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Gainesville Restauranteur Celebrates Regional Cuisine in New Cookbook

A photograph from Bert Gill's new cookbook "Pickled, Fried, and Fresh: Bert Gill’s Southern Flavors."
A photograph from Bert Gill's new cookbook "Pickled, Fried, and Fresh: Bert Gill’s Southern Flavors."

It’s a simple recipe: pick what’s in season and complement it with local meat.

That’s the idea behind local chef and restaurant owner Bert Gill’s new cookbook, "Pickled, Fried, and Fresh: Bert Gill’s Southern Flavors." The cookbook highlights ingredients harvested, caught or hunted in the North Central Florida region. It's available in stores Sept. 15.

“It’s our community cookbook,” said Gill, the tall salt-and-pepper chef celebrated for his high energy and expertise. He's hands-on at every level, Gill said. The restauranteur is singular in his focus about creating a successful business model and motivating untrained employees to become experts in their field.

Gill is adamant that food be wholesome and untouched when it enters his kitchen - right down to the bread, which his staff bakes onsite.

“I believe we have everything that you need. The seafood I get here is amazing. The agriculture is top-notch," he said, praising local markets where he gets his ingredients and products.

Although his style is inherently “farm-to-table,” Gill said he’s not fond of that catchword, promoting local eats for quality rather than buying into overexposed popular culture.

“I think ‘farm-to-table’ has been greenwashed,” he said. “I mean, does Wingstop say ‘local’ now?”

Gill began his business in 1999 when he opened Mildred’s Big City Food, located at 3445 W. University Ave. in Gainesville, with his wife Tara. It was a local restaurant known for farm-to-table dishes before the term became a Portlandia skit, he said.

In 2011, Gill opened Blue Gill Quality Foods, in Gainesville at 1310 SW 13th St., a southern-style restaurant whose menu combines seasonal Florida produce with locally sourced meat, he said.

It was Blue Gill’s focus on local vendors and ingredients that caught the attention of the University Press of Florida.

“We want to document the history and culture of Florida, and such a big component of that is the foods that we eat,” said Romi Gutierrez of UPF.

UPF, the scholarly publishing unit of the state university system, has published many regional cookbooks, she said, but this is the first from a Gainesville-based chef.

"It’s a contemporary cultural history of our town," said Gutierrez about the new book. “It just made a lot of sense for us to add Bert Gill to our list because he’s so recognized here for what he’s done for the community.”

At the launch of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Gill helped test healthier options for public school lunches at W. A. Metcalfe Elementary from 2009 to 2011.

Currently, Gill works with Eastside High School’s Hungry Ram Café, a culinary magnet program, where he holds interactive lessons and tours nearby farms with students.

“Bert Gill is very intense and he has extremely high energy,” said Chef Billie DeNunzio, the program's director at Eastside. “He gets the students very excited about [cooking local food].”

DeNunzio said Gill’s emphasis on local sources has influenced her students to eat more of it.

“As much as you can teach out of a book, having access to the farm, going out there, changes their perspectives and makes a difference,” she said.

Gill hopes "Pickled, Fried, and Fresh" will help put Gainesville on the map for travelers, he said.

Gill said he believes southern states have thriving communities with local food economies, such as Savannah, Charleston, Athens and New Orleans, and are much more protective of their cultural heritage through food.

“Why can’t Gainesville, Florida, be one of the places?” he asked.

Erin is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.