From fine dining to the quintessential Jacksonville diner, Chef Sean Van Den Berg has done it all. With an impressive resume and endless skills, he recently took his fine dining finesse to Jacksonville’s staple Edgewood Diner to refine their menu and expand their brand into St Augustine with their new bar and grill concept 2 Creeks. 2 Creeks’ menu lets Sean’s experience shine with elevated bar food and refreshing twists on classic comfort foods. With the soft opening of 2 Creeks happening last week, we wanted to showcase Chef Sean’s story and his vision for his culinary future in Jacksonville.
Chef Sean’s culinary career began early and in the humble way that many chefs begin–doing dishes. He worked his way quickly from dishes to fry station to grill and became an unofficial kitchen manager during his summers off school at Box Seats in Fleming Island. His official professional career came with River City Brewing Company, where he learned the true fundamentals of cooking. Sean told us, “For me when I was coming up in the industry, I thought River City Brewing was the mecca. Then I went to Chew and that changed. But River City is where I learned the basics. It’s where I even learned how to cut parsley. I did that in the morning for prep every single day. It was the garnish on everything there so it was a lot of parsley. That type of thing taught me fundamentals. I can sharpen a knife, I can cut an herb properly. I can keep a prep area clean. The next step was peeling and de-veining shrimp. It was one entire learning experience. I also learned time management and self motivation, especially coming from Fleming Island to downtown at 16 years old every day to do that work.” Sean moved up to the grill at River City Brewing Company shortly thereafter, and then FSCJ for culinary school after that. While in culinary school, they took a field trip to Restaurant Orsay. Sean’s path was changed drastically from that field trip.
Sean recounted that trip with a smile. “During the International or American Regional class we had a field trip to Orsay. Jon (Insetta), since he went to school there, had a good connection with the teachers. We finished the meal and Jon talked to my chef at school and said he that he needed a cook, and he asked them for a recommendation from our class. They all looked at me and said ‘go talk to this guy’. So, he walked me outside. Jon was standing there with his hat down to his eyes. He asked if I smoked, and I was so timid and shy I didn’t know what to do. Then he asked me to come to Chew, so I went there and did a cook test. I used the first bottle of oil I could find which turned out to be truffle oil. I made a perfect omelet, absolutely no brown. He said he liked that I used truffle oil and I was like, ‘I did what?’ I had no idea what oil I was using. Then he had me sear a scallop and make a vinaigrette. That was it. I started prep for him at Chew, I was working both jobs for awhile. I left River City because Orsay needed help doing dishes. I did that, worked my way to raw bar, and then did pastry under Chef Michael Bump. I was full time at Orsay for about a year and a half. I went back to Chew, closed down Chew, then back to Orsay. I was also part of the beginning at Black Sheep with Waylon. We costed out every recipe together. I opened Black Sheep and was there for two years as the lead cook. I transitioned to the line and worked all the private events and catering–that was my niche. Then Orsay had an opening for Sous Chef so I went over there for two and a half more years. I got to the point where I needed a better quality of life after my divorce to spend time with my kids. So, I sent my resume to the owner of Edgewood Diner and he took me on.”
Chef Sean’s fine dining experience extends beyond the Black Sheep brands, however. He spent a week while working at Chew doing a coveted stage at Alinea. Alinea is currently listed as the 9th best restaurant in the world, one of two Michelin 3-star restaurants in Chicago, and home to the world renowned Chef Grant Achatz. One of the captivating things about Chef Sean is his immediate need to learn from everything around him–you can actually see him analyzing what others are doing to understand even minute purpose. The stage at Alinea proved to be a week of intense education. The beginning tasks weren’t fun, but contributed to Sean’s understanding of total restaurant operation and the seamlessness with which Michelin starred restaurants function. “They have two rows of tables, but between those is a floor mat,” Sean relayed, “Every half hour you Bissel it. That was my job. I would be prepping and switch to any miniscule task that needed to be done. I picked micro herbs and spun them dry. I scrubbed dumpsters and doors. I stayed two hours late one night because we got a late order of tomatoes and they had to be served on the vine so they had to be cleaned. We picked berries that night. My clearest memory there was that one day someone didn’t scrub a pot down all the way. Chef Dave asked ‘who didn’t clean the pot’ and no one answered. He made everyone stop what they were doing and clean every single pot. Anything on the stove went into a container and we scrubbed every pot in house. We were set back 35-45 minutes.”
As the week of study progressed at Alinea, their group of 12 stages dwindled. By day two there were seven left. By day three just four. The reward for surviving the week at Alinea was a surprise. On the last day they asked the four remaining stages to go home and put on their nicest attire. They had a table ready for them on their return, and they served them the regular menu along with extra courses as a once in a lifetime dinner. For Chef Sean, being served the food he had been meticulously prepping all week came together and he had an understanding of the purpose of each individual item and how Chef Grant intended for it to come together for the diner. At the time, Chef Sean was young, he had a girlfriend who was soon to be a fiance, so he left Alinea and returned to Florida to be a leader within the Black Sheep brands.
Chew, Chef Jon Insetta’s original Jacksonville restaurant, clearly holds a big place in Chef Sean’s history and experience. “Chew was way advanced for his time” said Sean, “We had pork belly before it was pork belly. We had to call it “fresh bacon” because no one knew what pork belly was. We had sweet breads, veal chops, and halibut on the menu consistently. The lamb was served with a potato rossti and an eggplant cannelloni. We had cornbread stuffed quail with chorizo. Root vegetable mash, hericot verde. Jon changed the Jacksonville food scene.” Chef Sean is one of the few people who is a part of the ‘trinity’ of Jon’s restaurants, Chew, Orsay, and Black Sheep. Having worked a few shifts at Jon’s downtown Black Sheep at Intuition, Sean’s short term goal is now one shift at Bellwether.
Transitioning from fine dining to the classic American diner came naturally to Chef Sean. The owner of Edgewood had never had anyone come in to unify the menus between the three restaurants, and on the eve of opening the beautiful new 2 Creek’s in St Augustine, needed someone as well to put together a menu that would leave a mark on St Augustine. Chef Sean’s new focus is refining the diners and continuing their age old tradition of excellent comfort food. As far what to expect with Sean’s new tenure at Edgewood Diner, Sean told us, “The diner quality will be elevated. We will always have standard diner food, but better. We will always have eggs any way you want them (They use 8-9000 eggs per month at Edgewood). There will still be salt and pepper on the table. The coffee will still be hot diner coffee. You’re going to hear some of the kitchen guys talking. It is a diner. With my background at Orsay I had to step back and let things be. Once dinner opens up at Edgewood, we will move into simple but elegant bar food. Late night is on the table for later. We have a goal to push to that. Maybe in the near future, but we have to get 2 Creeks open first. Once that’s open we can focus on the individual diners.” Running four restaurants simultaneously is not an easy task, and Sean has a vision of it running behind the scenes like a corporate group of restaurants, but at it’s base level still being a family. He reminisced on when he started in kitchens of spending time after service reviewing recipes, discussing food, and just taking time as a staff to be creative and push the restaurant forward. That’s what he wants to instill in the Diner family of restaurants.
We got to attend the soft opening night of 2 Creeks Bar and Grille recently, and it is certainly everything that the World Golf Village area has been lacking. It has a chic and modern interior with subdued lighting and local artwork on the walls to highlight the simple rows of booths and tables in the dining room. In a separated bar area, there is a large actual bar and more booth seating. 2 Creeks is open now for breakfast / brunch, lunch, and dinner, but we got to enjoy the dinner service and a tasting of the new menu items. For appetizers, we had a sampler platter of Shrimp and Grits Hush Puppies, Pimchee Tea Sandwiches, Country Dumplings, and Street Corn Nuggets. The Shrimp and Grits Hush Puppies are what dreams are made of to put it mildly, and are a must order signature item of Sean’s. Those are served with a dill shallot tartar sauce for dipping which pairs perfectly with the crispy hush puppy. The Street Corn Nuggets are little balls of fire and packed with the flavor of street corn and accompanied with a cajun ranch sauce. The Country Dumplings are Sean’s whimsical play on the traditional, using cabbage leaves and accompanied with “General Sean” sauce. Rounding out the platter was Pimchee, which is one of the best locally produced items coming out of Jacksonville right now that you may not even know about. More on that story is below, but if you think you’ve had good pimento cheese before, you don’t even know how great it can be until you’ve had Pimchee. These little tea sandwiches were very reminiscent of my Mississippi childhood, and a playful touch to the appetizer menu. For entrees, we ordered the Chicken Murabella, 2 Creeks version of Chicken Marsala with tender mushrooms, incredibly rich sauce, perfectly crisp chicken, and sinful mashed potatoes. We also ordered the Caribbean Red Snapper paired with succotash that included roasted tomatoes, corn, artichokes, and peas. If you go for no other reason to 2 Creeks, go for this entree. The fish is tender and the succotash is one of the more memorable things I’ve eaten from anywhere recently. As far as the menu in it’s entirety, 2 Creeks will have the same breakfast and lunch as Edgewood but with a few new items added. Dinner overall will include fresh steaks, more salad selections, and more appetizers. It’s a family friendly environment with reflective prices. 2 Creeks aspires to be the neighborhood restaurant that families can visit several times a week. This stems from the owners Rich and Beth McCann, who live in the Murabella area, knowing that a family friendly restaurant, a great bar, and excellent food is something that this area had severely lacked until they developed their vision. In fact, 2 Creeks is the only sit down breakfast spot and the only non-chain breakfast spot in the area. With a dinner price point maxing out at $18, it’s certainly an easy place to enjoy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner a few times per week. For late night, they envision a unique bar area as well with a few TVs for important football game watching, cocktails, wine, and beer. With the only local bar being Gator’s Dockside, 2 Creeks is offering a refined alternative with a welcoming atmosphere. High quality proteins, local seafood with tracking numbers to know down to the fisherman who caught each fish, and fresh accompaniments will set them apart even further not only to the residents of Murabella and St Augustine, but also as destination dining from Jacksonville.
Sean expects 2 Creeks to grow quickly, and looks forward to truly ingraining it within the neighborhood. Sean explained, “I’m going to push service, that’s what I keep reading is needed out here. We will be service driven. We’ll need a big staff for three services. We have a lot of younger kids coming in to apply, and that’s how I started, just washing dishes. That’s the best way to grow. I’m going to teach them that it’s an important role. If I don’t have clean dishes, clean cups, clean silverware, I can’t serve food. I can’t do my job without them doing that job. When I try to explain cooking, I try to get them to compare it to sports or music. I compare the kitchen to an orchestra. The chef is the maestro, the conductor. Everyone has a role to fill. Fry is the brass, grill the woodwinds. Whatever it is, they have to come together to make one harmonious night happen. The other day, I had a 16 year old come up with this beautiful resume. It looked better than mine! I wanted to hire him just off his resume. He killed it. I told him, ‘you’re the kind of person I need, do you have friends? Bring them in!’ I also made a connection with a football team here. We’ll run specials and stay open late with ticket stub rewards. We’ll make it worth their while. There’s a fire station a mile down the road from us. We do a fireman and policeman discount every day. The coffee is always hot, come on down.”
Aside from four restaurants, Chef Sean spends his abundant free time helping at Orsay, Black Sheep at Intuition, and producing the aforementioned Pimchee (aka the most amazing pimento cheese on the planet) with owner Jack Barrett, who Sean worked with at Black Sheep. “Jack was a bartender at Black Sheep. I was the opening and lead Sous Chef. I would make him a sandwich for breakfast and he’d make me an espresso. We started hanging out and he started doing Pimchee on his own. He left Black Sheep to start doing pimento cheese full time. He asked for my help. He’s got his own catering company now and Pimchee is trademarked. I make the joke every single week asking if I can get the employee of the month plaque since it’s just the two of us making it. One of us makes the dressing and shreds cheddar, the other does dishes and makes packaging. We can work and joke and talk and laugh all night long.” Pimchee has exploded in popularity since Jack began production, and him and Sean are often finding themselves sold out before they even finish producing batches. “It’s a good problem to have,” Sean laughed, “The New Bay Flavor, before we even made it and packaged it we had already sold 18 of the 24 jars”. Now that you want it, you can find it locally at Grater Goods in Murray Hill, right down the street from Edgewood Diner.
In the free time aside from four restaurants and helping with Pimchee, Sean enjoys exploring all the food options the burgeoning Jax food scene has to offer. His favorites include Moxie, the Mr Taco truck on University, Bowl of Pho, 13 Gypsies, Orsay, and Chomp Chomp, which reminds him of Chew. He sees what Jacksonville can be as we continue to develop, and whether he sees it or not, he is an integral part of that development himself. His success comes down to his understanding of the importance of doing dishes to executing a dish, or from bussing a table to the most minute detail of plating. Sean summarized, “I can cook with the best, grind it out on the line, run out and serve a beer. The concept of being a chef is so weird to me, I just love cooking food. I want every guest to leave full, but moreso I want the meal to resonate with them. I want my guests to crave the food the next day. I want them to come back more often. I don’t just want to put a burger out the window, I want each dish to hit every note that it can and be an experience.” 2 Creeks has hit that level of being an experience immediately, and with the talent behind the scenes, will surely be a staple of St Augustine for many years to come and just the beginning of the continued success and growth of the Edgewood Diner brand.