Meet the Chef: Peter Kenney
Chef-owner, Purple Olive Bistro
St. Augustine, Florida
Peter Kenney practically grew up working in restaurants. Perhaps that is why it feels so comfortable now to have his wife Deidre, who manages the front of the house, working at his side in their family owned and operated restaurant in St. Augustine Beach. In fact, the two met while working in one of St. Augustine’s favorite eateries, Gypsy Cab Co., and their shared passion for great food and the dream of owning their own restaurant someday brought this winning duo together. The result is Purple Olive Bistro, which the Kenneys opened in 2004, a stylish yet casual restaurant featuring a unique menu that highlights Kenney’s culinary skill while also allowing customers to exercise their own culinary creativity.
Humble Beginnings and the School of Hard Knocks
Kenney has worked in professional kitchens since the age of 15, starting, as the best chefs do, washing dishes and bussing tables. Born in Cape Cod, his family moved to St. Augustine when he was a boy and this ancient city on Florida’s Northeast Coast is where Peter discovered his second family—his mentors and co-workers at the restaurants where he worked. Even in his teens, Kenney was progressively working his way up the ladder—working as a saucier in one of Florida’s premier French restaurants, La Parisienne, and advancing to breakfast cook at a high-volume restaurant and kitchen manager position at another before he was 20. After a brief move to Missouri, where he worked at Mollies Café & Bar in Cape Girardeau and then as a pantry chef in a fine dining environment, he returned to St. Augustine.
Making Connections and Finding Mentors
Kenney’s intention at the time was to attend culinary school but he landed a position working at Manatee Café, another of St. Augustine’s favorite local restaurants, which serves a vegetarian menu using organic and local ingredients. Under the tutelage of chef-owner Cheryl Crosley, Kenney began earnestly studying the connection between food and its direct impact on health. In the process, he formed a connection with the owners of Native Sun, a health and natural foods market based in nearby Jacksonville, and began supplying weekly vegan, macrobiotic, and organic meals to homebound AIDS and cancer patients. He rounded out his skills at this time by also working at his sister and brother-in-law’s St. Augustine bakery, Nature’s Bread Shop.
After seeing so many people with terminal illness, Kenney went back home to Cape Cod for a break and worked the summer season at The Trabbica in Falmouth. His third return to St. Augustine was the charm when he was hired as chef de cuisine at Gypsy Cab Co. Owner Ned Pollack is legendary in St. Augustine for his magnanimous personality and his eclectic cooking style. In Gypsy’s kitchen, Kenney was allowed enormous creativity and leeway, and given the best teaching tool a chef can have—immediate feedback. With a core base of loyal local customers, many who dine at Gypsy several times a week, and a menu that changes daily, the kitchen received immediate and oftentimes fervent feedback on whether a dish worked or not!
And, as we know from the beginning of this story, not only did Kenney flourish as a chef at Gypsy Cab Co., but also met and married the woman of his dreams, Deidre, when she joined the staff as a server. Deidre’s parents took the couple on a trip to Italy before they were married that they both describe as life altering. While dining their way across the country in unpretentious family-owned restaurants, “we realized that families are born and raised in this industry,” says Kenney, “and that we, too, might find a comfortable life in it.” Upon return, the Kenneys began cooking up their dream for their future business and life’s work together.
The Genesis of Purple Olive
After months of planning, once Peter and Deidre found a great location—a recently vacated restaurant site in a plaza centrally located in St. Augustine Beach, Purple Olive Bistro quickly came to fruition. And, just as quickly, the restaurant developed a following of customers, many who have become like family as well. Offering a creative full dinner menu, nightly dinner specials, freshly baked artisan breads, and all homemade soups, salads, signature salad dressings, and desserts, Kenney’s menu reflects all of the experiences and influences he had along the way of his culinary journey. And Kenney goes one further with a unique menu option to “build your own plate” offering more than a dozen choices of entrees, sauces, condiments, and side items for customers to mix and match to please their own tastes.
Within two years of opening Purple Olive, the Kenneys welcomed their firstborn son, Hyde, making their family owned restaurant feel truly complete. Six year old Hyde frequently makes guest appearances at the restaurant and is on his way to becoming a fellow gourmand. Maybe sometime in the not-so-distant future, Hyde will lend a hand in his parent’s kitchen and become part of the next generation of proud restaurant professionals. As Kenney explains: “We found that having a family owned and operated business is essential to being true to ourselves and to our customers. This is what we were meant to do.”