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Down Island

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

If you're visiting anywhere near Highway 30A along Florida's Emerald Coast, you might catch a glimpse of the billboard in the background of this picture. It's for Down Island, the restaurant concept of one of my dear friends, Chef Brannon Janca.

Like I did, Brannon spent countless days and nights at the barrier islands off the Mississippi Coast, and if you go inside Down Island, you'll see those islands' influence everywhere. The menu is the most obvious place, but for me, it's way more fun to see it show up in the decor where you'll find buoys, rope, and driftwood hanging on the walls, as well as charts, and, of course, Walter Anderson's art. The folks in this pictures are just some members of the Down Island Crew, and unfortunately, this is the last picture many of us were able to take with Chef Brannon as he passed away just over two months after this picture was taken.

Brannon was always one of the quirkiest dudes I knew. Most every kid plays with Legos, but that wasn't enough for him. Under Brannon's direction, we would build entire Lego movie sets, then move the characters one step at a time, shooting each scene with his dad's enormous VHS camcorder. Then somehow, with limited tech, Brannon would put music to it and everything. I would pay a king's ransom to somehow watch our version of Back to the Future. As we got older, his creativity manifested itself in an astonishing variety of ways. For instance, once Brannon decided to open Down Island, as if opening your own restaurant wasn't enough, he turned potter and hand-made all the plates and drinkware that Down Island's food would be and is still served on.

We were so young when we first found out that Brannon had cancer that it just didn't seem real enough to be that bad. And he wasn't just quirky. Brannon was endlessly optimistic. When we took the photo below last December, we'd hung out all afternoon talking business and life, and he had big plans to expand. Brannon loved music, and he had room behind the building to have a stage, and we talked about how cool that would be.

I'd even told him and his mom that day that I was relieved he didn't even look like a cancer patient because he really didn't. He did, however, have to go home after a while to rest. We would find out later just what a toll the chemo was taking. At that time, Down Island was only open for dinner, but his staff was steadily trickling in to start prepping. I stuck around for hours just soaking it all in. This beautiful thing my friend had created with all the inspiration of our youth surrounding me. That, and the sheer admiration I had for him that he'd built it while battling cancer.

Brannon was always elusive. Most of my closest friends never moved back home after leaving for college, and Brannon was no different. He'd started out majoring in naval architecture. Our hometown features a massive shipyard, so it made sense. And I think it lasted for about half a semester. Lucky for the world, he bailed and went to culinary school in New Orleans, then relocated to 30A and never looked back. Throughout our 20's and 30's, there were random island camping trips where our schedules lined up, and you were never sure if and when he was ever going to show up. It was just something you knew to enjoy while you could because you didn't know when you'd see him again.

Lucky for me, I can relish in a long history of memories of Brannon cooking for me. It started with my bachelor party at Horn Island where he devised an elaborate plan to cook an entire pig. The plan required a lot more digging and prep work than I or anyone else wanted, but kind of like with the Lego movies, when Brannon had an idea, you just went with it. And even though we never lived in the same town again after high school, Brannon cooked for me and my wife for many of our anniversaries, including our 20th, the last one before he passed away.

Despite living pretty far apart and leading different lives along the way to our 40's, it just so happened that as Brannon started on the road to building Down Island, I was building a business of my own, and the challenges of our shared experience brought us together in a unique and special way. Different industries, but both our concepts were fueled by a passion that was shaped by our shared experience of the islands, both growing up and into our adult years. Like I said before, Brannon was always elusive and the restaurant industry requires insane hours, but he would always respond to texts. It might take him several days to answer, but when he did, they were essay-length and full of honesty, love, and optimism, always ending with something along the lines of "Hug your wife, hug your kids. Love you brother."

Brannon died a day before my birthday earlier this year. When I woke up the next day, I had no birthday plans. It was a Thursday. My wife works, and my kids are school-age. What I really wanted was to be at the islands with all our people, but that wasn't feasible, so I did the next best thing that made sense at that moment. I put on my Grateful Dead playlist (one of Brannon's favorite bands), and I paddled to the closest island to me--one that happens to be in the same chain as the Mississippi islands we grew up on. I sat on the beach for hours thinking of all the things one thinks when you get to be of a certain age and something like this happens. I imagined all the days and nights we'd been on the islands together, cherishing those memories and just letting the music play. I'm usually not good at just sitting, but that day I did. I just sat and listened to the Dead. After a while I would paddle a short distance to a new spot, then stop again. Sit, take a walk, only to sit back down and stare at the island, at the water, at nothing at all.

Hours later, once I finally decided it was time to paddle home, I climbed into my kayak and shoved off. But not before pausing as a new song had started, and I almost couldn't believe my ears. But there it was, so I took a screenshot and smiled and kept paddling, down island for a bit before heading home.

Some Dead fans would probably point out that's not what the song is about, but there are moments like this one when such details cease to matter. I believe in Godwinks, and having that song come on the moment I decided to paddle home, well, that brought more than just a smile to my face and a weight on my heart.

Another moment struck me later. Probably not during my paddle, and possibly not that day or even that week. But seeing someone like Brannon pour so much passion and energy into his work, especially when we shared so many experiences that fueled that passion, then losing that person so soon--well, I knew that regardless of what happened next, it was time for me to take my next step with this project, with South Toward Horn, with all of it. If for no other reason than to celebrate those shared experiences with people I knew it would mean something to. Later, when my wife had the idea to honor Brannon with using his restaurant's name in my new venture's, it felt right. But I had to make sure it sat well with Trudy, Brannon's mom, and Stefani, the wife he left behind.

Brannon loved the Dead, but another love we shared was for Buffett. They both loved the tribute, and Stefani said she thought Brannon would love it too. And that it was time to spread them crumbs around.

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1 comentário

Jacquie Dannreuther
Jacquie Dannreuther
24 de set. de 2023

Love this! Love you! Will cherish every meal he created for us! Until we meet again! Salut!

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