Chef of Staff
How one man went from being a dishwasher to the head chef in the governor’s mansion.
Story by LAUREN SHEPPARD
Photo courtesy JOSH BUTLER
Chef Josh Butler's first taste of the food industry was a little hard to swallow.
Hired after high school at The White Swan, a neighborhood restaurant in Tallahassee, he started off scrubbing dirty plates and glasses with the understanding that he would soon be trained as a chef.
But before he could get his foot through the kitchen door, the business owner unexpectedly shut down the operation and skipped town overnight. Butler was left up to his eyeballs in dirty dishes without a paycheck or the experience he was promised.
It couldn't have been a worse introduction to the restaurant business, Butler says.
Nevertheless, he didn't let such a disaster scare him off or douse his passion for food and flavor. Butler continued pursuing a career in cooking and floated around local restaurants. He worked everywhere from jazzy cafes to upscale seafood houses, training his palate and learning through trial and error.
After countless hours of toiling over those hot stoves, Butler decided he needed a break and took some time off to work as a club promoter on the busy Florida State University campus. Two years later, Butler was burned out from the bar scene and heard the kitchen calling once again.
“I was sick of not making any money,” Butler says. “I needed a job I liked.”
Dusting off his old apron and arming himself with his favorite kitchen gadget, a trusty knife, Butler jumped back into the business, this time at the Governor's Club. It was while working at the swanky, members-only club that Butler learned the Governor was hunting for a new executive chef for his mansion.
Hoping to impress the mansion staff, Butler sent off an artistic resume based on recipes and menus with eye-catching 8x10 photos of his most delicious food.
He was then invited to audition for the position by concocting a birthday dinner, and he stole the show by preparing classic chicken marsala with crimini mushrooms and angel hair pasta.
“It was the birthday boy's favorite,” Butler says about the memorable meal.
After all the buzz surrounding the mouth-melting birthday fare, First Lady Rhea Chiles knew better than to let Butler be the chef that got away.
“She took a gamble with me,” Butler says about Chiles hiring him. But she knew Butler had great potential. In fact, the entire Chiles administration was so impressed with Butler that they snapped him up before he had a chance to go to the culinary school he had planned on attending in Atlanta.
“I wasn't that great of a student,” Butler says remembering his school days, adding that it was probably better he didn't end up going to the culinary academy. “I'm more hands-on.”
Eight years after being hired by Chiles, 29-year-old Butler is still at the mansion, now cooking for Gov. Jeb Bush and family. One of the things he likes the most about serving the Bushes is the freedom their daring attitude toward food allows him.
“The great thing is the governor and first lady are very adventurous eaters,” Butler says. “I experiment, and I try to cook something different for them every night.”
Butler often tries to create something different by re-interpreting the Bushs' favorite traditional Mexican dishes, using fire from the grill to complement the fire of Mexican spices.
“It's their feel-good food," Butler says about the first family's affinity for Mexican cooking.
Experimentation and re-invention of old favorites define his style, Butler says. Because he is primarily self-taught and hasn’t been trained in one particular school of cooking, being more avant-garde and taking risks comes easily to him.
“Sometimes I have never made a dish and then prepare it for a dinner for 50 people,” Butler says. “I usually try new dishes at the state dinners or on the governor and first lady. I always know it will turn out great, one way or another.”
Keeping it simple is Butler's secret to making food taste great and ensuring that he always turns out a masterpiece. While he lets abstract creativity lead him, Butler's style is never fussy or too complex.
“I'm all about no frills,” Butler says. In fact, one of the reasons he is attracted to cooking as a profession is the basic and primal elements, such as fire, that are involved.
He serves up straightforward food inspired by fresh, local ingredients that he chooses himself.
“I consider myself a hunter-gatherer,” Butler says, laughing about his forays in the local stores. “I get stuff from everywhere.”
Most days when searching for the right ingredients, he will forage through the farmer's market, cruise through seafood shops and visit farmers he knows. Access to these home-grown products and a variety of available ingredients are some of the things Butler likes best about being a chef in Florida.
“We are in the cradle of the freshest seafood and citrus, wonderful fruits, and vegetables,” Butler points out.
When shopping, Butler likes to bring back his favorite Florida foods to the mansion, including tomatoes, Honeybell tangelos, strawberries, red snapper fish, stone crab claws and oysters. Coming up with new ways to use these foods is Butler’s specialty.
“I like to make a strawberry salad with mint and Chambord berry liqueur,” he says. “Stone crab claws are great with garlic butter, and oysters are best freshly shucked on a cracker with lemon and hot sauce. Tomatoes off the vine I like to slice and sprinkle salt and pepper and make a light vinaigrette. Red snapper is great marinated whole with coconut milk, cilantro, limes and green curry, then grilled whole over a charcoal grill. Mmm, I can smell it now.”
Selecting the ingredients for his meals and coming up with these delicious recipes are only a couple of the duties Butler is accountable for. He plans every menu for the mansion, whether it’s deciding what to serve at private dinners for the Bush family or catered receptions for more than 500 people. He also maintains all the equipment, makes public appearances and manages to find time to clean up the kitchen.
“Sometimes I wonder how it happens,” Butler says.
Being the executive chef comes with a lot of responsibilities, as Butler has learned, but it also comes with countless rewards.
“The mansion has enabled me to travel the world and learn about cultures,” Butler says. He remembers a trip to Japan where he was a guest chef and represented Florida citrus as being one of the best opportunities the mansion has provided for him.
“I love the Japanese attention to detail and passion for food,” Butler says about Japanese culture. He also describes one of the trip highlights as attending an authentic tea ceremony with a tea master.
Cooking at the White House for the National Governor's Association has also been a career highlight for Butler since he started at the Governor's Mansion. He was able work the whole weekend, from start to finish, on a dinner that was served for the governors and their wives. He was also introduced to President George W. Bush.
“I never in my whole life imagined I could have done that,” Butler says.
Traveling and serving statesmen is exciting for him, but Butler also loves when special guests come to town and eat at the mansion. One of the most important guests he remembers serving is the former Spanish President Jose Aznar. When company like Aznar comes to town, Butler is always ready to bring his best game.
"I want them to remember their experiences here at the mansion," He says. "I want the guests to leave with the impression that they have tried something new and exciting."
Growing up in Tallahassee, Butler bonded with his dad over the grill and the rest of his family over home-style cooking. This feeling of social solidarity from his childhood is one Butler enjoys bringing to the governor’s table when foreign dignitaries are visiting.
"[Food] really helps calm things down, so people can talk and feel more comfortable," Butler says. He likes that his food is the catalyst of that process.
Butler loves his job but is by no means chained to the stove. He loves to venture out of the kitchen and ride around on his dirt bike. He also likes to travel, and occasionally works as a DJ and spins at local clubs. One thing he doesn't do, however, is cook for himself.
"I enjoy being served," Butler says. "Half the time when I make dinner, I don't eat! I cook for others, I don't cook
Butler goes out to enjoy Thai food, one of his favorites, when he avoids making his own meals.
But when he does cooks for others, Butler aims to not only prepare delicious food but involve all the senses of his diners as well.
"I want to make an impact on the person," Butler says about his food, which he considers art. "It's like painting or anything else.”
Like painting and other forms of expression, he never creates exactly the same thing twice. The components of Butler’s recipes are boundless.
"I don't have one thing I do all the time," he says. "I don't limit myself.”
This limitless freedom is what makes working at the mansion better than anything he’s done yet.
"It's a great life," Butler says.
And the secret to this professional happiness and hard-earned success?
“I cook from the heart, it is my passion,” Butler says. “If you don’t have the passion and don’t put love into your food, it’s really hard to succeed in this business.’