Gene Still opened Blue Apron Cafe & Catering in order to spend more time with his son. After cooking from scratch in the countryside and serving cocktails to Aerosmith and Bill Clinton, Chef Gene now brings a homestyle cafe with originality to the Rosemary District. We sat down with Gene as he told us about life in the restaurant business, Bill Clinton’s drink of choice, and how a night at home with his son inspired his most favorite dish.
We start these interviews with the same question: are you from Sarasota, and if not, where are you from?
I’m originally from Kansas City, Missouri, I spent 25 years there. After that, I lived in The Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston. Then in 2003, my wife and I moved to Sarasota. Since then, we’ve had a son. He’s almost 9.
Who and what were your culinary inspirations in Kansas City?
My biggest inspirations are my mother and my Aunt Virginia who is a farmer’s wife. I didn’t grow up in the farmer’s life but we went on vacation. We’d go up there for a month each summer for about 10-12 years. They had a long family gathering table and every meal was made from scratch.
Did you learn to cook from your mother and aunt?
Yes, on the farm, guys get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, go do their chores, and come back around 6:30 or 7 to eat breakfast. The women get up and get that ready for them. They’d go from farmhouse to farmhouse, helping each other out. They’d get together and make biscuits, jams and pancakes. You don’t just buy Aunt Jemima pancake mix and mix it with water in the country, you make it! And I caught myself as a teen helping the ladies, my aunts and their friends. The guys would be in the field doing their stuff, but I’d be in the kitchen, helping and learning.
When did you decide make it a career?
Well I grew up in the restaurant business. I worked at award-winning restaurants and made my way up through the ranks. All of those experiences enabled me at 25 to open up a restaurant called The American Cafe. People thought I was crazy but when you’re groomed in cooking, by the time you’re 25, it’s a lifetime. We did breakfast, lunch, and dinner— Continental and American favorites. I had that restaurant for 3 years and one day a guy walked in and decided he wanted to buy it. Where I’m from, everything is for sale. So we went back and forth on it, and he made me a good offer, so I said let’s do it.
What happened after you sold your first restaurant?
I went to Houston and got experience in fine dining working for a couple of great chefs. All fresh ingredients, right out of the fields. In Texas, it was a different scene. It was more Tex-Mex, Asian fusion, and some BBQ (though I come from the BBQ capital of the world, in my opinion.) But I got to learn more, open up my horizons as a chef, as a food lover and as a beverage person.
Where’d you work in Texas?
I worked at The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center. It’s one of the biggest resorts in the world. I was there for 12 years. I mainly worked on the beverage side of it as the Director of Beverage Operations. It was cocktails, bars and banquets. We would serve everybody, from presidents to sheiks. The big oil guys of the world come to Houston for meetings and conferences, as well as a lot of other celebrities and politicians.
Who is a memorable politician you served?
President Bill Clinton came in during his presidency.
What did President Clinton drink?
A bourbon Manhattan.
What other celebrities top your list?
Jay Leno was great. The Aerosmith guys were a lot of fun. And Jimmy Buffet came all the time. But my favorite was definitely Bono.
I needed to do my own thing and spend some time with my son. And that’s why I started Blue Apron.
With such a great job serving celebrities, why’d you move here?
We were just looking for a change. Something different. Houston was muggy hot, just a concrete jungle. My mother had a place near Sun n Fun down here. We came for vacations. I always thought it was place you come to vacation but not to live. But when we found Sarasota it was just like a little gem. And the growth here is unbelievable since 2003.
When you came to Florida, where’d you work?
I was at Laurel Oaks golf course, building their wine portfolio. When I was there they did a huge expansion and set it up for catering and banquets. After that I went to Barnacle Bill’s Seafood. They do a really good job and I was on the beverage side again, upgrading his wine selections. He wanted to win some awards, which he did. It was great but I found myself wanting to take another direction.
Why did you want to take a new direction?
I became a father and for the first 5 years my son’s life, I would kiss him good morning and kiss him goodnight. Both times, he was asleep. I was just a workhorse, working a crazy amount of hours. It starts making trouble in your relationship when you’re gone all the time. I just felt that I didn’t want that anymore. I made great money, but I just decided it wasn’t about the money. I needed to do my own thing and spend some time with my son. And that’s why I started Blue Apron. Breakfast and lunch is where it’s at, but it’d been a while since I’d done breakfast. Getting up at the crack of dawn to do the biscuits and batters is tough. But we close at 3 and I pick up son at school. We have a life now.
Why did you choose to open Blue Apron in the Rosemary District?
When we first got here, I had a little catering company down in Gulf Gate. I only did private chef parties. And I started getting calls to come downtown everyday. I just said, man I need to be downtown. So that’s how we ended up here.
What are some the changes you’ve seen in the neighborhood since coming here?
It’s grown. It’s now a vibrant neighborhood, and a safer neighborhood. If you leave for a few months and come back, you’re going to see buildings that weren’t here before. There are 6,000 people slated for this area in the next couple of years. That’s huge. The future is exciting around here! I hope the cafe grows over the next 10-15 years.
Any significance in the name Blue Apron?
The blue apron is an old tradition in French cooking. It stands for something in the French culinary hierarchy. Everybody would prep in blue aprons. But only the chef would wear the blue apron during service. The apron represents that you’ve earned your wings, your credentials. You’re a master.
I know you’re re-branding the cafe. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, we’re in the process of going through a name change. There’s a meal delivery company in NY called Blue Apron. They’ve been in business since 2012. I’ve had my name since 2004. But they sent me a letter asking me to change my name and I said no. But much later they bought my website from me and some of the clientele gets confused. We get calls from people asking for the other company. I felt it was time to start fresh, give it a new name and a new look. So it’ll only be Blue Apron until the end of the summer.
What will your new name be?
The proximity of the cafe and catering company is north of Main Street, so we’re uptown. That’s why our new name will be Uptown Eatery and Catering. I’ve got a guy working on my marketing and website. We’re rolling that out over the summer. The new website will be UptownEatery.net and we’re going to have Grace Howl come in and do a big mural on the side of the restaurant. We’re going to do some menu changes, including getting into some dinners.
Last question: what’s your favorite dish on your menu?
Our chicken and sausage rice bowl. The dish came as a product of experimentation. It was just my son and I one night because his mother was traveling. I wasn’t feeling very good so we stayed in and there was no food in the fridge. I had some chicken and some sausage and some rice and vegetables and I just started throwing things together. I’ve tweaked it since but the inspiration came from a father and son sitting around at home with not too many options. I added Sriracha sauce and soy sauce and he said “Dad, this is good!” So I ran it as a special one day during the summer and some guys came in that day and said it was really good. This dish just comes together beautifully, and was created one perfect night watching movies with my son.