It should come as no surprise: A Florida Keys TV show featuring Buck Naked is the best new show on South Florida’s local programming scene.
Chef Buck Naked, AKA Shannon Donnelly, and his show Keys Kitchen have created a big stir — not just in the South Florida region but throughout the world. And based on the number of phone calls and other feedback received by WEYW Channel 19, based in Key West, the cooking show was named “Best New Show of 2012.”
The program — produced at Donnelly’s Key Largo home — airs twice a week and is available to viewers between Boca Raton and Key West, said WEYW General Manager Rick Bellizzi. The station has a total reach of about 350,000 households.
But the show can make a really big splash on the Internet, he said; the station’s website received 2.2 million views last year.
To Donnelly, the TV show is a natural outgrowth of his business, Chef Buck Naked’s FL KEYSeasonings, which he started about seven years ago.
Originally from northern Wisconsin, the licensed chef spent his time in the trenches — and some very stylish trenches, in fact.
With four- and five-star hotel restaurant experience behind him — including the Banff Hotel, considered “one of the top three hotels in the world,” Donnelly started toying with seasonings in the kitchen.
“I had kids and had to be conscientious about what they’re eating,” he recalled. But he wanted dining to be a fun experience, too. “It’s not just nourishing our need to eat but nourishing our souls, too.
“In my quest to perfect my food, I wanted a good dry rub to cook pork and have it well seasoned,” he said. Donnelly’s first product started with 12 ingredients and ended up with 32. From that first pork dry rub, his product line has expanded to nine seasonings for everything from seafood to beef to chicken. Also in his repertoire are spices for barbecue and jerk preparations.
His seasonings are all natural and have 73 percent less sodium than most, and his seafood seasonings are tested on local fish, shrimp or crab.
“It took three years playing with recipes” to come up with the final versions, Donnelly said. Custom, hand-made labels, signed and dated, were crafted for the seasonings, most of which he gave away as gifts.
Until one day his accountant said, “We need to share Buck Naked’s with the world,” he recalled. And thus Chef Buck Naked’s FL KEYSeasonings was born.
Donnelly said the seasonings are more than just rubs. They are “flavor enhancers that can be used before, during or after” the food is prepared.
And if you think his product is good only for meats and seafood, think again.
Donnelley said it goes well with soups, French toast, popcorn — “whatever you like to season, we have a product that will cook well with whatever you’re cooking and however you’re cooking it.”
“I have a great following with families,” he said. “One thing I’m very happy about is that we’re influencing a lot of young kids with our products not to soak things in ketchup. They’re willing to try different things if it’s got their favorite barbecue seasoning on it.”
The popular Keys Kitchen TV show was an offshoot of sponsoring another show called Speardivers out of Marathon. Donnelly said he met the show producers at a festival, “gave them a bunch of spices, instructed them on how to use them and helped them with food preparations” for the show.
Based on that experience, he said, he was encouraged to create his own program. After discussing it with his wife and family, he decided to commit to it for a full year.
Keys Kitchen is “high energy and fun, very Keys-y,” he noted. They started with a half hour once a week but “lots of people wanted more, so we ended up doing two, then three shows a week.”
Just about a year ago, the show went to a full hour, from 8-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday on Comcast Channel 87, AT&T U-Verse, Channel 19 and Xfinity, and is also available on satellite TV as well as the Internet, said WEYW’s Bellizzi.
“People in other countries love it,” Donnelly said.
It’s not easy — or cheap — to produce, he said, adding that he not only pays for the equipment used to shoot and edit the program, but the air time as well.
“Are we making money?” he asked. “No, not really. I break even and I don’t get paid.”
However, “there’s something there that’s special,” he said. “It’s worth continuing to do beyond promoting my seasonings.”
Show viewers are exposed not only to cocktail and food creation, but to the Keys as well.
One of the reasons why he does the show is “to bring exposure and recognition to the Upper Keys area. So many dollars that go up and down the road bypass the area,” he said. “We produce a show that is out of the Upper Keys that talks about businesses and the environment and the geography and all the great things we have to offer where you don’t have to stand in line for 45 minutes to buy a T-shirt.
“We’re not just trying to sell a bottle of spice, but a little hint of what we have to offer here through our products. We want people to spend some good times and a little part of their lives with us here,” Donnelly said.
“We promote the Upper Keys a lot in our program and will do more of it,” including plans to showcase reef protection and restoration projects.
Donnelly raves about his sponsors, who he hopes one day will help him take Keys Kitchen to a national level. “We’re extremely thankful for our sponsors’ support that we get to continue going into the future as well as the community’s support of the program.
“We want to share some of this great environment around the nation and around the globe so we can not only tell people about what a special place this is but to be respectful of it while they’re here; and try some new things along the way.”
Donnelly, 45, has been working in the food industry virtually all his life.
Right out of high school, he embarked on a 6,000-hour culinary apprentice program while working under a series of accredited chefs. He also attended Niagara College in Ontario for its food and hospitality program, where he graduated at the top of his class.
Shortly after this, he acquired his chef papers and became a licensed journeyman in the field. He cooked at five-star restaurants and world-Class resorts in Canada and the United States as well as working travels to Europe before heading south to the Keys.
Some 20 years ago, shortly after leaving the Banff Hotel and spending some time off in Alaska, Donnelly and his wife, Rosie, visited the Keys, where his mother and step-father wintered for years.
“We decided to come down for one season to see how we liked it,” he said.
It was a time of stepping back from the kitchen, he said; local restaurants weren’t “quite to the same standard that I was accustomed to.”
Instead, he decided to work the front of the house – working as a waiter and bartender in various establishments such as Snook’s, the former Frank Keys Café (now Key Largo Conch House) and the old Perry’s restaurant.
“It was a good combination for me,” Donnelly recalled, “understanding and dealing with the customer and what it took to create the product. Food has to maintain a certain criteria, but it’s often the personal touches that elevate the dining experience to a level that you want to experience again.”
The single season extended to several. Donnelly, who grew up on Lake Superior, decided to go for his captain’s license, and did some commercial fishing, among other things.
One of those “other things” was a job as a private chef at the Ocean Reef Club, where he catered “lots of private, themed, exclusive parties for between three and 200 people.”
He still works occasionally as a private chef in Ocean Reef, but about seven years ago, decided to launch his seasonings business.
Birth of Buck Naked
So where did “Buck Naked” come from?
Donnelly said he’s been known as Buck from the third grade and when he registered for culinary school the first year, he wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Cook” on the front and “Naked” on the back.
Plus, “any dish is naked without our seasonings,” he said.
There’s also a racier side to the story.
“My wife says, when we were younger and courting, I would cook nice, multi-course meals and probably on more than a few instances had nothing more on than my cowboy boots,” he said with a laugh.