September 2020

Jesse Blanco Eat It and Like It … Undressed

Author: Cheryl Alexander | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

Jesse Blanco is, no doubt, one of the Lowcountry’s most popular media personalities. In fact, Blanco and his show, Eat It and Like It, have become synonymous with food in the region. But what you might not realize is the diversity and point of view he offers his followers.

Blanco was born in California and raised in the Coconut Grove area of Miami alongside a “very, very large Cuban-American family,” he said, “where the genetic makeup consists of food, drink, music, dancing, laughing, family, and friends.”

Blanco’s Latin heritage and all that goes along with it have brought a unique opportunity and perspective to his career. His dad came to Miami from Cuba just after the Cuban Revolution, and his mom is Puerto Rican. His parents met and married in New York City, but they eventually moved back to Miami to be near family when Blanco was four years old.

“I visited Cuba for the first time last year,” Blanco said. “I gained a lot of insight about my family, my culture and my own passions. It was a country full of people I grew up with in Miami. Cuba has its fair share of issues, but so many people are so happy and cheerful. It is unbelievable. The hospitality is just mind-blowing considering these are people that work for a handful of dollars a month.”

Blanco attended college at the University of Central Florida where he earned a degree in political science, but his curiosity about television news, which would eventually become his career, developed at a young age. “Six p.m. would roll around, and because we only had one TV, my mom would come to the living room where I was watching cartoons and say, ‘Get out of my chair and change the channel.’ So, I watched the news with her. My fascination with the personalities that came through the TV and the news format only grew from that early exposure,” he said.

Since those days, Blanco has enjoyed more than two decades as a beloved and respected television news anchor, reporting on hurricanes, Super Bowls, shuttle launches, presidential inaugurations, and more. He originally moved to the Savannah area in 1998 to work as a sportscaster at WSAV-TV (NBC). Since then, he has worked for or with every television station in the market in a number of capacities—from sports anchor to news anchor to TV show host—and he has lived in places like Orlando, Fort Myers, Nashville, and El Paso.


Jesse with Chef Kyle Jacovino at Pizzeria Vittoria in Savannah.

Blanco was the first Hispanic-American to serve as a news anchor in the Savannah market—an accomplishment he is extremely proud of. Equally important, though, spending time in a variety of places has allowed him to experience and understand diverse people and cultures, including the many varieties of local cuisine, both through cooking and eating the food.

“I have always had an insatiable desire to travel and explore,” he said. “But I’ve always had a fascination with the South. There is so much diversity within it that it was a natural fit for me to learn about the cultures and the people.”

In 2008, Blanco returned to Savannah to work for WTGS-TV(FOX) and, just over a year later, decided to turn one of his hobbies (food) into a small business. Created by co-founders Senea Crystal and Jesse Blanco in the summer of 2010, Eat It and Like It began as a blog about the diversity of food in and around Savannah, Georgia and across the South. Crystal created structure and branding and came up with the name in homage to every mother’s admonition: “You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to like it!”

The two spent six months in preparation and debuted the blog on February 3, 2011. Nine months later, the television show premiered, and within weeks had developed a following. Although the original premise was to promote and drive business to Tybee Island, they agreed that the show should not be limited in scope even to Savannah.

“We knew we’d eventually run out of restaurants if we didn’t include the entire South—keep in mind this was three years before Savannah’s food scene exploded,” Blanco said.

So now he goes to Nashville, Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston, and all over Florida in search of the meals that break Southern cuisine stereotypes. “Everyone outside of the South thinks all we do is eat fried chicken, collards and fried green tomatoes,” Blanco said, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Because his background is not really food or Southern culture, Blanco is always eager to learn how it’s done, and folks recognize and appreciate the authenticity of his approach. “I’m not a chef. I’m a journalist. I’m curious every day,” he said.

Blanco garnered a keen interest in food from his dad, who taught his children an appreciation for well-prepared, beautifully presented, great tasting food. It was his sister, though, who instilled in him a love of cooking and an interest in what it took to make a recipe really taste great.


Jesse with Executive Chef Jason Starnes of Rhett.

“We were exposed to lots of great food in my family,” Blanco said, “but I recognized early on that there was something about Sandy’s cooking. Anytime she made something—even stuff I’d had in restaurants—it tasted better. From her I learned that great cooking does not just happen. It comes from attention to detail and from loving what you do.”

Now in its tenth season, Eat It and Like It will continue to explore food and food trends across the South, and Blanco has added a spin-off called Drink It and Like It, which will allow glimpses into Southern breweries, taverns, pubs, and the like. When asked what this new season’s focus will be, his quick answer
came with a sly grin, “Eating out without catching COVID!”

“But seriously,” he continued, “our theme this year is to help as many little guys as possible. We will focus on giving the locals both sides of the river as much publicity as possible to drive business and help them survive. I’ve been interviewing them via Zoom all summer, and they all want the viewers to know, ‘We’re here and open and we’re doing this thing tonight, so come on by.’’

Blanco and his crew also took a summer trip to Miami where he went back to his old neighborhood, Coconut Grove. “I walked through a local park I used to play in when I was a child, and I bought an Italian ice from the owner—the same guy who has been there since I was a kid,” he said. “We sat on picnic bench, and I interviewed this guy I grew up eating ices from. It is truly one of the highlights of my career. My viewers are going to love it.”

They also visited Indian Pass Raw Bar in Port St. Joe. “It’s a little dive where you get beer by the honor system,” Blanco explained. “You order when you go in—steamed oysters or shrimp, or raw oysters—and the coolers full of beer are in the back. When you leave, you show your bottle caps at checkout.”

In Destin, where Blanco has a second home, they featured Red Bar, a quirky, eclectic little restaurant that has been open there since he was a kid. “It recently burned down and just reopened, so we are super happy to share their story.”

Blanco is the self-proclaimed “luckiest guy in the world.” When he first moved here, his dad was skeptical because Jesse was a Hispanic from Miami moving into the Deep South. But Blanco says that without question, he has been embraced since day one by people on both sides of river, and he is extremely appreciative of all the love and support he has received.

“I’m treated like I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “My family and I have never experienced anything but open arms and affection everywhere we’ve ever been in the South.”

Blanco also says that he has lived in enough places to know that you do not move somewhere and try to tell people how to do something. He makes moves based on the “When in Rome…” mindset.

“Sometimes people I run into on the street here in Savannah will ask me questions like, ‘Where is Savannah’s best Jersey pizza?’ When they don’t like the options I give them, they will huff at me and storm off. Listen, you cannot get mad at Savannah if they do not have New Jersey pizza. That is in Jersey, kids. You’re in the Lowcountry now.” 

Blanco loves sharing food and the passion people feel about food. If you have a story idea, email him at tips@eatitandlikeit.com.

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Jesse Blanco in His Own Words

Favorite cuisine?
Chinese

Favorite dish?
I love a medium New York strip. Lately I have been passing on potatoes, though, which I formerly loved as much as my steak. But now I prefer broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or spinach. I can be satisfied with just a bite of my daughter’s potato.

Favorite Savannah restaurant?
My go-to is The Collins Quarter for brunch. It is a premier brunch, where the food, champagne, and people-watching are equally great. In fact, if I ever opened a restaurant, it would not be too different than what Anthony Debrecheny has done there.

Favorite Bluffton restaurant?
FARM. I have never had anything I did not love … great yellowfin tuna, great burger.

Favorite Hilton Head Island restaurant?
I love Hudson’s, especially in the off-season. It is less crowded, which allows the staff to catch their breath and deliver a better product.

Best food and view combo in Hilton Head?
The Beach Club at Sea Pines, no question about it.

Favorite authentic Lowcountry food?
Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House in Savannah. It is the most authentic family-style fried chicken, meatloaf, okra, butter beans, you name it. It is honestly the most legit we have got.

Favorite modern Southern cuisine?
I love Cotton and Rye or Husk. Cannot go wrong either place.

Favorite burger on Hilton Head Island?
It is Marley’s or the Lucky Rooster Street Market.

Best farmers market?
I love to go to the Bluffton market because the health department laws are different there. In Bluffton, you can get prepared food and eat it onsite, unlike Savannah. In Savannah, the Forsyth market is wonderful, but the city restricts food service.

Favorite recipe to prepare?
Shrimp & grits is my favorite Lowcountry recipe to make. I use a Cajun spice for the shrimp, and my grits are very creamy and very buttery (see recipe below). One time I made it for a concert in Forsyth Park, and of course, I made more than I needed. Next thing I knew, there was a line of strangers waiting to try my shrimp-n-grits.

Favorite chef?
Chef Kyle Jacovino is the owner and chef at Pizzeria Vittoria in Savannah. Kyle is a tremendous talent who has had more than one chance to leave Savannah for bigger and maybe better, but he has chosen to stay here and help improve our scene. I very much appreciate and respect that. We need more like Kyle.

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Jesse Blanco Shrimp & Grits

While I think it is critically important to have good quality grits, I really don’t have a favorite. There are plenty of grits recipes on the web. Prepare your grits according to your favorite recipe. The only thing I beg you is to use heavy cream and butter. Don’t cut corners. Not on this dish.

Ingredients:
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small pieces for rendering
1 shallot minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup white wine
1 pint heavy cream
1 tablespoon Cajun or Creole seasoning
1 tablespoon smoked sweet paprika seasoning
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 bunch green onion

Directions:
Toss the raw, peeled shrimp with Cajun seasoning—usually 1-2 tablespoons per pound, depending on how spicy you like it. Set aside in fridge.
Render the bacon until tender but not crispy. Pull bacon and set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan with bacon fat.
Add shallots to the bacon fat to soften, then the onion and peppers. Medium heat to allow them to sweat and soften together. Add garlic last minute.
Add the white wine. Let the wine reduce to half—about 3 minutes.
Add Cajun seasoning, salt, paprika, and tomato paste. Stir.
Add heavy cream. When the cream mixture is almost bubbling, turn heat to low. Let the cream mixture reduce to half—about 2 minutes. Add chopped green onion and the bacon bites you set aside. Keep plenty of cream on the side to make sure you have enough liquid for your grits.
Add your shrimp to the cream in batches to cook through. Remember they were seasoned already. Don’t overcook them. The shrimp should add flavor to your cream, however, the best way to season this now simmering creamy mixture is with more Cajun seasoning. Not just salt. The seasoning has salt in it.
Finally, stir in some parmesan cheese.
Serve your grits in a bowl with your Cajun Spiced Shrimp topping.

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