Every week, Kali Davis packs up her chef knife, cutting board, and groceries she needs to make dinner for local residents and vacationers along the Emerald Coast.
Davis, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University for Culinary and Restaurant Management in Miami, Florida, is a personal chef.
“I decided to become a personal chef after I met my husband, Eric. He was already working as a personal chef and convinced me to open my own business, Personal Chef Kali, LLC.”
Davis grew up in Destin, Florida, where fish is abundant and always prepared fresh. While most kids’ palettes prefer chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, it was only natural that Davis grew a love of seafood.
“When I was 9 years old, my uncle would take my cousin and me to Marina Cafe, and I would always order the ‘Petite Filet’ with broccoli and mashed potatoes while my cousin ordered buttered noodles. One year, my friend and I thought it would be a good idea to host a Mother’s Day dinner for our families. I think that’s when I made my first crab cake. I’ve been cooking for my family since I was about 14–15 years old!”
It was at the age of 18 when Davis began taking cooking seriously and moved to Miami to pursue her culinary degree.
“Miami is a big city, and that was something I craved. I wanted to experience culture outside of our own. I wanted to dive into some good food and experience a new way of appreciating food. I wanted to find myself in my culinary future.”
But earning her degree did not come without hard work and determination. Davis explains that culinary school is a disciplined, regimented, and strict environment.
“During one of my first courses, it was my job to prepare a puttanesca sauce. Well, I burnt the garlic, which was a major ingredient, and the entire kitchen was filled with the sharp stench, but I didn’t tell the chef because I was afraid to be sent home. The chef ended up calling me out in front of the entire class and told me I should rethink my career in food—that it’s not meant for everyone. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the course washing dishes with my head held low. But all was not lost—the next course I was focused and determined never to burn garlic again!”
Today, Davis’s decades of schooling and experience are put to the test by a very hungry and notoriously opinionated group of 10 at 105 South Founder’s Lane, a 4-story home in WaterSound with an unobstructed view of towering sand dunes and the Emerald Coast from every floor. Not only has Davis brought enough ingredients to prepare 7 different courses, but she also looks the part, with an embroidered ‘Chef Kali’ scripted on her chef coat.
Davis’s clients range from vacationers to new moms to locals who simply want something unique, so cooking in a different kitchen every night comes with the territory.
“When you’ve cooked in as many kitchens as I have, they all tend to blend together. 360 Blue does a really great job at making sure their kitchens stay fully stocked, so I’ve yet to run into an issue in that regard. One thing I do enjoy about working in different kitchens is the change in scenery and decor. 187 San Roy has to be one of my favorite properties because of the view. It probably has the best view in all of Santa Rosa Beach.”
Tonight’s kitchen at 105 South Founders is anything but ordinary. Its open floor plan comfortably fits our large dinner party, not to mention the sliding doors off of the nearby living room open to a second-story balcony overlooking the sand dunes and gulf, allowing guests to flow in and out with ease.
Even though Davis is busy sautéing, slicing and dicing in the kitchen, she still manages to dabble in conversations with the group. She even goes as far as teaching us about lionfish and how they’re threatening Florida’s seafood industry. “Lionfish are not native to the Gulf, so they have no real predators in our area, causing them to over-populate.” It only makes sense that catching and cooking lionfish helps control the overpopulation of it, so it’s no surprise that one of tonight’s dishes is a lionfish ceviche with blood orange and grapefruit.
Also on the menu: Seared sea scallops with crispy pork belly.
“I like to describe my cooking style as very ‘farm to table.’ I don’t use processed foods, and I buy fresh and organic whenever possible. A lot of people in this area prefer seafood, so I really enjoy cooking that, but I always have plenty of great vegetarian options for a family who hasn’t quite warmed up to the treasures of the Gulf Coast or have food allergies.”
Tonight, Davis is in luck. We Floridians are fond of our seafood, and tonight’s group is no exception.
With hungry bellies, we make our way to a dining table large enough to seat 10 guests. The candle-lit table boasts glittering placemats, crisp white linens, and a floral arrangement that Davis arranged herself. The atmosphere feels like that of a 5-star restaurant.
Before each meal is served, Chef Kali presents each dish to the table explaining its preparation process and ingredients.
The first dish was roasted beet-cured salmon. Presented on a circular plate bearing 5 vibrant slices of fish, it was almost too pretty to eat, but eat it I did.
“I’ve actually done the salmon once before, but I gave it a new twist by adding the touch of lemon and watercress. I feel like a lot of people in this area just associate smoked salmon with breakfast or brunch, so I wanted to reintroduce it in a new light,” says Davis.
The flavor resembled a fresh piece of sashimi—light on the tongue and not overdressed. The palette never lies—less is always more!
A guest at the table remarks, “I had the scallops served atop grits. It was southern-comfort-meets-the-sea, and the scallops were tender and coated with a brown sugar aioli sauce.” Little did we know that the sauce was made on a whim. Davis says, “I just kind of made up this sauce as I was cooking and just about fell in love with it. I ended up putting it on everything!”
Almost every guest was served a different dish, giving us a wide range of flavors and unique culinary experiences. By the end of the night, we were passing plates around the table, family-style, making comments like, “Try the sauce with it!” One guest even said, “Can you pass that back around?” That’s music to any chef’s ears.
“It’s nice to be able to have a glass of wine with friends and not worry about cooking or washing dishes,” says Meaghan Moylan, a dinner guest at the table. “I had the duck eggrolls, and they were fantastic—crispy, bite-sized, and the sauce was a nice addition. My favorite dish was dessert, of course: tiramisu loaded with whipped cream and cinnamon. There is something to be said about the personalization of an in-home private chef. It’s so relaxing!”
Dessert was a big hit at the table. Who can resist Nutella and Baileys tiramisu, roasted beet and coconut flan with a lemon chantilly, and a bourbon and bacon brownie with vanilla bean ice cream?
“If I had to pick my favorite dessert, I would have to go with the bacon brownies. The brownie infused with bacon gives a sweet and salty combination that no one can resist,” says Tanner Armstrong.
Katie Cotton exclaims, “Her dishes are a work of art! My favorite dish was the Beet Flan—a pale pink pastry that melted in your mouth, topped with a dollop of homemade whipped topping and a small piece of lemon rind.”
As silverware clinked on empty plates and the bottom of our wine glasses finally appeared, Davis began gathering our dishes and closing up the kitchen, leaving us to spend another hour around the table talking about our kids, work and life at the beach. By night’s end, Davis left the kitchen even better than she found it, and we didn’t even have to lift a finger.
“Although the food is always executed impeccably, these dinners aren’t solely about the food. They’re also about the experience. Every process of the dinner planning needs to be fun, something they will look forward to and never forget.”
And fun was had by all.
So much so that upon leaving dinner, a guest remarked, “Same time next week?”