Johnny P. Key started cooking when he was 5 or 6 years old.
“I’ve been cooking all of my life,” said Key, who likes being referred to as Chef Johnny.. “I’m always doing something in the kitchen.”
He recalls his early days in the kitchen as he sits in the outdoor dining area of Windjammers on the Pier on a warm but windy April afternoon. This is the restaurant he is now the chef of. He’s been here since November and it’s the latest stop for a chef who has had quite a journey.
He grew up in the Bahamas and because his family didn’t have a lot of money, he made good with what he had in terms of ingredients. Spices, fresh fish and canned foods were often combined to make delicious meals.
He went on to join the military, viewing it as an opportunity to create a better life for himself. He served stints in the Army and Navy over a 20-year period. He’s in the midst of finishing out the retirement process.
“My path took me to a different place, and being in the military, I’ve eaten and cooked all over the world,” Chef Johnny said. “I think culturally, my experience sets me apart from a lot of other people when it comes to cooking.”
His outlook on life has always been a positive one and that much is evident in his voice. And food is always on his mind. It’s part of what makes him a successful chef.
“I am living, eating and dreaming food,” he said. “I’m constantly online researching and I’m working 12-13 hours a day. But I love it. I have a great life.”
Though Chef Johnny has been all over the world, he points to Korea as the place that inspired him the most when it came to cooking.
“I’d say it was my biggest culinary influence,” he said. “I thought I knew seafood, but in Seoul they have this huge marketplace in a warehouse and you find any type of seafood you can think of. It taught me a lot about my pallet and some of the things you can do with seafood that I didn’t think of before.”
But then, learning something new is part of life.
“No one mastered a trade overnight,” Chef Johny said. “I’m always learning something new.”
He’s been at Windjammers since November, moving here from Hawaii with his significant other, and he’s enjoying it.
“I love being here. It’s another part of my culinary journey,” Chef Johnny said.
His specialties at Windjammers include made-from-scratch Gumbo, seafood tacos, homemade chili and burgers flavored with a five-spice rub. All of the sauces used at the restaurant are made from scratch as well. Plans are in the works to expand the menu.
“I’m going to take this ride and see where it takes me,” he said. “There is so much to give here. We have the potential to be something great.”
Chef Johnny firmly believes you are never somewhere you aren’t supposed to be. Just ask him about where he lived when he was in Hawaii.
“I lived on 913 Pensacola Street. It’s kind of funny,” he said. “I had no plans to move here, but I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Chef Johnny is dedicated to his craft and even takes the time to respond to reviews of the food online, be it good or bad reviews. He admits it’s hard not to take the bad reviews personally but ultimately, his goal is to make people smile through his cooking.
“I love doing that,” he said. “I’ve had people in Louisiana tell me my gumbo is the best they’ve ever had. When you hear someone say that, it makes you feel good. I work hard at what I do and strive to give people great food.”