The executive chef of LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort’s BALEEN restaurant dishes out his most coveted kitchen equipment, where his culinary inspiration comes from, and his favorite recipe for you to take home.
What drew you to the food industry? How did you get started as a chef?
I grew up in a food-oriented household since my father was in the wholesale grocery business. Growing up, I was heavily involved in the building trades and would seek work and refuge during the colder months in restaurants. During those times, I realized I had an innate knowledge for food.
Have you traveled at all for culinary inspiration? If so, where?
I have traveled extensively around the world to many places – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and Canada – but not always exclusively for food. Food memories are long-lasting and can leave an impression; they have guided my instincts and palate throughout my career.
Do you have a signature ingredient that gives your cooking a unique, personal touch?
I don’t have a signature ingredient in mind, but I have had periods and phases throughout the years where I have favored different ingredients and flavor profiles. To be honest, I dislike food fads, but I will occasionally ride those waves because I feel an obligation to deliver to our guests’ desires.
What is your all-time favorite dish to make? Do you have a favorite wine pairing for the dish?
My mood will generally dictate which dish to make, but it will invariably be something simple and clean. I’m a sucker for simple pastas paired with the season’s freshest offerings, whatever they may be. I love braised foods that have been cooked long and slow with developed layers of flavors. I prefer red wine and always enjoy searching for quality, value-oriented offerings.
What is your dream piece of cooking equipment?
I rely on sous vide equipment for a lot of daily usage, but I’m old fashioned and have spent a lot of time cooking outdoors, so a good wood grill and a smoker go a long way for me.
Is there a chef (or multiple chefs) who inspired you along your career path? Who?
My chef idols include Louis Szathmary from The Bakery (Chicago) and Hermann Rusch from the Greenbrier.
What do you like to do for fun when you’re not busy in the kitchen?
I have a passion for golf, and I love to read.
What is your favorite part of being a chef? Biggest challenge?
My favorite part of being a chef is creating delicious food, pleasing guests, and bringing a team together to execute a unified vision in a consistent manner. My biggest challenge is the same answer!
What are your favorite things to do around Naples?
I love golfing, boating, shopping, and dining out in Naples. I try to see as much of the competition as possible.
What would be your alternative career choice?
Architect or builder.
Chef Sexton’s LaPlayabaisse Recipe
2 lbs. fresh black grouper or snapper filet cut into 4-oz. pieces
4 lbs. Sunray Venus Clams
1 1/2 lbs. Dry Bay Scallops
1 1/2 lbs. Key West Pink Shrimp
1/2 c. olive oil
1 c. thinly sliced onion
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1/4 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, or 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
3 large tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
whole black peppercorns
For Sauce Rouille
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1 1/2 c. tomato juice
16 oz. clam juice or fish stock
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
toasted sliced French baguette for garnish
1.) Put saffron threads in warm water to soak for 10 minutes.
2.) In a blender or food processor, add garlic, red hot pepper, salt, and bread. Blend until very smooth.
3.) Add saffron water mixture while continuing to blend, then add olive oil slowly. Stop the blending when oil is absorbed and you reach a heavy mayonnaise consistency. Set aside.
4.) Bake potatoes in 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, remove from oven, and let cool. Slice into half-inch thick discs, and reserve for service.
1.) Heat a small amount of oil in the bottom of a sauté pan until hot. Season the top side of the fish with salt and pepper, then sear that side down in the pan for two to three minutes. Do not rotate the fish. Remove from the pan, placing the seared side up and set aside.
2.) Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saucepot on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions, leeks, and fennel. Stir to coat the vegetables with the olive oil. Cook on medium heat until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3.) Add the crushed garlic and chopped tomatoes to the sauce pot. Tie the bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns in the cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni, and tie off the top. Add saffron and salt. Cook until all the vegetables have softened and begin to meld together, about another 8 to 10 minutes.
4.) Add tomato juice and fish stock to the sauce pot, and continue to cook for 8 to 10 more minutes.
5.) Add the fish fillets, clams, shrimp, and bay scallops to the sauce pot so that the shellfish is now covered in liquid, and boil for 8 to 10 minutes more, covered. Add freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste. Remove the bouquet garni from the broth.
6.) Toast baguette slices, and top with Rouille.
7.) Place potato slices under broiler or in toaster just enough to warm through.
8.) Place slice of potato in bowl, top with fish and shellfish, and cover with broth.
9.) Place toasted baguette on edge of bowl, and serve.
La Playa’s “Beachside Affair” Dinner
Indulge your inner bon vivant with a private five-course beachside dinner for two hosted by BALEEN Executive Chef John Sexton. Enjoy expertly crafted gourmet creations, including chef’s signature “LaPlayabaisse” with thoughtful wine parings and two glasses of Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle Brut Champagne upon arrival. At sunset, a professional photographer will capture a stunning couples’ portrait, making this the ultimate night to remember.
First Course: Hudson Valley Foie Gras brioche French toast, pineapple chutney, vanilla gastrique
Second Course: Hawaiian Ahi Tuna Poke crispy shrimp cracker, togarashi tempura flake, daikon radish confetti
First two courses will be paired with a glass of Domaine Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres” 2010
Third Course: Wagyu Carpaccio Panzanella coffee-seared wagyu beef carpaccio, baby arugula, heirloom tomato, capers, onion, and torn focaccia, aged balsamic, shaved parmesan
Fourth Course: “LaPlayabaisse” Executive Chef John Sexton Signature dish Marseille-style Bouillabaisse re-created with all local, sustainable seafood, Gulf of Mexico black grouper, Sanibel Venus sunray clams, Sarasota calico scallops, Key West pink shrimp, lardo crostini with saffron-garlic rouille
Third and fourth course will be paired with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Vosne Romanee 2008
Fifth Course: Lemon Curd Tart, Strawberry Swipe chocolate crunch, gianduja chocolate sauce, toasted pistachio cake, berry compote
Close out the evening with two one-ounce pours of Louis XIII Cognac from Remy Martin
Contact: Reservations required; limited time offering. Book your Beachside Affair by contacting our concierge directly at 239-449-1225.