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Hello, Kitty

Chef Kitty Wagner has found a local home for her global cuisine

Blueberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Blueberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Restaurateur and chef extraordinaire Kitty Wagner never imagined she would wind up in Florida. As an aspiring young chef, she had apprenticed under several notable culinary luminaries and spent time in Europe before setting her sights on Napa Valley — a gastronomic haven for food aficionados. But then she received a call from an old acquaintance, executive chef Scott Bennett. Would she be interested in a sous chef position in Florida? Wagner had her doubts. Bugs in Florida were bigger than her car, she told him. But Bennett persisted, buying her an airline ticket and reserving a Mustang convertible for her drive from Orlando airport. How could she refuse?

It had been snowing when she left her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, but now, as she cruised down the beach road under cerulean skies, she had to admit her friend’s persuasive tactics were working. And even more so when she turned into Windsor’s residential community and murmured to no one in particular, “Wow! Where do I sign?” And so Kitty Wagner’s love affair with Vero Beach began.

While she was impressed with Windsor’s first-class amenities, the sleepy seaside town of Vero Beach was a different story. “It was 1994 when I got here,” she tells me. “There was no mall. Morrison’s was still on U.S.1; there was Dick Perry’s Wayside Inn and Guytano’s across from IHOP. I would get off work and nothing would be open. I was mystified.”

So, in 2003, she opened her first restaurant, Blue Starfish, assuaging the appetites of food-lovers and late-night merrymakers alike. It was on Bougainvillea Lane just off Ocean Drive, and the menu united Wagner’s haute cuisine training with her memories of home cooking — her mom was a fabulous cook, she says. It drew instant acclaim. Her next venture, Undertow, a casual bistro in downtown Vero Beach, met with the same success.