Jean-Christophe Setin – Rebel On A Roll
Jean-Christophe’s love for food began behind the counter of his father’s butcher shop in Nice, France. “The idea of taking raw ingredients and making them into a food dish that could positively affect someone’s day really appealed to me.” He went on to earn his Bachelor’s in Specialty Cuisine from Ecole Hoteliere de Nice and trained at Three Star level in some of the most prestigious establishments on the French Riviera. In 1992, he served as a paratrooper in the Pyranees. He came to the United States in 1995 and worked for several private French restaurants in Florida and Colorado, including Le Gourmand in Denver and The Left Bank in Vail. In 2007, he accepted the Executive Chef position for the Tampa Yacht and Country Club where he currently works.
Growing up in the south of France, Jean-Christophe Setin didn’t always want to be a chef. His original plan was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a butcher. A self-proclaimed rebel in school – “I was a wild child; I didn’t like following rules” – he quit at age 13 but returned and graduated. During this time, he worked in kitchens and restaurants and by 16, he was employed in his father’s butcher shop. The problem was those 3 AM meat runs soon lost their appeal and he knew it was just a matter of time before he would need to move on. Then his mother intervened. “She basically sat me down one day and told me I needed to figure something out and fast.” He went on to earn his Bachelor’s in Specialty Cuisine from École Hoteliere de Nice.
Nearly 30 years later, his passion, boldness and refusal to play by the rules are as strong as ever and serving him well in his position as Executive Chef at Tampa Yacht and Country Club. “I love the mentality of the kitchen,” says Jean-Christophe. “The heat, the intensity. Putting out fires. I like to make plans that others can follow.”
So how does a culinary rebel come to terms with more than a century of tradition at Tampa Yacht and Country Club? Simple, says Jean-Christophe. “As a Club Chef, you know there are some things you just shouldn’t touch. Not because you can’t make them better but because it’s part of who they are.” He points to the Club’s Grouper Fish Picatta Sauce: it’s been a traditional dish for more than fifty years. “You can always find other opportunities to showcase your own personal style.”
When asked about his style, he replies, “I like to surprise people, do traditional things with a twist. I don’t like repetition. I’ll take a basic recipe and replace a couple of the ingredients with something exotic. At the same time I know I need to respect certain things, too.”
Respect is a word that Jean- Christophe does not use lightly. He made a personal choice years ago to not use endangered species fish – swordfish, bluefin tuna, black sea bass – if at all possible. If he gets requests for these foods, he will make other suggestions. He is also a big proponent of sustainability. “Chefs are on the front lines of using resources every day. The choices we make are crucial.” Simple and fresh easily sum up his approach: most of his own recipes use no more than four or five ingredients.
It’s this approach to fresh, local and limited ingredients that he applies to grilling, an activity this avid outdoorsman takes advantage of whenever he can. “I don’t like being locked indoors. Being outside gives me a sense of freedom. I’ll take a Crown Verity grill down by the pool, fire it up and that’s heaven to me.” While heat control is important, so is durability. The grills stand up to virtually anything they’re put through, he says, and it’s great not having to worry about too much heat or direct flame.
His favorite Crown Verity accessory is the griddle. “It really does add a level of versatility to outdoor cooking. There’s the traditional grill side and the griddle on the other side. It lets me play with the dishes that I prepare on the grill.” Dishes like Branzino. (In France, it’s called Loup-de-Mer). The small fish – usually no more than one to one-and-a-half pounds – traditionally comes from Greece and is very close to striped bass in both shape and flavor. Jean-Christophe seasons with extra virgin olive oil and some thyme and then grills them until they’re “nice and crispy.”
Three decades after choosing the chef’s way of life, Jean-Christophe has few regrets and remains passionate about food and food prep. The self-professed rule-breaker has earned respect inside and outside the kitchen and continues his relentless pursuit of culinary perfection.