Clear key lime pie, carrot glass, floral laminated pasta, and a Jackson Pollock-inspired dessert “sketch” plated and served directly on the dinner table probably aren’t things that you’d expect to see on the menu of a fancy steakhouse, but Fleetwood Covington isn’t your average chef.
Covington was a concert pianist for 16 years, traveling around the world playing for royalty, emirates, wealthy clients with private boats, and more. A two-week tour around Europe turned into a five-year stay, and on one morning in Glasgow, he awoke with the realization that he didn’t want to be a professional musician anymore. “I just knew I didn’t want to do it anymore––it was very clear,” Covington said. “I’ve been playing since I was 6 and doing professional work since I was 9, and I’ll always look back to those years and be glad I did it, but it was over. It was bittersweet.”
He flew home, unsure of his next step after pursuing a single passion for most of his life up to that point. Ultimately, Covington decided that he would learn how to make pasta at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood at the Hilton Sandestin Golf Resort & Spa in South Walton, Florida. He had no formal culinary training to speak of, but that didn’t stop him from getting a job at an award-winning steakhouse and climbing up the ranks to become their executive chef in just five years.
Working at Seagar’s was a crash course in culinary, and Fleetwood got to learn from industry greats. “I’ve only been interested in two things professionally in my entire life: music and cooking,” he said. “When I become interested in something, I go all in.” Every week, he reads three to four books on chemistry, food trends, or other related topics. He looks at what the top chefs in the world are putting on the plate and thinks of ways to reinvent food, whether in concept, flavor, ingredients, or presentation. “With my lack of formal training, I feel like I need to prove myself even more, so I work around the clock.”
Of course, a lack of formal training isn’t always a bad thing.
For Covington, thinking outside of the box comes naturally because he never learned any of the rules. “I get to operate pretty fearlessly,” he said.
At a private dinner event, Covington served an amuse-bouche featuring rosé Champagne, which he turned into rice noodles. For his first-ever summer menu, Covington created a monochromatic ceviche featuring cubes of bluefin tuna, watermelon, and heirloom tomatoes. All the ingredients were chosen and treated so they were the exact same color and size, and diners couldn’t tell what they were biting into.
“I really want guests to enjoy and feel like they are discovering something through the food they eat when they dine at Seagar’s,” he said. That same summer menu featured a deconstructed banana pudding (inspired by the one his grandmother used to make) and key lime pie with a transparent filling (which still somehow tasted like a creamy key lime pie).
When writing menus, the guest experience is top of mind for Covington and his team. “How can we present something to the table that produces conversation?” Covington said. He noted that one of the most gratifying parts of his job is when diners try something out of their comfort zone (like Hungarian honey truffle ice cream) and walk away with a more open perspective.
For Covington, a meal at Seagar’s is more than just what’s on the plate (though that is very important)––it’s about the experience. At a fall vintner dinner, floral centerpieces at each table were revealed to be mini bonfires. When lit, the bonfires filled the room with the scent of rosemary, thyme, and hickory. The scent and soft lights of the bonfire made the perfect backdrop for a s’mores-inspired dessert. It turns out that dinner service isn’t so different from a concert, and Covington makes a masterful maestro.