Parrot Head Chef-Stuart Marsh
Stuart Marsh, the new head chef at the popular Parrot Key Caribbean Grill since August, comes from his culinary roots honestly – at his mother’s knee!
“My Mum had her own catering business when I was a kid, so I was always around food,” recalls Marsh in his delightful British accent. “I found it fascinating how she could pull a handful of ingredients from the pantry and transform them into a gourmet meal, and always asked how she accomplished this.” His parents took the next step in the early 1990s by acquiring their own pub called the “Sow & Pig,” including living in the front of and above the establishment. “Cooking, because of Mum, became a natural progression for me,” he relates.
While Marsh had cuisine in his blood, he needed something early on in life to immediately pay the bills. A youthful marriage, fatherhood, and a mortgage led him to join the Jackie Stewart Racing Team as what he describes as a “traveling spare man,” in charge of backup parts. Marsh fondly recalls this time as “something you never want to lose” but travel was extensive. “We would spend 5 days in Monaco preparing for the race, then as soon as it was over, move on to Spain or elsewhere in Europe.”
While Stewart Racing drove his finances, the vagabond life was tough on a couple with two young sons. That eventually dissolved, with his ex-wife remarrying and moving their children to Germany. Marsh for his part met then married Jayne, but her two sons relocated to the United States with their father. In 2003 Marsh’s dad passed away, and soon-thereafter, Jayne’s mom. “We suddenly found ourselves without any of our sons, and my Dad and her Mum; it was a catalog of things. These were tough times, so we went to Spain to look for a holiday house. We were not running away, but definitely needed to regroup.”
Before their move, Chef Stuart helped his Mum again, this time in running the “Sow & Pig” after the death of his father until its sale roughly two years later. This, combined with relocating to Spain, reignited his passion: “food became exciting again!” On his second day in Torrevieja, a Mediterranean resort in southeast Spain famous for its row of entertainment and dining establishments called The Strip, the Bay Tree hired him to assist in the kitchen; within six months he was head chef. Over the next two years, “I made the owners a lot of money,” smiles Stuart. “It was then we decided to open our own restaurant.”
They took their dream a step further by constructing their place rather than acquiring an existing one. “I built it myself,” Marsh says with pride. “I did not do the detail work, but when we needed to connect the building to the sewer pipes, I drove the jackhammer through the floor. It was a six-month build-out that culminated in our May 2007 grand opening.”
Stuart and Jayne christened it “Frissan,” a made-up word to honor their recently-lost parents and their location. “The first two letters are in tribute to my late mother-in-law, Frances, and the next two from my dad, Christopher. The last three reference our village of San Miguel de Salinas.” He describes this period as “when the Foodie really came out in me! This was my baby, and it was going to succeed or fail on my talent.” Chef Marsh opted for a small menu that seasonally rotated 12 appetizers, a dozen entrees, and 5 homemade desserts. He purchased fish and meats daily from local markets, gaining “Frissan” an outstanding reputation for freshness.
It was a smashing success, buoyed by English residents migrating to the continent due to the tremendous exchange rate between the Pound and Euro. The resulting housing boom brought in more customers, and then the global economic crash changed everything.
“Frissan” remained open for dinner each evening, but Stuart and Jayne took second jobs. “We killed ourselves,” he relates, “working to keep our dream alive.” Suddenly exchange rates came to their rescue again. “The Nordic nations were one of the few regions that prospered during this era, with the result that their own prices were exceedingly high. The Kroner-to-Euro exchange meant a meal costing $500 there was $50 in Spain, so many traveled to our region and spent like it would soon be out of fashion.” Marsh took even greater satisfaction from the San Miguel de Salinas villagers. “We became the place to come to among our neighbors and that was great. In fact, they would not say they were going to dinner at ‘Frissan’ but to Stuart and Jayne’s!”
Culinary awards followed, with a highlight in 2011 when Coast Writer publications selected “Frissan” as the finest restaurant in the region. Stuart explains, “we received the nomination from the readership, and that alone was a tremendous honor. The process included a formal interview, with secret diners providing reviews. At the ceremony, they introduced the three finalists, with none of us knowing the result. Then, just like at the Academy Awards, they opened the envelope and announced us, with my wife and I making our acceptance speech.
“’Frissan’ was successful because we provided flair without adding it to the price. We were so reasonable that, rather than being that high-end place you only go to once or twice a year for special occasions, ‘Frissan” became that terrific restaurant you went to once or twice a week. We did simple things, like decanting your wine, having a strong visual appeal, and offering small complimentary appetizers that made you feel like you were in a top-of-the-market destination.”
Business could not supersede family, however. Jayne often visited her sons, and then with grandparenthood on the horizon, that relocation feeling grew stronger. Stuart and Jayne began their VISA process, but held off on selling “Frissan” until they received approval. “It was tough when we made the sale because it was our baby that we literally built from the ground-up,” recalls Marsh. “But we did everything, from the shopping to the food preparation to cleaning the restrooms. You could never walk away from it, not even for a day, like having a ball & chain; suddenly it was a very freeing experience.”
They arrived in Fort Myers in October 2013, and within a week Stuart was preparing fresh cuisine for Rene’s Restaurant & Catering. After one year he took his talents to Pagelli’s in Coconut Point, until its unexpected closure. Marsh explains that after two former jobs in two years, “I took time to ensure my next position would be long-term. Shortly thereafter, I learned about Parrot Key. I interviewed with General Manager Jim George for 90 minutes, and by the time I returned home, he already called to see if I could meet with the owners the next day.”
Despite being the Head Parrot for just a few months, Marsh has his taste buds all over the operation. The latest menu features a half-dozen new specialties, from standards not previously offered like Surf & Turf, to sea bass and a stuffed chicken that bursts with flavor. Chef Marsh loves Parrot Key, and sees himself remaining for so long “they will have to carry me out! The hours are long but I like being with my team.” This includes educating his coworkers. “How can our wait staff recommend a special if they don’t know what makes it special,” he asks rhetorically. “I make each for them so they can taste it and know what goes into it, to better explain it to our customers. When they say, ‘May I recommend…’ you can trust their expertise.”
Like many chefs, he doesn’t cook much at home, but from the Parrot Key kitchen Marsh happily suggests anything with Grouper, as they go through over 400 pounds weekly. He marvels at their ribs, mouthwateringly describing them as “off-the-chart! We marinate and slow-cook them with our homemade sauce, and next thing you know we have platefuls of bare bones!” Lunch and dinner specials favor what is fresh daily, like swordfish or red snapper. Have a unique request – make it, says the chef. “If we can accommodate you, we will because we want you back.”
While his oven at home is often off, his television is usually on. “I am addicted to TV cooking shows – it’s like Chef Porn,” Marsh lets out with a hearty chuckle! “I love ‘Top Chef’ and programs that feature regular people rather than executive chefs who cannot poach an egg. It’s about your creativity and what you can do upstairs. It reminds me of the way my Mum cooks.”
It always comes back to Chef Marsh’s Mum! She still lives in England, and he still discusses with her all new menu items and ideas, while she keeps him planted firmly in his roots. “Everything I do at Parrot Key comes from or is in tribute to her,” Chef Marsh concludes. “She is so proud, and I owe her everything!”
Savor waterfront dining at the Parrot Key Caribbean Grill at 2500 Main Street, the last road before crossing the bridge to Fort Myers Beach. Parrot Key is open 7 days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. See www.MyParrotKey.com or call 239-463-3257.