The Thirty-A Review September 2020

c h e f p r o f i l e

Chef Drew of Alys Beach b y A n d y B u t c h e r

B ut for some limp lettuce, Drew Dzejak might not have pursued a life in the kitchen. While working towards his degree in culinary arts and food service management at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, he had gigs as a banquet captain by night and cook by day. With a forthcoming marriage, he took a better-paying front-of-house job thinking that might be the wiser career choice. Three months in, he was carrying salads to a VIP dinner when he looked down and decided he just couldn’t serve them the way they looked: all wilted. “I re-plated them all,” he recalls. “I couldn’t walk into the room with them the way they were.” That moment pivoted Dzejak back to the kitchen, taking a pay cut as a breakfast cook at the five-star Woodlands Inn in Somerville, South Carolina, for the chance to work under celebrated executive chef Ken Vedrinski. “He was a genius when it comes to food,” Dzejak says. “He was flexible; not a by- the-book type. I remember one night we changed the menu during dinner service, because he didn’t like the way it was coming out.” Those two formative experiences—the impact of appearance and the importance of

Drew Dzejak

In this role he oversees a wide range of operations that defy a cookie-cutter approach: Instagram- worthy poolside dining at the flagship Caliza

wrap and burrata toast are popular, along with entrees such as grilled tuna escabeche, seared scallop, and crispy skin snapper. Slow-cook desserts trend to the shareable too: banana bread pudding, key lime pie, buttermilk cheesecake, chocolate mousse. Overall, Dzejak acknowledges a Mediterranean shade to the menu, fitting with the strikingly blue- watered and white-walled environment, though he notes that doesn’t simply mean Greek. “The Mediterranean touches France, Spain, and Italy,” he points out, allowing for lots of variations on a theme. “Egypt touches the Mediterranean, and Turkey, with the spice road. It’s all the Mediterranean.” An additional flavor twist is brought by the Peruvian influence of Caliza’s chef Renato Falconi. Naturally, in keeping with Caliza’s outdoor allure, there is an emphasis on fresh. Except for the Spanish octopus, seafood is “probably right from the Gulf you’ve just been looking at,” while vegetables are sourced from a farming collective in Louisiana. And sometimes, in a pinch when one is needed, some basil from Drew’s own home garden. Caliza Restaurant is located at 23 Nonesuch Way, Alys Beach, Florida 32461 Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Go to or call (850) 213-5700. restaurant, stylish nibbles at Neat, and simple grab-and- go from Piper’s Kitchen.

adaptability—have been his drivers since becoming Executive Chef for Alys Beach four years ago. In this role he oversees a wide range of operations that defy a cookie- cutter approach: Instagram-worthy poolside dining at the flagship Caliza restaurant, stylish nibbles at Neat, and simple grab-and-go from Piper’s Kitchen (run by his wife, Stephanie). And coming soon: the restaurant at the new homeowner-exclusive Beach Club at Alys Beach, opening on the beach side of 30-A. In addition to offering a new culinary challenge, coming to Alys Beach has reunited Dzejak with former colleagues and brought him back closer to his roots: he grew up in Kissimmee, getting a first love for cooking from helping his grandmother. Another bonus is being even closer to the beach for his children: Aurora and John. Given that a good meal engages all the senses, it’s no wonder that a creative chef like Dzejak pays attention to both palate and palette. Caliza’s al fresco setting means serving romaine (“It’s hardier; stands up a little longer”) rather than softer butter and red oak lettuces (“They

don’t last long”) in the summer; while in the winter, plates are presented more tightly to retain the heat. That’s not the only seasonality to take into account. Dzejak has also learned to tweak the offerings depending on who’s in town for spring break: homeowners and guests alike. Texas week perhaps expectedly means an additional meat for Lone Star State visitors, while Nashville’s arrivals crave extra fish (“They’re a little more landlocked, and they want to try seafood.”). Ask him about a signature dish and he demurs in the down-to-earth manner that characterizes his fluid approach to an up-market clientele. “It’s all about what the diners want,” he says. “I might have a favorite, but if it’s the bottom seller, then I am sorry, it has to go.” There are two perennial Caliza diner favorites, however: octopus and, surprisingly on hot summer evenings, soup: corn, asparagus, and pea. (“It’s just one of those things you don’t make at home,” is how he explains the appeal.) With female diners outnumbering the men, Caliza’s menu emphasizes light (“No heavy marinades, no heavy sauces”), and shareable. Appetizers like jumbo lump crab

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