By Laura Myers
Andy Niedenthal, the media-savvy executive chef at Islamorada's 119-room Islander Resort, A Guy Harvey Outpost, fell in love with food as a young Baltimore boy who helped his parents prepare Maryland crab feasts.
"It was always a good time with everyone sitting outside in the sun eating crabs," Niedenthal said. "I like to eat a lot."
At 15, he bussed tables at a Greek restaurant.
The certified executive chef cooked his way through the British Virgin Islands, the Deep South and Puerto Rico, but Islamorada always lured him back — at separate times during his 20s, 30s and 40s.
Niedenthal, 48, currently is finalizing a coffee table-style cookbook titled "South of the Stretch, Seafood in the Conch Republic."
"A lot of chefs write cookbooks that are difficult to follow unless you're a chef," he said. "My idea is to showcase dishes that anyone can prepare in their own home."
He's also created a specialty "Bloody Merry" mix.
"It's all fresh, very chunky and hearty, well-seasoned and ready to go," he explained.
At age 18, Niedenthal earned a degree from Baltimore's International Culinary Institute while working as a line cook.
He first moved to Islamorada's 27-acre Cheeca Lodge & Spa in 1990 as executive sous chef under Dawn Sieber, also a Baltimore Culinary graduate.
"I had never been to Florida. I had never seen a palm tree. When I first arrived at Cheeca Lodge, my jaw hit the floor," Niedenthal admitted.
There he made his first television appearance, preparing a chocolate crème brulee sandwich on Discovery Channel's "Great Chefs - Great Cities."
He also cooked at Pierre's Lounge & Restaurant at Morada Bay, and then moved to The Marshall House in Savannah, Georgia. But when his home's pipes froze, he decided it was time to head south again.
In 2001, Niedenthal was enticed back to Cheeca Lodge & Spa, where he created a popular annual food and wine festival. The chef has cooked for former President George H.W. Bush several times and for his son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
At various tasting events across the country, he's cooked alongside stars such as French chef Jacques Pepin, host of American Public Television's "Heart & Soul"; chef Tom Colicchio, executive producer of "A Place at the Table"; the late Patrick Clark, executive chef at Tavern on the Green; and James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Militello.
Icon Julia Child, known for her French cuisine, complimented Niedenthal on his brown butter sauce — used in his award-winning scallop dish for California-based Trefethen Family Vineyard's 30th anniversary competition — as "the best she had ever had," Niedenthal said.
In 2005, he relocated to the British Virgin Islands as the executive chef at Peter Island Resort & Spa, and joined the acclaimed National British Virgin Islands culinary team.
During a brand conversion in 2007 at Martineau Bay Resort in Vieques, Puerto Rico, Niedenthal oversaw the resort's culinary operations.
Islamorada's appeal subsequently lured him to the Keys again — this time as Green Turtle Inn's general manager and executive chef — but he later moved back to the British Virgin Islands to become director of culinary operations at Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina. There he oversaw the new property's three restaurants, beach bar, private dining and yacht provisioning store.
In 2012, however, he returned to Islamorada to become the Islander Resort's executive chef.
"Islamorada is a destination that's not affected by politics or the economy," Niedenthal said. "People come here to fish and they come back again. It's a small town, a close-knit community with an island feel."
Following his return, Niedenthal relaunched Islander Resort's poolside Guy's Beachside Bar & Grill, opened Bonefish Flats breakfast eatery and assisted with development of a state-of-the-art conference facility and marine research museum.
His concoctions go beyond the Florida Keys' traditional conch fritters, chowder and Key lime pie to include lobster truffle mac and cheese, house-smoked wahoo pate, mango shrimp tacos and "rarebit" jumbo lump crab — "a big hit."
Current food trends include "fewer ingredients, less frou-frou and small, shared plates."
The telegenic chef has appeared on The Food Network's "FoodNation" with Bobby Flay, "Epicurious" and "The Very Best of Everything" on the Travel Channel and CBS' "The Morning Show" among others. Magazines Travel + Leisure and Caribbean Life also have cited his cooking.
At food festivals, Niedenthal often is paired with chef-restaurateur Tony Leck, a Michelin Bib Gourmand award winner from Guernsey in the British Channel Islands.
Outside the kitchen, the celebrated chef enjoys fishing for bonefish and tarpon. He revels in spending time with wife Ann Marie, who he met during his first job at Cheeca Lodge, and their dogs.
"I'm all about living in the Keys — I guess I'm just lucky," Niedenthal summed up. "I enjoy fishing, diving and a frosty libation on the beach overlooking the ocean."
Niedenthal's concoctions go beyond the Florida Keys' traditional conch fritters, chowder and Key lime pie, to include fewer ingredients, less frou-frou and small, shared plates.
Niedenthal, alongside fellow chef and Key Largo restaurateur, Bobby Stoky, at a food festival in Guernsey in the British Channel Islands.
Islamorada's 119-room Islander Resort, A Guy Harvey Outpost is a popular spot in Islamorada, a small town community.
It's not hard, with resort views like this, to understand why Islamorada's appeal subsequently lured Niedenthal to the Keys again.