The Central Florida Atlantic Coast area is often thought of as being a part of the “Space Coast” or even the place to launch an ocean cruise, but it is also home to the water and sand of Cocoa Beach, a world class destination for those seeking a special place in the sun… and what would a world class beach be without world class food?
That is where John Flaherty’s skills come in, as Executive Chef at “Pelican’s Bar & Grill,” “Rikki Tiki Tavern,” “Keith’s Oyster Bar,” “The Boardwalk Bar,” and “Sea Dogs!”
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, and raised in southern New Jersey, Chef John recalls how he broke into the restaurant business, “A friend’s family owned a restaurant, and he offered me a job. He said the position as dish washer was open and asked if I wanted it or not. I told him I was only thirteen, but he said ‘Do you want it or not?’ and of course I said ‘Yes’ and I have been in the kitchen ever since, from thirteen years old.”
Chef John worked for fourteen years in New Jersey in two different restaurants, and he loved the education and culinary training he received in the Northeast. “I never went to culinary school… although I DID drive through the parking lot… I learned as much as I could in the kitchen, from all the books you’re supposed to read to talking and learning from the chefs and being mentored by them. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of work, but to me, that was the best way to learn.”
Chef John moved to Florida in 1985 and never looked back. “It was like starting my career all over again, I had to break into the culinary scene here in Central Florida. But I also met my wife and settled down, had kids… basically, I calmed down my ‘wild rebel side’ and took a huge step towards being the man I am today.”
Hard work and always keeping his eye on the goal has led Chef John in many different directions. “I have been the Executive Chef at the ‘Orlando Arena and Centroplex’, ‘Columbia Restaurant’ in Tampa, Florida, at private country clubs, the Orange County Convention Center… I really jumped around, but it was a great way to further my knowledge, to learn and educate myself… since I didn’t go to a culinary school, I had to work very hard to learn and perfect my craft firsthand… and it is a process that never stops, I continue to learn new approaches and techniques. If you apply yourself and keep an open mind, you will be surprised at what life will teach you!”
Chef John believes you have to find the delicate balance between being a manager and a culinary artist. “Being a good chef is really combining all your skills and experiences. The numbers are just as important as the artistry… to make it you have to understand the business side, to be able to look at what you are creating and developing and then decide if it is feasible for your business… you can’t afford to be extravagant in your decisions, you have to make solid business sense as well.”
Chef John has done what it takes to learn what he calls “both sides of the house.” “The path from washing dishes to becoming an Executive Chef was a hard one, but rewarding. I spent nine years in the front of the house, learning everything I could about the front of the house, and I added that to my knowledge of the back of the house, everything that needs to happen to make the kitchen work. Mostly, what I have learned is that we are in the business of making people happy… when I ask people how they are doing and they are smiling back at me, it really touches my heart!”
“The truth is: people are looking for a good, home cooked meal that is ‘kicked up a notch’ with a professional flair. And to be able to do that, you have to surround yourself with a great staff. I cannot do what I do without my staff… my staff makes me, I don’t make them.” With well over 100 people on his team, Chef John believes the secret to being a good manager is being able to read your team members well, “You have to be able to balance people and personalities, which isn’t always easy… but you treat everyone as an individual and maintain a high level of professionalism, and that saturates your team, makes them family.”
When asked about what is most rewarding about becoming a chef, Chef John becomes very serious, “For me, it’s most rewarding to donate time to help feed homeless children. I work with the ‘Chef and a Child Foundation.’ I have helped in developing that program with the Central Florida chapter of the ‘American Culinary Federation.’ I’ll do whatever it takes to help feed the children and homeless… I mean, we live here, in the United States, and we still have hungry and starving people, which is ridiculous… we need to get it together, get with the program, join humanity!”
What is Chef John’s advice for an aspiring chef? “Listen, it is hard work, on weekends, holidays, you miss your kid’s birthday party, the football game, the basketball game… it is a sacrifice of your time, and if you don’t have a passion for it, you won’t make it, you have to buckle down, learn everything you can, become a sponge, you have to love life and love people and most importantly you have to learn how to thrive on ‘The Grind’ because the stress and pressure of the grind is where you will grow and improve. Look deep inside yourself, find out what it is you want in life, and more importantly, what you are willing to sacrifice to get it… because it takes a ton of dedication… the dedication of a lifetime!”
The next time you find yourself in Cocoa Beach, Florida, be sure to swing by “Pelican’s Bar & Grill,” “Rikki Tiki Tavern,” “Keith’s Oyster Bar,” “The Boardwalk Bar,” or even the “Sea Dogs” beach grill and order your favorite beach treat… and if you happen to run into Executive Chef John Flaherty, remember that it is your smile that makes his day, just as his smile is sure to make yours!