“Dano” has been a renowned local chef for more than 20 years
Dan Dunn, 50, is a colorful character with a unique point of view. At his restaurant, H20, located inside the Hilton Pensacola Beach, he experiments with Cajun and Asian flavors while highlighting the bounty of fresh local seafood that arrives at its front door seven days a week. In 2017, he was awarded Chef of the Year by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and has won the ARC Gateway Oyster Cook off and Crab Cake Cook Off. And along with a group of four other local Pensacola chefs, he’s cooked at New York’s James Beard House four times.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Dan Dunn: When I was 13 I started working at my neighborhood grocery store. I made my way through the ranks there and ended up in the butcher department. I started breaking down chickens. While working there we started cooking on Sundays for everyone. I thought it was always fun to work on Sunday because everyone would be there and we would always eat really good.
Do you have a specialty dish?
I love cooking anything out of the Gulf of Mexico. Living on the Gulf my whole life, fresh seafood is a staple. The variety I have available to me keeps me inspired to create new dishes. From fresh sweet bay shrimp to surf fishing for Whiting and Pompano to Yellowfin Tuna from the deep blue waters. I’d say seafood is my specialty.
Do you prefer a particular style of cooking?
I like ethnic food, all kinds. The flavors are simple. I lean to Asian-style flavors. The freshness of ginger, cilantro, and lemongrass are subtly flavorful and complement a variety of dishes.
What kind of atmosphere do you create in the kitchen?
It’s already chaotic in the kitchen so I try to make a rhythm out of it, since you can’t control the chaos. This business is demanding, often requiring long hours. The goal is to make a stressful situation fun.
What do you look for when you hire other chefs to assist you in the kitchen?
I look for drive, experience, someone who wants to take my job. I like to see the glimmer in their eyes when it’s chaotic and they dig in to get us out of the weeds.
What keeps you cooking?
It’s my life! Cooking is my way of expressing myself.