They took drastically different paths to get here, but Donald Robinson and Joe Brugh, the culinary masterminds behind Sarasota’s Wink Wink Lounge, have found their niche. They’ve transformed the restaurant attached to the Sarasota Modern Hotel in the Rosemary District into one of the area’s most exciting destinations for elevated cuisine with zero hints of pretension. In fact, one of the most memorable dishes on the menu is cheekily named the Wascally Wabbit. It’s a bold move to nod to the beloved Bugs Bunny when referring to the duo’s rabbit confit, but this is a team that eschews traditional approaches to fine dining. That becomes apparent the moment you walk in, feel the tiki vibe, see the giant alligator bolted to the ceiling . . . and then when you take your first bite. 

While the vibe is island fun, make no mistake: What you’ll find on the plate is fantastically creative. In the Wascally Wabbit dish, Robinson, Wink Wink’s executive chef, has created something so memorable that local foodies have been driven to return visits. 

The process to make it is as complex as the resulting flavor of the dish itself. The rabbit leg is packed in herb salt for 24 hours to allow it to dry out a bit. Then it’s cooked with shallots, herbs and slow roasted at 220 degrees for 10 hours. It cools for another 24 hours before it’s finished off and served on a bed of shitake mushroom duxelle with some duck fat roasted carrots. But if you think this is the creation of a classically trained molecular gastronomist, you’d be mistaken. While Brugh, who serves as the Director of Culinary and Beverage at The Modern, took the culinary school path and made his own mark as a fine dining chef, Robinson’s route was more localized. 

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Robinson’s journey started with a stint in Suncoast Technical College’s culinary program, which helped him get his first restaurant gig as a line cook at the Chili’s on Bee Ridge, where he learned consistency. He progressed from one back-of-house opportunity to the next, including a turn at Bent Tree Country Club, where he had his first taste of fine dining. It was there that he pitched his first dish idea for a banquet: salmon with a citrus crust and banana beurre blanc. The reviews were rave, the dish was added to the club’s main menu, and Robinson was hooked. 

Any doubt he may have had about whether to pursue a career in the culinary arts was out the window once he watched his dish inspire a woman to throw her hands above her head and do the “raise the roof” dance. He became obsessed with learning how to become a chef and soaked up every lesson he could from every chef he worked with.  Fast forward to 2020. Robinson had worked his way up the ladder with Cinebistro, making it all the way to sous chef when he was told they’d be bringing another sous chef named Joe.  And that’s when everything changed. 

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Brugh’s career began in fine dining in his native Indiana. After graduating from the International Culinary Academy in Pittsburgh, Brugh bounced around some high-pressure, high-stress kitchens around Indianapolis before eventually making it to Sarasota to head up the kitchen at Wink Wink’s predecessor, Rudolph’s, which carried more of a loungy steakhouse vibe. When the pandemic hit, staff was reduced, and Brugh landed in the Cinebistro kitchen, where he saw great potential in his fellow sous chef.

“Robinson has a thirst for knowledge—to know why, and wanting to understand the physics of cooking and the little things, whether it’s how something evaporates or the right tool for the right job,” Brugh says. They started talking more. Talking turned into collaboration. Collaboration turned into the concept that is Wink Wink Lounge. The years of hard work, the studying, the self-directed learning, the endless brain picking . . .  it had paid off. 

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As pandemic restrictions eased, Brugh, now promoted to Sarasota Modern’s Food and Beverage Director, had the opportunity to create a new concept at the Sarasota Modern. At Cinebistro, “we didn’t really have a captive audience,” he says. “People came to see movies there, but here [at Wink Wink], the ceiling’s blown off. We can do whatever the hell we want, and it’s awesome.” It was an exciting proposition for Robinson, who made the difficult decision to leave Cinebistro, where he had risen through the ranks and had started to take on leadership opportunities in the kitchen. “I was getting the pay that I had worked hard for over 15-plus years, but I felt very empty inside,” Robinson says. “I didn’t know what it was — just this ultimate void. Even though I was surrounded by food, a great kitchen staff, I just felt empty.” 

After creating and costing out some innovative new dishes at Cinebistro only to have their ideas shot down at the corporate level, Brugh and Robinson started talking about what they could create, given the opportunity. “If you’re stuck in the same ways — this is the way we’ve always done it — that’s the recipe for disaster,” Brugh says.

And that emptiness Robison mentioned? It was about to be filled in a big way — with a heaping helping of fun to boot. Given creative freedom at Wink Wink, Brugh and Robinson developed a 1950s/60s-style suburban tiki bar concept with a sometimes Asian, always tropical vibe. “Anywhere a coconut grows is fair game to us,” Brugh says. The interior went from sleek lounge to a poolside party vibe. There’s a giant alligator bolted to the ceiling, and the menu is a pun-laden riot. 

There’s the Bahn Mi Baby One More Time, the Bao to the Belly, and the Pipi Popo Loco Moco bowl, to name just a few of the menu items that patrons are enjoying. Whether it’s the elevated rabbit confit or a Korean ramen corn dog, “if it’s not weird or wacky,” Brugh says, “we’re not really interested in it.” 

It’s elevated cuisine that doesn’t take itself too seriously, devoid of the pomp and mystique upon which some chefs insist. “We’re not using the gastronomy to show that we’re using the gastronomy. It’s a matter of using the gastronomy in a way that benefits the food,” Brugh says.

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While the rabbit continues to wow some of Sarasota’s most serious foodies, the most popular dish since the new menu launched in November has been the braised oxtail mac ‘n’ cheese. For the scratch-made cheese sauce, Robinson makes a reduction of white wine, roasted garlic, shallots, and thyme. Then it’s a Prairie Breeze white cheddar cheese — some of the finest the state of Iowa has to offer — plus some chicken stock. All of that melts together to create a rich, complex flavor that transcends cheddar. The oxtail is slow-cooked and braised with rosemary and mirepoix in a house-made veal stock.

For the Wink Wink team, humor is a way to create a culture where food is fun —where celebrating the art of the possible isn’t just encouraged; it’s mandatory. This is a partnership built on not overthinking or overreaching. “I think a lot of restaurants either get over their head or become too pretentious,” Brugh says. “I came up through a lot of high-end restaurants, and my biggest takeaway from that is the stress that goes into making the dish translate to the customer. You can taste when something’s over-produced.” He applauds Robinson for letting the food do the talking. 

“When you let things sing for themselves, you can create an orchestra, and that’s the beauty of the way he cooks,” Brugh says. “We can talk the language that we both speak and it creates food that I would put up against anyone.” That’s not enough for Robinson, who looks down the line in his kitchen and sees more than co-workers. He sees himself and the journey he took to earn the moniker “chef.” He sees the mentors who helped him along the way.  And when a line cook gets upset because his pans are still wet and not as clean as they should be, Robinson gets it. 

“I know exactly where you’re coming from,” he tells them. “Let me help you out with that.”