Dive into Key West

This Philadel­phia na­tive is do­ing food and dis­tillery tours in his adopted home in the Florida Keys.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By LORI RACKL

CHEF Paul Menta is pas­sion­ate about fish and rum – the sub­jects of colour­ful sto­ries over the years in his adopted home, the Florida Keys.

Menta is ex­ec­u­tive chef at The Stoned Crab, a sprawl­ing seafood restau­rant in Key West. The Philadel­phia na­tive also co-owns a dis­tillery that last year pro­duced about 18,000 bot­tles of rum, or Key West cof­fee, as Menta likes to call it. (He says his Key West First Le­gal Rum hit the shelves of Illi­nois liquor stores in March.)

The boy­ish, 50-some­thing Menta wears a lot of other hats, too, not to men­tion a bunch of tat­toos and a cou­ple of shark bites. He’s a pro kite­boarder, cook­book au­thor and proud of­fi­cer of the so-called Conch Repub­lic, which “se­ceded” from the United States in the early ’80s to protest the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s bor­der pa­trol checks in the Keys.

“I’m the Ad­min­is­ter of Rum,” Menta says about his role with the satir­i­cal mi­cro-na­tion. “When there’s a prob­lem, I ad­min­is­ter rum – and there’s not a prob­lem any­more.”

A true char­ac­ter on an is­land full of them, Menta re­cently took on a new en­deav­our: giv­ing vis­i­tors a lit­eral taste of his culi­nary pas­sions with a cou­ple of new “eco-foodie” pro­grammes. One of them, called Chef Dis­tilled, fo­cuses on rum, while the Three Hands Ex­pe­ri­ence is an in-depth look at the lo­cal seafood sup­ply chain, from trawler to ta­ble.

“Peo­ple want to know what goes into mak­ing their food, what goes into mak­ing their drinks,” Menta says. “We want to show them.”

The roughly five-hour Chef Dis­tilled ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins with a tour of Key West First Le­gal Rum Dis­tillery, lo­cated in an old Co­caCola fac­tory. It’s just a few blocks away from Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a one­time favourite haunt of an­other Key West fan of rum and fish: Ernest Hem­ing­way.

Opened three years ago, the dis­tillery is full of Pro­hi­bi­tion-era rum-run­ning para­pher­na­lia and rows of wooden bar­rels dated and per­son­alised by var­i­ous distillers. (A dis­tiller from Chicago com­mem­o­rated one of his bar­rels with a writ­ten shoutout to Black­hawks star Pa­trick Kane.)

Menta walks guests through the rum-mak­ing process, stop­ping to squeeze juice out of fresh Florida sugar cane – no mo­lasses used here, thank you very much. He points to the bub­bling fer­men­ta­tion tanks where yeast is gob­bling up the sugar, turn­ing it into al­co­hol.

“The more vi­bra­tion, the more pro­duc­tion,” Menta says. “We play mu­sic in here at night to keep the yeast mov­ing.”

Guests get to la­bel their own bot­tle for a sip­pable sou­venir. Then it’s off to Menta’s Stoned Crab restau­rant for a mixol­ogy les­son and din­ner.

The Three Hands Ex­pe­ri­ence, while sound­ing more like a spa treat­ment than a food tour, is named af­ter a sus­tain­able seafood mar­ket next to The Stoned Crab.

The premise of Three Hands Fish is that only three sets of hands touch the fish you eat: the fish­er­man, the mar­ket’s fil­let master, and the in­di­vid­ual or restau­rant chef that pre­pares it.

“In the US, so much of what we catch, we ex­port, and what we eat, we im­port, and the qual­ity just isn’t the same,” says Menta, who met his fi­ancee while spearfish­ing. “We’re sur­rounded by some of the best fish­ing wa­ters in the world. That’s the seafood you want to eat when you come to the Keys.”

The full seven-hour tour has guests spend­ing time with each of these sets of hands. It starts with a half-day char­ter fish­ing trip. The day’s catch of grouper, snap­per or what­ever else you plucked from the water gets taken to the mar­ket’s fil­let master (the sec­ond “hand”), who teaches you how to fil­let a fish. While you mosey down to your ta­ble at The Stoned Crab, Menta pre­pares your catch and serves it as part of a four-course din­ner.

On a sunny De­cem­ber af­ter­noon, Menta took me out on the water for a closer look at where the area’s seafood bounty comes from. Sev­eral miles off the coast, we caught up with com­mer­cial fish­er­manZaneOs­bor­nashe­washaul­ing lob­ster and crab traps out of the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Stone crab sea­son (mid-Oc­to­ber to mid-May) was well un­der­way, and Os­born was col­lect­ing the crus­taceans’ fat claws that sell for a pretty penny at restau­rants up and down the Keys – and around the world. In Florida, these lol­lipops of juicy crab­meat are typ­i­cally served cold with mus­tard sauce or hot with but­ter.

Wear­ing thick rub­ber gloves and bib pants the colour of con­struc­tion zone cones, Os­born held up one of his cap­tive crabs as I teetered on the small boat, try­ing to keep my bal­ance as the waves bounced us around.

“You turn the claw kind of to the mid­dle and then it just pops loose,” he said, yank­ing the ap­pendage off with a quick, ef­fi­cient pull. He then chucked the one-armed crab into the water, where its miss­ing limb will grow back.

“We’ll catch him again in a year, and he’ll have an­other big claw,” Os­born said.

Added Menta: “Seafood doesn’t get more sus­tain­able than that.”

For tourist info about Key West and the Florida Keys in gen­eral, go to www.fla-keys.com. – Chicago Tri­bune/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Com­mer­cial fish­er­man Zane Os­born (left) pulls up his traps in the Gulf of Mex­ico. — Pho­tos: LORI RACKL/TNS

Stone crab claws at The Stoned Crab restau­rant in Key West. The crus­tacean’s claws are of­ten served in Florida with a cold mus­tard sauce.

Paul Menta pre­pares to squeeze the juice out of fresh Florida sugar cane at Key West First Le­gal Rum Dis­tillery.

Vis­i­tors at Key West First Le­gal Rum Dis­tillery sam­ple the wares.

A cou­ple of lob­sters and a stone crab, shortly af­ter be­ing caught in the Gulf of Mex­ico.

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