Described as tender, flaky and mild, lionfish has become a hit with diners from the Panhandle to the Keys.
“It’s in my top three best-tasting fish,” says Parker Destin, a sixth-generation Floridian who grew up in a commercial fishing family.
His great-great-great-grandfather Leonard founded the first fish camp in East Pass in the 1830s. The area later became Destin.
“Fishing is in my blood,” Parker says. “My grandfather and father, both named Dewey, were commercial fishermen until about 15 years ago. I learned to fish with them.”
Once Parker graduated from the University of Tampa with a degree in business, he returned to his hometown and convinced his father to open a restaurant.
“I’d learned the restaurant business in Tampa while I was in college, so it made good sense for the family business to shift to restaurants,” says Parker, an attorney specializing in commercial fishing law.
They opened Dewey Destin’s in 2001, setting up picnic tables and a food truck at the old commercial docks in Destin. Eventually, they put up a small restaurant there, called Dewey Destin’s Bayside. Business was good, so in 2009 they opened Dewey Destin’s Harborside nearby. Their newest one opened in Navarre.
In 2013, Parker met Alex Fogg, a graduate student who is now marine resource coordinator with Okaloosa County.
“I’d been doing a lot of diving and spearfishing and noticed that the lionfish population had just exploded,” Parker says. “I met Alex, who was doing all this research about how invasive lionfish have become. We here in the Panhandle, including the Emerald Coast Reef Association, put our heads together with some local guys and put on a derby to get rid of as many as we could. Along the way, we found out how good they tasted, so I started offering them in our restaurants.”
The idea of eating lionfish became so popular restaurants in the Panhandle include Lionfish Restaurant Week as part of the annual Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament.
This year, 10 restaurants featured lionfish entrees on different nights, quickly selling out of the white fish that some say tastes like hogfish or trigger fish.
“We’ve been offering lionfish whenever we can,” Parker says. “It’s been remarkable how well it’s been received. The biggest challenge is getting enough to make it a regular offering. When we get 100 pounds and prepare them, they sell out in about an hour and a half.”
Parker buys them whole, using kitchen shears to cut off the spines.
“We give them a haircut—there are only 13 spines on the top and several more on the bottom—then filet them,” Parker explains. “Once we remove the skin, we have two nice white fillets that we can blacken or fry. Sometimes we pan fry them with a pecan coating or offer lionfish ceviche. It’s wildly popular.”
Parker emphasizes that lionfish is perfectly safe to eat.
“The sting of the spines when the fish are alive can be very painful, but once they’re dead you just need to be careful how you handle them,” he says. “The meat itself is so delicious that they’re worth the trouble it takes to clean them.”
Currently, lionfish are only caught through spearfishing or using nets.
“If we could figure out how to fish them on a larger scale, it would solve so many problems,” Parker says. “But when you look at it, even with the proliferation and damage the lionfish do to the native species, there’s a little bit of a silver lining: At least lionfish tastes good.”