Most all of us are at fault for falling back on reliable dishes that have fed us up to now. Chef Rex Harris creates a flavorful menu that makes us reconsider our staple meals. Though not every weekday dinner can be a four-course meal, life needs room for a masterpiece every now and then, no?
photography by Tina sargeant / styled by DANIEL BARCELO
Rex Harris is undoubtedly one of the pioneers of the food renaissance Winter Haven is currently experiencing. Best known as the chef of the beloved Seasoned Stone, Harris sat down with WH to share his story and a few recipes we know you have been missing from the Seasoned Stone.
Harris was born and raised in the Caribbean — Grenada, to be exact — where he grew up with his grandmother. Grenada is known as the “Spice Isle” — fitting, because if you’ve ever tried Harris’ food you know it’s bursting with flavors. He began cooking with his grandmother at a very young age and recalls helping prepare traditional rum cakes for the family’s Christmas celebrations. Harris says each year they began preparing the cakes the week before Christmas, cakes to be enjoyed the following year. They would tend to them once or twice a month (adding more rum!), a good lesson in patience and tradition for the future chef.
When it was time for Harris to begin school, he moved to Trinidad, a neighboring Caribbean island. Trinidad is home to a large Indian population and one of the strongest influencers in Harris’ flavor palate. Trinidad is also the origin of Harris’ famous roti, a traditional filled Indian bread which takes about five hours to make.
After college in Trinidad, Harris taught school back in Grenada for a year and then moved to New York City. He went on to spend 24 years in the Navy and had the opportunity to spend lots of time in Europe. He credits time in Spain, France, and Italy as major influences in his culinary journey, and the flavors bring a sophistication to traditional island dishes.
Harris is entirely self-taught and has perfected all of his recipes and techniques by reading books and cooking for himself. His travels and influences are brought to life in his cooking. He speaks passionately of the importance of using fresh, local ingredients and supporting local businesses. He prefers the kind of places where you won’t find salt and pepper on the tables, saying food should be spiced in the kitchen. Harris is excited to see so many new restaurants opening in town, and especially that brunch is available in the Haven. When asked what he would like to see more of, he laughingly says, “Better-quality rum!”
Harris’ first restaurant endeavor was with his brother in Lakeland. It was a Caribbean restaurant that lasted about a year, but it was in an area that was prone to vandalism, so they decided to close up shop. Harris didn’t give up, though. He went on to open The Seasoned Stone in Winter Haven. It was Harris’s most successful endeavor, crediting the collaboration with his wife, Kim. These days, Harris is enjoying a slower pace. He is cooking privately, and he and Kim like to host dinners for family and friends.
We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
creole chicken with mushrooms // Caribbean
This flavorful dish captures the savory essence of the classic version, with a modern spin.
Creole season mix:
1 bunch cilantro
3 sprigs celery
1/2 bunch parsley
10 sprigs thyme, stem removed
1 head garlic, peeled
1 habanero, seeds removed
5 sprigs scallions
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup water
Place all ingredients into a food processor or blender and mix. This can be stored in the fridge for up to three months and used for other dishes.
Chicken and assembly:
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped in halves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon brown or white sugar
2 cups chopped mushrooms
Heat oil in a large pot
(about 4 quarts). Add sugar and simmer until very dark almost to burn. Add chicken and let simmer for three minutes before turning. Let chicken brown for about 10 minutes, then add mushrooms and three tablespoons of creole mixture. Add salt to taste. Cook until chicken is tender about 30-40 minutes. Serve over basmati rice.
COOKING NOTES This traditional West Indian dish can be made with a food processor, or better yet, a mortar for an authentic taste.
ceviche // Spanish
A seafood dish popular in the coastal region of Latin America and the Caribbean.
2 pounds wild-caught large shrimp
2 lemons, juiced
2 limes, juiced
2 small oranges, juiced
1 seedless cucumber, diced
2 shallots, diced
2 chilis, diced
1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Hass avocado, diced
1½ cups tomato, diced (seeds removed)
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, except shrimp and avocado. Clean and devein shrimp. Bring four cups of water to a boil. Add shrimp and cook for three minutes. Remove shrimp and place in ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Remove shrimp and cut into pieces. Add shrimp to other ingredients and toss. Place in fridge for at least eight hours or overnight to marinate. Add avocado before serving.
COOKING NOTES Nearly impossible to mess up, this easy dish is best made with the best-quality fish. Choose only those with firm, translucent flesh.
chocolate bread pudding // Spanish
Commonly made with dark chocolate, this bright version of the indulgent dessert stars white chocolate.
24 slices of white bread, cubed, without the crust
10 ounces Ghirardelli white-chocolate chips
2 cups milk
2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
1 nutmeg, grated
1 teaspoon organic ground cinnamon
3 dashes bitters
Parchment paper to line baking sheet
Pre-heat oven to 350 °F.
Melt chocolate with one stick of butter. This can be done in a bowl over boiling water.Place bread into a large bowl. In a separate bowl or a mixer blend eggs, milk, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and bitters. Pour mixture over bread and toss. Combine chocolate and mix with a spatula. Place paper onto a baking dish that’s at least 9×13 inches. Pour mixture into the dish and spread out evenly. Dot with remaining butter. Bake for 45 minutes.
BAKING NOTES This pudding can be served warm, room temperature, or cold. To chill, let cool completely, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate one hour or up to overnight.