It may have originated with Duncan Hines, but Jane and Michael Stern have forged a career out of traveling throughout the country and then compiling cookbooks about the foods they have tasted traveling hither and yon. Continuing in this genre is a beautiful Cookbook titled THE LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” by Jane and Michael Stern, with recipes by Doug Shook. This compilation at the time of publication in January, 2003, was the latest in a series from Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville, Tennessee, celebrating America’s best regional restaurants. Louie’s Backyard is a restaurant, located in Key West, Florida.
I have to admit, I never made it to Key West during the three years we lived in North Miami Beach from 1979-1982. My younger sister did live and work in Key West for several years and loved it.
The restaurant was original a home built over a hundred years ago by James Randall Adams, a sailing captain who made his fortune in the wrecking industry. I learned that the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places—it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve become fascinated with famous old houses. The Adams House was designed in a “kind of Conch/Greek revival style with Doric columns, Bahamian shutters, and a two-story porch. The captain was proud to say that nearly all its furnishings, even the dishware, was salvage he had collected from ships run aground…”
The house passed through several owners until, in the 1970s, it was purchased by Frances and Louie Signorelli. Louie was known as an excellent host and cook, and in 1971 his friends encouraged him to open a five-table restaurant in the backyard of his home, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (thus, the title “Louie’s Backyard”). In the beginning, Louie had one waiter and cooked about a dozen meals every night out of his own kitchen. The cash register was a cigar box!
One of the current co-owners of Louie’s Backyard (as of 2003) is Phil Tenney, the fellow who was the single waiter when the restaurant first opened.
Phil had come to Key West early in 1971 with actor Lloyd Bridges to work on a TV series called LET’S GO BOATING. “We were all hippies in those days,” Phil remembers. “We had long hair down our backs…My passion then, as it is now, was woodworking. From 1973 to 1983, I ran a wood shop. I went to Belize and got the wood, and I did a lot of the woodwork that is still here at the restaurant: the bars, inside and out, the wood statues…”
Phil recalled that there weren’t a lot of places to eat on the island at the time. There was a raw bar and a lobster house as well as a couple of aspiring French restaurants. The idea of a Key West cuisine hadn’t begun to crystallize. Says Tenney, “We did a kind of fine dining, but a different kind of fine dining, using seafood from the Key West waters and serving it in a casual atmosphere, but an atmosphere with the nicest ambience.”
Louie’s Backyard fell on hard times in the late 1970s and closed for a few years, until Phil and Pat Tenney purchased it in 1982. They restored the house and opened up with a menu that reflected the restaurant that Louie Signorelli had started ten years earlier.
In 1986, along came Doug Shook, who reminisces “Coming from Washington, D.C., I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was hired over the phone and arrived in Key West the day before I was to begin work.”
Doug Shook, the chef for Louie’s Backyard, claims he had no ambition to be a chef and he never attended culinary school. He wanted to be an actor! However, like so many actors, he got a job waiting tables at a French bistro which in turn led—in a convoluted, entertaining sort of way—to Doug’s ending up becoming a chef
Doug recalls walking up the steps from the lobby of Louie’s Backyard, into the dining room and seeing for the first time the decks stepping down over the Atlantic. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, I could stay here for awhile.’ He remembers thinking. “Now seventeen years later, I stand in the same spot and tell myself the same thing. The setting is amazing with the warm climate, ocean breezes, and always magnificent skies. But a restaurant like Louie’s is more than a lovely setting….”
Says Doug, the food at Louie’s Backyard has always been extraordinary. Owners Pat and Phil Tenney are committed to providing a first-rate dining experience and have supported Doug and his kitchen staff in their efforts to produce a cuisine that is unique to this place.
In the Introduction to “LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK”, the Sterns explain that, although Louie’s Backyard is one of many good places to eat in town, for them it is the Key West restaurant. When it opened in 1971, “an unknown Jimmy Buffett lived in the house next door and palled around with waiter Phil Tenney (now Louie’s owner)….”
The Sterns observe, “Natives of the Florida Keys call themselves Conchs (pronounced konks) after the hard-shelled spiral shellfish that is found in nearby waters; and while the term used to be derisive (like redneck or cracker) it has taken on a distinct air of pride in the last quarter century as the place that calls itself the Conch Republic…”
They explain “The Conch kitchen is in some measure the progeny of nearby Cuba, of the Caribbean…of Dixieland and the Cordon Bleu, but it has evolved a style all its own. The meat of the conch itself is part of Conch cuisine…and so are spearfished grouper, Florida pink shrimp, Cuban picadillo, and the dooryard fruit that includes Key limes as well as calamondins (little bright-flavored tangerines) and sour oranges. Conchs grow several varieties of banana, many of which are sold to creative restaurant cooks; and mango season on the island is huge. Put these ingredients together with a freewheeling kitchen spirit and the hands-on culinary education of chef Doug Shook, and you have an inevitably spectacular meal at Louie’s Backyard….”
The Sterns say that what they find most enthralling about the Conch kitchen is general but Louie’s food in particular, is how much it changes from day to day. “The kitchen’s daily repertoire,” say the Sterns, “reflects not only the catch of the day and what is seasonal but the fact that Chef Shook and his kitchen team simply like to make things up as they go.”
Note the Sterns, “Such a devil-may-care culinary philosophy means that many of Louie’s written recipes are complex. The kind of creativity expressed in this book is not one that spawns quickie meals and kitchen shortcuts. While not necessarily difficult, the style of cooking embodied in Louie’s recipes is one for people who enjoy the entire process of creating a meal, from procuring the ingredients to make a handsome presentation of a finished dish…”
Doug later explained to the Sterns, “the specials are about seeing what you have and imagining the best thing to do with it…”
This, say the Sterns, is the spirit of Louie’s Backyard. “Some elements about the dining experience are predictable: the spectacular view over the ocean, the expertly concocted margaritas and pina coladas served forth by bartender Chris Robinson. But when it comes to eating a meal, all you know for sure is that it will be colorful, high-flavored, and Conch in character…”
Chef Doug Shook discovered his love of cooking in the early 1980s in the California wine country. He is also the host of “Key West Chefs”, a cooking program on local television.
Reading “LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” brought back memories, and was, for me, like stepping back in time to a few decades ago, to the years we spent living in Florida. (I’ve always said I didn’t like living in Florida—but I’ve never had any complaints about the food! And now I am so sorry I never made it down to Key West!
I have fond memories of Conch fritters and discovering recipes for Grouper (which we don’t have in California), learning to make hush puppies, and Key Lime pie (We had a Key lime tree and a grapefruit tree in our back yard). One neighbor had a mango tree and kept me amply supplied with mangoes, which I learned to convert into jams and chutneys. Another neighbor introduced me to black beans and Cuban food, and I collected all the recipes and cookbooks I could find on Florida foods.
“The LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” makes my mouth water – for Lobster Quiche with Spinach and Roasted Peppers, Chilled Gulf Shrimp with Cucumber Ribbons and Papaya-Chile Ice, Crab and Corn Gratin, Blue Crab Cakes with Sweet Corn and Red Hot Aioli, Conch Fritters with Hot Pepper Jelly and Wasabi, Mango Slaw, Spiced Pecans, Dark Beer and English Cheddar Soup with Rye Croutons, Cuban Style White Bean Soup and Grilled Grouper with Herbed Arborio Rice, Heirloom Tomatoes and Smoky Bacon.
One of my personal favorite sections of the cookbook is the chapter on Sauces & Accompaniments—there are recipes for making your own sweet soy sauce, Aioli (a French garlicky mayonnaise), Hollandaise, Hot Pepper Jelly, Rye Croutons, Roasted Garlic, Sour Orange Mustard, Jamaican Jerk Rub – and many more.
And the DESSERTS! Choose from a wide, mouth-watering selection that includes yummy dishes like Caramelized Bananas, Five Spice Biscotti, Shredded Phyllo Cakes, Cinnamon Bread Pudding plus many more.
These recipes and many, many others can be found in “LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” which is embellished with the fascinating history of a place you may want to visit….in Key West, Florida.
There are wonderful photographs, both black and white and color, of the people who run Louie’s Backyard, as well as pictures of the restaurant itself. The illustrations of some of the dishes will have you planning a trip to Key West.
If you can’t make it to Florida, be an armchair tourist with your own copy of “LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK”.
Jane and Michael Stern are fascinated by food, travel, and culture, and are considered America’s foremost experts on regional food. They are familiar names in cookbook publishing, dating back to their travel guide “ROADFOOD”, originally published more than 20 years ago. (You can also check out the Sterns restaurant finds at their website, http://www.roadfood.com).
The Sterns updated “ROADFOOD” a few years ago with the publication of “THE ALL NEW ROADFOOD”.
According to Michael Stern, when they started working on their travel guide in the late 1970s, they were worried that the USA was becoming “a bit homogenized, on the verge of losing its regional diversity”. Michael recalled that when they published their first travel guide, they thought they were documenting something that was disappearing from our culinary landscape, that franchises were going to take over. And although we know that franchises have managed to dig pretty deep roots throughout the country, the Sterns discovered what many tourists and travelers and truckers throughout the country know; culinary diversity is alive and well in the United States.
IN 1988, Andrews and McMeel published Jane and Michael Sterns’ “A TASTE OF AMERICA”, providing, along with recipes, an in-depth description of the places they had visited. “A Taste of America” stemmed from the publication of the Sterns’ weekly newspaper column. In the Introduction to “A Taste of America” the authors explain, “For fifteen years we have had the world’s greatest job. We drive around America eating the best food we can find, then we tell people about it in our books and in a weekly newspaper column called ‘A Taste of America’”. This book was what the Sterns considered the cream of the crop.
In 1997 Jane and Michael Stern’s “EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A.” was published by Broadway Books. “EAT YOUR WAY…” features 500 diners, lobster hacks, farmland buffets, pie palaces, and other All-American Eateries. The Sterns noted that they had begun traveling around the country looking for good food in 1974 and had driven more than three million miles, eating in tens of thousands of restaurants, with “EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE U.S.A.” the culmination of their quest.
The Sterns have spent the past 30 years on the road, going through 29 cars and covering 3 million miles in their quest for the best food and where to find it; they have published over 30 books on popular culture and regional food. The Sterns were columnists for GOURMET magazine and frequent contributors to SKY magazine.
Their Roadfood.com website was named “Site of the Year” by Yahoo and a “Cool Site” by Netscape. (I just checked and Roadfood.com is still going strong – I don’t advise checking on the website when you are hungry; the food photos will have you racing to the nearest doughnut shop or hamburger fast food restaurant).
The latest crowning achievement for the Sterns in 2002 was their new series celebrating America’s best regional restaurants. “LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” was the latest in this series in 2003. Other books in this series, all from Rutledge Hill Press, written or edited by Michael Stern are:
“THE BLUE WILLOW INN COOKBOOK,”
“THE DURGIN-PARK COOKBOOK”
“EL CHARRO CAFÉ COOKBOOK” and
“HARRY CARAY’S COOKBOOK”
Jane and Michael Stern are the co-authors more than 30 books, which includes the following:
“REAL AMERICAN FOOD”
“A TASTE OF AMERICA”
“THE ALL NEW ROADFOOD”
“EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS THE USA”
“ENCYCLOPEDIA OF BAD TASTE (1991)
“BLUE PLATE SPECIALS”
The Sterns are also the co-authors of the following book titles:
“WHERE TO EAT IN CONNECTICUT”
“TWO PUPPIES” (1998)
“SIXTIES PEOPLE” (1990)
“ELVIS WORLD” (1969)
“DOG EAT DOG” (A very human book about dogs and dog shows)
“AUTO ADS” (1978)
“AMAZING AMERICA” (1978) (guide to 600 famous sites)
“FRIENDLY RELATIONS” (1979)
“HORROR HOLIDAY – SECRETS OF VACATION SURVIVAL” (1981)
“A PORTRAIT OF THE LAST AMERICAN COWBOY” – the story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Sandy’s cooknote: You can also check out the website for titles published after 2003. This cookbook review was originally written in 2003 for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange (no longer being published).
“THE LOUIE’S BACKYARD COOKBOOK” by Jane and Michael Stern, with recipes by Doug Shook, was published in 2002 by Rutledge Hill Press and originally sold for $19.99.
I found it listed in Alibris.com new for $20.93 and pre-owned fr4om $1.99. It is also listed in Amazon.com, $14.39 new or from one cent pre-owned. Add $3.99 shipping and you will still get a copy for $4.00. Can’t beat it!
Originally reviewed by Sandra Lee Smith 2/03 in the Cookbook Collectors Exchange
Happy Cooking and happy cookbook collecting!