined a couple of them.” He pauses to reflect on the memory. “That was probably my one big cry in the kitchen,” he adds with a chuckle.
Favorite ingredients to work with means different things to different chefs. Given a choice of five ingredients to prepare a dish, Chef Aaron’s go-to list includes rack of lamb, rosemary, goat cheese, panko bread crumbs and port wine. The dish? Rack of lamb with a rosemary goat cheese crust with port reduction on it. Sounds divine to me.
When it comes to pinning down a favorite ingredient, Chef Aaron leans heavily toward any fresh seafood, with local produce coming a close second.
“Local farms doing herbs and basil…it’s real beachy if you can take a local fish and local produce and make a meal out of it.”
When asked what his most essential kitchen item is, Chef Aaron gives a glimpse into the depth of care he has for his staff.
“The dishwasher. You can’t really start without those guys. You also need a good knife. I have one I’ve used for six years. Once you find a good one, you hang onto it.”
His “Me Time”
Although he spends his work days preparing ‘new beach’ cuisine for others to enjoy, the food Chef Aaron gravitates towards when dining out depends on what day it is.
“If I’m just getting off from work and I did two weddings that day, I’ll find a local Mexican food truck. When I’m going out with my family, I have a hard time eating at lower end places. I’d rather find a locally owned place instead.”
A man whose life revolves around food has himself discriminating tastes. His most memorable food experience occurred the first time he had foie gras done correctly.
“I’d had foie gras in school and at a couple of other places, but then I went to a nice restaurant and the chef made it for me with sautéed onions, strawberries and sweet wine.”
Because His Life Wasn’t Busy Enough . . .
In addition to being at the helm of his kitchen, Chef Aaron, along with Casa Marina GM Mark Vandeloo, are joint owners of ZETA Brewing Company, a Jacksonville Beach craft brewery and restaurant, opened in May 2012 and located one block from the beach.
Brewmaster Chris Prevatt, an old chef friend of Chef Aaron’s, started as a homebrewer. After attending All Saints Brewing Company, followed by Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology, his skill as a brewer preceded him. Aaron and Mark wanted to do something on the side and they came up with the concept of ZETA. Chris was brought on as the brewmaster and he’s been there since.
ZETA keeps about six beers at a time on the menu. The four mainstays are the lager, wheat, IPA and porter.
Lest you get confused, ZETA isn’t just about the brew. There’s also great food to go along with the suds. Chef Aaron formulated ZETA’s menu, hired a great young chef, Josh Claypool, and let go of the reins.
When you’re in the mood for a good made-to-order burger, ZETA doesn’t disappoint. Choose the standard ZETA Burger or build your own. Lovers of the sea will worship the Mahi Sandwich. Don’t overlook the tacos, specialty pizzas, jumbo wings or flatbreads, either.
Life Outside the Kitchen
When asked what took him from Atlanta to Jacksonville Beach, his voice took on an “aww shucks” quality.
“I met a girl.” That girl, Kortney, eventually became his wife.
In his downtime, the husband and father of two likes to surf, engage in beach activities and tries to go fishing as much as he can. His fishing excursions include his sons Cannon, 10 and Jude, 12.
If the culinary world had not been his calling, Chef Aaron likely would have become a musician.
“Before I went to culinary school, I planned on teaching music. I played brass instruments, marched with the drum corps, learned music theory and had hopes of one day playing in a symphony.”
For now, Chef Aaron Webb’s culinary opus is a symphony in its own right.