Chef Craig Whyte has worked in South Florida restaurants for 33 years and prepared all types of amazing seafood dishes, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that he finally went offshore fishing.
His day with Pat Utter aboard Capt. Dennis Forgione’s Free Spool out of Haulover Marina in North Miami-Dade was educational and enjoyable.
It also resulted in several fish that Whyte prepared at Utter’s restaurant Shenanigan’s Eastside Pub & Barbecue, where Whyte is the head chef.
He caught a kingfish and several bonitos on the trip and Utter, Dale Salkeld and Neil Krefsky also caught a mutton snapper, almaco jacks and a dolphin, among other species. But perhaps the biggest highlight, aside from Whyte’s first saltwater fish, was Utter’s son Matthew, 11, catching and releasing his first sailfish on a live pilchard and a 12-pound spinning outfit.
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Whyte had no idea what he had been missing all those years.
“It was just a lot of fun,” Whyte said. “I got to see the kite-fishing, and the sitting on the wrecks and the free-spooling and all that. I learned about pilchards, I got the needlefish. And I look forward to doing it again.
“It’s something you have to see one time. If you live in Florida, you definitely go to Disney World and you definitely have to go deep sea fishing. It was really, really cool.”
Whyte is originally from Kentucky, where he grew up catching freshwater fish such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie and catfish. In South Florida, he would fish from shore in local lakes and canals for largemouth and peacock bass.
“When I moved down here, it was just more available to go freshwater fishing,” he said. “I never saltwater fished.”
His first offshore trip came about thanks to a fortuitous perfect storm: Whyte had a day off and Forgione wasn’t booked.
“Craig is such an integral part of the restaurant, for him to get a Saturday off is rare,” Utter said. “Dennis asked me the day before, ‘Listen, I haven’t been out much lately, would you be interested in going fishing tomorrow?’ So I asked Craig if he wanted to go.”
Utter and Whyte had worked at the old Martha’s in Hollywood, where Whyte cleaned all the fish that were delivered to the restaurant. Whyte handled all the fish at his next restaurant job, then went to work for Utter when he opened Shenanigan’s Sports Pub in Hollywood in 1992.
Whyte now is the chef at Shenanigan’s Eastside in Dania Beach, which Utter opened 11 years ago and which offers a cook your catch special where, for $15.99, Whyte will prepare lobsters and filleted fish that customers bring in up to three different ways, plus two sides.
Fish, along with ribs, smoked pork, wings and pizza, and fishing are big at the restaurant. Utter, who grew up fishing with his father in South Florida, hosts meetings of the Hollywood Hills Saltwater Fishing Science and Social Club, which meets the first Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at Shenanigan’s Eastside. The club posts its free meetings at www.meetup.com; Capt. Bouncer Smith has a mystery seminar this Wednesday.
Whyte also provides a weekly recipe on the Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show — I am a co-host along with Eric Brandon — that airs 6-8 Saturday mornings on WINZ 940 AM.
“I’ve always dealt with fish that either was on the menu or people have brought in to cook. So that’s where I got the experience to cook the seafood,” Whyte says. “It’s so ironic that I never fished for it but I’m looking at it and I’m cooking it and eating it.
“So I when I started doing the radio show, I told Pat that I would love to go out to experience that, to see something come out of that blue water. That’s what happened [with Forgione] and it was a lot of fun. I learned about a frigate bird, I learned how to tie a uni-knot, I learned about pulling fish off the wrecks and things like that.
“You’re out there and it’s so beautiful. I’m watching the baitfish go out, I’m watching the guys fish with kites, it’s really a different experience. I’m ready to do it again. Next thing is I want to get a tarpon. I’ve heard that is unbelievable to catch a tarpon, they get so big.”
Most anglers do not like kingfish, claiming it’s too fishy, but Whyte’s grilled kingfish was delicious, without a hint of fishiness.
The kingfish was packed in ice during and after the trip so it stayed fresh. At the restaurant, Whyte cut off the king’s head and then cut the fish into inch-thick steaks by slicing across the body of the fish with a sharp serrated knife.
Whyte didn’t even season the fish, he simply put oil on both sides and grilled it for three to four minutes on each side and then finished it in the oven for five to 10 minutes. The fish was moist and flavorful. Whyte served it with grape tomatoes, a delicious puttanesca sauce featuring capers and sliced kalamata olives, and angel hair pasta.
“Chefs don’t get a lot of acknowledgments in sports pubs,” Utter said. “but the consistency of the food is the fact that Craig’s been consistent with me, and he has a fine dining background.”
And chances now are excellent that Whyte will soon be experimenting with fine new recipes for saltwater fish that he caught himself.