Architect Jeff Margaretten has made a very successful career designing iconic homes and gorgeous commercial spaces all over the world. But as the sun dips into the Gulf of Mexico, Margaretten now puts away his T-square and design software and dons a crisp black chef coat and charcoal skull cap, transforming into the precision knife-wielding raw fish master behind “Sushi by Jeff.”
Back in the 1990s, Margaretten designed spaces for commercial brands such as BMW and Ford, traveling globally from his home base in Atlanta, Georgia. Amidst jet-setting, he attended a make-your-own-sushi party that sparked his dual business paths. Rice and vegetables furnished by the host complemented whatever fish guests brought, and then everybody got rolling. That evening turned Margaretten into an ardent sushi crafter.
“Everybody has their thing,” said Margaretten. “Some people make barbecue chicken or the best steaks. I made sushi. It fed this other side of me.”
As a break from his busy metropolitan life, Margaretten vacationed with his family on Scenic Highway 30A in Walton County, Florida. But what started as a part-time retreat became a full-time home.
“We built our house on 30A in 2001, but we still had a house in Atlanta,” he said. “I realized I would be happy if my kids grew up here in this small beach town community.” But maintaining his corporate clients required extensive work travel, and his kids were growing up without him there full-time.
An open T-ball coaching position changed his trajectory. Leaving the traveling lifestyle behind in 2003, Margaretten Architectural opened in Santa Rosa Beach, and he concentrated on building his local design business, while coaching his identical sons’ team and throwing sushi parties for friends and family on the side.
Margaretten soon fully embraced the concept of live, work, and play, which is now an iconic lifestyle recipe found along Scenic Highway 30A.
“Each structure I design involves thought about how it integrates into the broader community, and it’s all built around a beach road incubator,” said Margaretten. “Each new creation makes the others more successful.”
In 2009, sushi became more than a hobby. A real estate buddy approached him to cater sushi for an upcoming open house. The offer floored Margaretten. “I couldn’t believe he was going to pay me to roll sushi.” He bought some sharp knives, and just like that, “Sushi by Jeff” was born.
But as a self-taught chef, Margaretten realized talent does not equal skill, so he soon sought out some formal training. “You can have talent, but if you don’t work on the skills to make the most of your talent, you’re just setting yourself up for failure,” he said. A few sushi parties a year didn’t afford the practice needed to truly hone his skills.
So, Margaretten started moonlighting at the now-defunct Crush Wine Bar in Seaside, Florida. At 3:30 p.m. Margaretten would change clothes and head over to Crush for his second shift. Still an architect by day, sushi served as a nightly respite.
“I basically walked in right around the time they opened, and asked if I could work at night as a sushi chef,” he recalled. “I had never worked in a restaurant before.” He worked three nights a week for two-and-a-half years. “And I learned. I learned knife skills. I learned how to mop up. I learned the fryer. I learned speed, I learned mise en place. I learned ingredients, food cost, and the business side of restaurants.”
His experience at Crush sharpened his skills as a private sushi chef, and though it is still his secondary business to architecture, his reputation for sleekly designed rolls that capture the essence of the 30A lifestyle has grown since that first open house back in 2009.
Margaretten said that Mike Ragsdale, founder of The 30A Company, actually inspired one of his most popular menu items. “The ‘Life Shines’ roll has tuna and mango wrapped with salmon with a few dots of sriracha on top.”
“I always say Mike is the ambassador of this area, and that roll showcases the little bit of sweet and the little bit of heat found here on 30A.”
Once a fan of big city life, Margaretten now finds peace and inspiration in his more casual coastal lifestyle. “I love living five minutes from the office. I love having the beaches here at sunset. Everywhere you go, you see people you know. That’s important to me. And I love being part of the fabric of this community as both an architect and a chef.”