James Strine got an early birthday present in advance of the big 4-0 in October: the honor of being named head chef at Grato in West Palm Beach.
Grato owner Clay Conley met Strine a few years ago when Strine worked nearby at Café Boulud. Strine won first place at the Cochon 555 culinary competition in Miami at which Conley, a two time Beard-nominee, was a judge. The pair developed a friendship, and when Conley needed a head chef for Grato, he knew that Strine was his man.
“He’s an awesome cook,” says Conley. “He cooks seasonally and locally. He’s a mature guy, a leader.”
Conley's testimony is a far cry from the underachieving troublemaker Strine says he used to be.
“I was going to summer school at 17 to get my diploma because I was a real dirtbag in high school, and I needed a job,” Strine says of his early days growing up in Maryland. So he began washing dishes, until one day his boss noticed that Strine didn’t seem happy.
“He asked if I wanted to learn how to cook, and I said, ‘Anything is better than this. Let’s give it a shot,’” Strine says. Two years later, Strine’s boss challenged him to test his skills in the big league and set him up with an apprenticeship at the Breakers Palm Beach.
Strine says that unlike enrolling in fancy culinary school, the Breakers allowed him to get paid while learning. But the teenage rebellious streak that resulted in bad grades and missed classes still burned inside him, and Strine never officially graduated from the apprenticeship program, despite completing all the required cooking hours.
“I had to listen to some guy that I didn’t think knew what he was talking about, so I just stopped going,” Strine says of the apprenticeship’s required classes.
He left the Breakers after six years with the strong foundation that would land him a position at Café Boulud — as well as something even more appealing. “She was the cute little hostess, and I was the scumbag in the kitchen,” Strine says of his wife Brandy, whom he met working at the Breakers’ restaurant Echo. “It took some doing, but I got her.”
Strine climbed the ranks at Café Boulud over the next few years until he had the opportunity to return to his native Maryland to help open a new restaurant. But after four years, Strine says he was ready to get more daring with his creations.
“I was a little too ambitious,” he says of his decision to leave the small town behind. “People wanted their salmon on top of a Caesar salad. It just wasn’t a fit for me anymore.”
Strine returned to Café Boulud, where he remained for another four years before taking the leap to Grato. Unlike the French cuisine at Café Boulud, Grato specializes in brick-oven pizza, handmade pasta, and wood-roasted meats. But the change didn’t faze the adaptable Strine.
“At the end of the day, it’s just food,” he says. “I find a little bit more soul in the Italian cuisine, but I think if you have a strong foundation in French you can adapt to anything. I’m having fun with it – different flavors, different profiles.”
While Strine says fans of Grato’s signature dishes such as the paccheri, bucatini carbonara, or buffalo chicken pizza need not worry about losing them, he is working to bring exciting seasonal dishes to the menu as well.
“Grato is a hell of a canvas to do great things,” he says. “I’m looking to hopefully be a part of getting this restaurant on a lot of top lists nationwide.”
The Seminole pumpkin pasta is a new dish made with puree of roasted pumpkin, pickled pumpkin, amaretti cookies, Brazilian berries, Marcona almonds, and sage.
“I want to focus more on the seasonality of Florida,” Strine says of his commitment to using fresh, local produce. “[Seminole pumpkin] is a pumpkin that the Indians grew, and it’s absolutely gorgeous right now.”
And while Strine’s numerous awards attest to his skills cooking meat, he says he will not forget his vegetarian and gluten-free customers. What he used to view as a problem, he says, he now views as a challenge. “When I was a young cook I was like, ugh, these vegans, and now I barely eat meat myself. You have to cater to everybody.”
Despite his rough start as a teenager, Strine says he loves being a chef and working with the colorful people that the restaurant business tends to attract. “It’s a group of misfits,” he says. “It’s always something, and I think that’s why I like it so much.”
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And if you ever run into Strine, feel free to address him by whatever name you want — well, almost.
“My wife calls me James, but my grandfather used to call me Leroy, so it doesn’t really matter what anyone calls me,” he says, laughing. “As long as somebody doesn’t call me an asshole, they can say whatever they want.”
Grato. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 a.m., and Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. 1901 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach. Call 561-404-1334 or visit gratowpb.com.