Formally trained at the School of Culinary Arts in Denver, Derek Barnes stepped out of academia and directly into the New Orleans kitchen of superstar Chef Emeril Lagassi. “That shaped and formed the foundation,” says Barnes. There, he was steeped in the Creole and Cajun flavors he would eventually return to, but also remembers especially that nothing was wasted in that kitchen, with each bit of each ingredient utilized whenever possible—“and in very smart ways,” he says, “not just thrown into a soup.” The Suncoast got its first taste of Barnes’ particular flavor in 2006 when the restaurateur opened Derek’s Culinary Casual in the Rosemary District, where it enjoyed a celebrated reputation as an exotic eatery until its closure in 2013. Today, those looking for that Barnes magic can find it at the new Derek’s in Bradenton, but if they are looking for the same old thing, they are in for a surprise.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

“It’s a totally different feel,” says Barnes, seated in a backroom under a stark print of an antlered skull on whitewashed wooden planks that drives the point home. Whereas the setting and menu in Sarasota reflected the fine dining atmosphere, with a clean aesthetic and at-times intimidating offerings (the menu came complete with a glossary), this new manifestation is the epitome of Southern rustic comfort in its wooden décor and earthen-toned adornment, including a pair of paintings from local artist Tim Jaeger. “It’s meant to appeal to a broader demographic,” says Barnes. “What hasn’t changed is the quality of the food. There’s still that little twist, but it’s approachable.” Gone are the exotic oddities and offbeat palate-challengers, replaced by a tight and cohesive menu emphasizing the tradition of Southern comfort and incorporating Barnes’ affinity for and experience with Creole and Cajun flavors. Between items such as the Cornmeal Crusted Calimari, the Pork Shank served with garlic mashed potatoes and bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts, and the Southern Seafood Muddle, bursting with snapper, shrimp, mussels, crawfish, calamari and bacon, the selection hits all the Southern sweet spots with a touch of Florida flair. The Shrimp and Grits is a popular choice, according to Barnes, made with a deep dark roux and accented with Andouille. Another popular plate is the daily catch—fresh local fish brought in each morning and specially prepared for the day’s customers. Those leaning more toward the Cajun persuasion would do well to try the Blackened Salmon or Potato Gnocchi, made with a Creole meuniere sauce and ratatouille respectively.

“There are no secrets,” says Barnes, regarding his success in the kitchen. He’ll happily share his recipes to those wanting to try them out on their own, but offers a bit of insight: keep the ingredients simple and fresh. “Try not to fuss with it too much,” he says, and let the food do the work. Source local whenever possible, something he tries to do at the restaurant. “But it’s not always viable,” Barnes admits, “and it drives me nuts.”

Enjoying a new reputation across the county line and growing a host of regulars—a somewhat novel development resulting from the shift—Barnes puts his eye to the future. He suggests plans to add classic “Café du Monde-style” beignets to the menu, and with a takeout option so customers can breeze through, leaving with a paper bag full of powdered-sugary goodness. It could kick off an entire to-go menu, he says. 

Looking around the Bradenton area surrounding his new culinary home, a city and a people he’s been a part of for 14 years, “It’s changed a lot,” he says. Bradenton is growing; Barnes believes that. “But at what speed, I don’t know.” And he’s reluctant to take any credit when asked about the move and any effect it may have had, deflecting instead to community organizations such as Realize Bradenton. “It’s not about one person or one business,” he says. “It’s about the group.”