What's Cookin' Downtown?
an interview with
The Veranda's Chef
William Murray

by Cindy-jo Dietz

LIKE MANY WRITERS, I also have another job as a barber here in Fort Myers. As such, I work closely with many long-time residents of the Fort Myers area, coming from all walks of life. On many occasions, while working with someone’s hair, the subject of where a good place to dine here in town comes up. Many love Italian food, some prefer Americana and then there are the more discerning diners who prefer a more ‘upscale’ experience. The Veranda is often mentioned. It’s a popular favorite for local business people, to residents looking for a special evening out, to young men looking to impress a date or sweetheart.

If I had a nickel for every time The Veranda was suggested as the place to go for a meal that was going to blow my socks off, I would be a very rich woman. So, of course finding out I would be interviewing their Chef William Murray peaked my interest.

Located within a historic set of houses dating back to 1902, The Veranda sits on the corner of Second Street & Broadway, smack dab in the middle of the downtown courts district.

Walking up to the front door, I am immediately impressed. The building and dining rooms look spectacular. The atmosphere is old world, wood everywhere, with elegant finishes and tapestries. It all brings you back to another time. In fact the site originally was contained within a fort. It is unlike any other restaurant in town. And like the decor and ambience of the restaurant, Chef Murray is as unique in his own way.

Chef Murray is serious about his work at The Veranda. He, like many of the staff, have been working with the Pedens, owners for the past 35 years, since early in his restaurant career. The Veranda, he tells me, has a very low turnover rate. It’s all part of what makes it such a special dining establishment and is a huge part of what helps to keep its excellent reputation. “It’s the consistency, it’s the atmosphere, ‘ he explains. “It’s known to be very romantic.” He continues, “The service experience, the quality of the food, the desserts – everything is top notch, right from when you’re walking in the door to walking back out.”

A chef since 1989, Murray says he has always known this is what he wanted to do with his career. “Right from the get-go I knew

I wanted to work in a restaurant,” He recalls. “When I was in high school my first job was as a dishwasher. I worked my way up to being an assistant kitchen manager. Then I moved to Florida and went to the Culinary Institute of America.”

Murray says originally it was his mother’s cooking that inspired him. “I used to be right next to her all the time,” he says. “Actually a long time ago, I was probably 12 years old, she picked a chicken cordon bleu recipe out from the newspaper. We made it together every week.”

Murray says that although he has worked a few brief stints at other establishments, The Veranda has been his primary location for most of his career. “I was a chef at Smitty’s on McGregor, which has the same owners as The Veranda. Most of my career has been spent working for the Pedens,” he says. “They’ve made me more particular about my plates and my tastes. The owners have very high standards and they have brought me up to those standards.”

I have had the opportunity to work in the restaurant business myself. Typically, and I don’t mean to generalize, but chefs can often be quite ornery and controlling. It’s their kitchen and they like to run it their way. I asked Chef Murray how the way he runs his kitchen might be different.

“I’m not a screamer, but I do expect the job to get done. I’m pretty low key until you don’t listen to me,’ he says. “Everyone knows. My kitchen staff has been here four, five, six years at the least. It’s like a big family here.”

Does Chef Murray have a favorite dish off the menu? “The Florida Grouper,’ he declares. “It’s served with a green tomato, shrimp and black eyed pea succotash, and finished with Tabasco butter.”

And what makes this dish different from the rest? The Chef explains, “It has more of a southern flare. A lot of our menu is more French. Plus, it has Tasso ham in it. That has about the most powerful flavor.”

Aside from Chef’s choice, I asked what the patrons prefer. “The Filet Mignon, the Yellowtail Snapper, the Veal Piccata – everything,’ he says. “I mean, I can’t pick just one.”

Are there any ingredients that he prefers working with? “Cilantro,” he says. “It has a fresh flavor. And garlic obviously. Mainly just all fresh herbs.”

I asked the Chef about how The Veranda adopts the latest culinary trends and what is trending now. “Right now it’s all about healthy, fresh, organic food,’ he notes. “I’ve actually created a light and luscious menu. Three years ago I lost about 115 pounds in about 6 months – just on a diet.” Not easy to do working in a kitchen, but the proof is written all over the trimmed down chef.

Will there be any other new recipes served at The Veranda any time soon? “Generally, we do one or two different tweaks about three times a year,’ he says. “ In fact, in the next three weeks we’re changing the menu, but we’re not quite sure what we’re changing it to yet.”

Are there any mainstays that will never be removed? “The table side Chateaubriand, table side Caesar and the Bourbon Street Filet. Those, for sure, aren’t going anywhere,” he assures me.

Like all professionals, the chef encourages patrons to let him, and the rest of the staff, know how their dining experience was. He says, “People come by my window all the time. It’s an open kitchen. We get a lot of positive thoughts, from excellent to the presentation was beautiful, but still we are continually trying to better ourselves.”

Personally, I think this attitude is what makes The Veranda and Chef Murray so superb. Even when at the top, the staff is committed to making the dining experience at their restaurant even better. •

May-June 2013

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