When it came to choosing an entree to feature in the Coastal Breeze’s “Chef’s Choice” column, CJ’s on the Bay’s Executive Chef Nicholas Donatelli selected a customer favorite, the popular Diver Scallops entree.
Diver Scallops are the priciest of all scallops because they are harvested by actual divers. This special handling is very labor-intensive. Diver Scallops are rarely found outside of a restaurant menu.
Donatelli has five plump, creamy white scallops—known as the candy of the seas—on parchment paper as he begins to prepare the Diver Scallops entree. There is a reason for this.
“I have them here on the paper to dry them off,” Donatelli explains, “so we can get a real nice sear—good color on the scallop.”
Donatelli deftly cuts the foot off of each scallop. Removing the foot is a basic in scallop preparation.
“There’s a little connective tissue on the scallop, they call that the foot,” he said. “It’s very tough. Not really pleasant to eat. So, we go ahead and peel that off. That’s standard procedure for scallops, to remove that little piece of flesh to make them more appealing.”
Meanwhile, Donatelli grabs a chef’s knife and shows his knife skills as he quickly shaves a small dish of brussels sprouts. This will be used to create bacon charred brussels sprouts. Next, he sprinkles freshly-grated parmesan cheese on a piece of parchment paper that’s placed in the center of a baking tray.
“The parmesan tuile is one of the finishing components,” Donatelli explains as he works. “We have parmesan cheese that we shave down on our box grater. We put that on a lightly greased piece of parchment. We’re going to bake that in the oven for a couple of minutes so it crisps up.”
Donatelli has spent almost 10 years in the kitchen at CJ’s—first as a Sous Chef and now as Executive Chef. He was certified in culinary arts from the Academy of Culinary Arts at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was recruited to the island by Marriott’s Marco Beach Resort.
However, his love of cooking started well before his days in culinary school.
“I started my culinary journey at a very young age of 7 or 8 years old,” Donatelli remembered. “It slowly became my responsibility to put food on the table for my family when they came home from work. My older brother was doing it. He didn’t really like to do it that much. He would teach me, I would get involved, and I eventually took over.
“When it came time to go to college, I was going to school to be a math teacher—possibly a music student. I had a very strong interest in music growing up. It was something I thought I might want to pursue as a professional career, but I thought it was more of a passion as a hobby than as a profession. I ended up with a summer job in a professional kitchen. That was in Indiana, Pennsylvania, in Benjamin’s Restaurant. I worked there for a couple of years and the chef there recommended I go to culinary school.”
Donatelli slips the tray of parmesan into the oven then returns to the ingredients for a balsamic reduction: balsamic vinegar, shallots and sugar. He chops the shallots, but not too carefully. “They will be strained out in the end,” he explains. “They add flavor to the reduction.”
He combines the ingredients in a small sauté pan and places them on the stove over a low flame.
“Now, we take our brussels sprouts, take some bacon fat, a little bit of salt and pepper, and mix it around. Then we’re going to throw this under our broiler with some high heat, get a little char on them. That will take five to six minutes to get the desired effect.”
The chef seems to have a lot of balls in the air at the same time.
“This dish actually does have quite a few components to it,” he acknowledges. “It’s one of our more involved dishes for sure.”
Donatelli pulls the brussels sprouts from the oven.
“Now we have a nice char on our brussels sprouts. We’re just going to toss these here,” he said as he works the mixture with a pair of tongs. “They’re already seasoned with salt and pepper. The final touch is we take some to this chopped bacon and sprinkle it in there. Really brightens it up. That’s our charred brussels sprouts.”
Now, Donatelli turns his focus to the piece de resistance as he remarks, “Our main feature of the dish is the scallops. The nice dry scallops we have on the paper. For the scallops, we want our pan really nice and hot. I like to start with just a splash of oil, that I will then remove from the pan. We just want to give it a nice coating. I will put some of that oil back in to give the scallops a nice crust.”
Donatelli turns his attention to an adjacent sauté pan and the simmering balsamic reduction. “Over here, our balsamic reduction is starting to get that syrupy consistency,” he notes. “It’s almost there. We have to let that go just a little bit longer.”
He carefully examines the scallops that he has circling the inside of the 10” sauté pan.
“Now we’re starting to see a little browning around the edges so we’re going to take a quick peek. All right! We’ve got some beautiful color on those.
“That was really important that we dried those scallops off at the beginning,” he reminds. “That helps get the caramelization and the color on the scallops. If they’re wet, the water will evaporate. The scallops will cook, but they won’t get that nice caramelized color. We’re going to let them continue to sear for another minute or so. I’m going to turn the pan down to stop the searing. Just kind of turn these off and set them to the side for a minute to let them finish cooking in the pan.
“We shoot for a nice medium rare-to-medium on the scallops, unless the customer requests otherwise. It’s standard to serve them medium rare-to-medium.”
Donatelli then puts all the ingredients together to create a beautiful and sumptuous presentation.
“Our standard vegetable is the mixed vegetable medley with zucchini squash, carrots, green beans and sugar snap peas. We have the vegetables and rice on the plate, then we’re going to go with our bacon roasted brussels sprouts. They go on the center of the plate. We flash our scallops to make sure they’re hot and ready to go. We go kind of light with the balsamic reduction because it can be overpowering. The parmesan tuile is sort of a garnish. And that is our Diver Scallops entree.”
CJ’s on the Bay is located in the Esplanade on Marco Island. Call 239-389-4511 for reservations.