Celebrated Tampa Bay restaurateurs share their favorite local restaurants and advice for young chefs

In a lot of ways, it's actually a pretty good time to be in the restaurant business.

click to enlarge Traci Bryant Ferguson, Partner and Chef at Nina Hospitality - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Traci Bryant Ferguson, Partner and Chef at Nina Hospitality
At a private gathering in April, Tampa Bay’s top chefs gathered at Mise en Place to catch up with each other, break bread and get harassed by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, which had just two simple questions: Who are the unsung or young up-and-coming local chefs or cooks who don’t get enough attention? What advice would you give to a young chef who wants to make it in the scene? Here are some of the highlights. See even more responses by finding this post at cltampa.com/food.

Traci Bryant Ferguson, Partner and Chef at Nina Hospitality

The Little Lamb, a gastropub in Countryside. The chef, James Renew is well traveled and cooked all over the world. It’s a casual restaurant, but he brings all that knowledge to the restaurant.

I think young chefs should be patient. I’ve been in this industry since I was 18 and I’m 37 now. We grew up cutting our teeth in kitchens where people are screaming at each other. I wouldn't be where I am without that, but I think we need to have a different understanding of how we respect and treat each other and respect ourselves. Don't pass your stress onto your employees.

Show patience and kindness to everybody that comes through your door because everybody comes from a different walk of life, which means everybody has something to offer, too. Bring them into your support system along with their different levels of experience. Lean on people for their strengths, try to highlight those strengths and don’t try to be the person that does everything, share your wealth with your team.
click to enlarge Brian Lampe, Executive Chef at Rooster & the Till - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Brian Lampe, Executive Chef at Rooster & the Till
Brian Lampe, Executive Chef at Rooster & the Till

Bryce Bonsack at Rocca as you mentioned, but also Cody Tiner at District South. Steve Franco does an excellent job at Cena. Ben Pomales and Adrianna Siller who are at Bandit now. Those are just a few I think that are gonna be the future of the food scene in Tampa Bay for a long time to come.

I think young chefs gotta come up in a way similar to a guy like Marty Blitz here at Mise en Place. What I mean is that if you think you’re gonna stage at a couple of restaurants then become an executive chef, it doesn’t work that way. I think you need the experience of working under somebody like Marty who has the most amazing palette in this city—I’ve always been impressed with the way he can combine flavors and textures.

You need that foundation of cooking alongside someone like that, with experience of being a leader, to be the full package and run a very successful business.
click to enlarge Wesley Roderick, Owner and Chef at Supernatural Food & Wine - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Wesley Roderick, Owner and Chef at Supernatural Food & Wine
Wesley Roderick, Owner and Chef at Supernatural Food & Wine

I eat at Thinh An Kitchen, I get that tofu. And you can never get there too early, on a Sunday that after church crowd is crazy.

If you’re gonna open up a spot in the next year, I would not finance with credit cards. I would have mentors, people that you can talk to, reflect on what you're thinking and where you want to go, someone to help test your ideas. And don’t assume that you have the right answer.
In life, you probably will never have the right or best answer for anything, so be prepared to ask the questions from other people who have been through it; they don’t have to give you the perfect answer, just meaningful perspective so you can learn from it and not have to learn the hard way like an ass.
click to enlarge Chef Maria Sierra, CW's Gin Joint - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Chef Maria Sierra, CW's Gin Joint
Chef Maria Sierra, CW's Gin Joint

Aaron Kirk in our kitchen is bright and full of energy, I look forward to seeing him grow.

I really don’t get to go out alot, unfortunately, and when I get home I cook for my family.

This business is definitely hard work. But if you love what you do, you're always gonna shine. We always use fresh local ingredients. That's really important to me, to our restaurant.
click to enlarge Ray Lampe, Chef and Founder of Dr. BBQ - PHOTO BY NICK CARDELLO
Photo by Nick Cardello
Ray Lampe, Chef and Founder of Dr. BBQ
Ray Lampe, Chef and Founder of Dr. BBQ

Anju, it’s right behind my house. A great young chef Mee Ae Wolney had this food truck, but this is their brick and mortar, and they’ve got these Korean chicken wings. I love going there. And I love that she uses thigh meat. There’s two sauces, one is teriyaki-ish, and one she calls “St. Pete Hot” or something, and the Dr. BBQ secret is to get the two sauces on the side and dip. Sometimes I do one, or the other, and sometimes I’ll do a combo. And the pork belly is so good. I love that place.

Parkshore Grille, you never go wrong there, I get the lobster salad, and there’s not a lot of salad involved—I love that. And I love Il Ritorno, it’s our celebration spot, and you can’t go wrong; and you might worry that it’s a tweezer kind of place, but you get full there.

It's a really good time to be a chef if a young chef wanted to be serious about it. I was just talking to Marty Blitz here, of Mise en Place, and normally we have a handful of protege sort of guys hanging around with us, but not right now because of the shortage of help. So if you come into the business now, and you're serious, you can move up the food chain pretty fast and and learn a lot.

The restaurants are gonna be here; it's gonna be a good career down the road. We're just having a little tight spot right now. I think it's a really good time to jump in, and I’m definitely looking for a protege right now.
click to enlarge Adam Hyatt, Executive Chef at Élevage - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Adam Hyatt, Executive Chef at Élevage
Adam Hyatt, Executive Chef at Élevage

Bryce over at Rocca. Rooster & the Till for sure. It’s been interesting to see who’s really committed to food, quality and service in the pandemic.

The word that kicks around my kitchen constantly for young chefs, old chefs, people my age is “endure.” You have to endure.

We're not at a new age of food or restaurants. We're not at the old age. We're in that transition stage. So if you can sit here and endure and be open minded and wide eyed to like, Okay, what is the next step like what do we need to deliver? What do we need to offer? If you can't endure things if you're, if you're dead set on one thing or another? It's just not gonna work right?

It's already hard to be the talented, passionate, driven leader in any kitchen, but nowadays you have to be able to be more receptive. Gone are the days where you say, “I'm the chef, this is what I'm going to deliver.” It needs to be, “What do guests Want? What do I want? Who do your people want?”

Because finding people right now is hard, too. It's got to be more encompassing and more of a restaurant community by association rather than just one voice.
click to enlarge Zachary (L) and Christina and Feinstein, founders of The Feinstein Group - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Zachary (L) and Christina and Feinstein, founders of The Feinstein Group
Christina and Zachary Feinstein, founders of The Feinstein Group

Wild Child in St. Pete. Rob Reinsmith is talented, one of my favorite chefs in the Bay area.

I think that in every restaurant you have that talented unrecognized person. The more people look at their own staff and put food in the limelight, I feel like we'll see more and more people emerge.

Young chefs should be curious, be very, very curious about the business, the front of the house and back of the house—it all matters. I think that's really important. Don't be afraid to showcase your own talent. If you feel like you have a great dish on the menu, bring it to the owners, bring it to your managers and show them that you have what it takes.

For our organization, we'll look at the will to work, we don’t necessarily look for the skills. You don't hire someone for skills. You hire someone for who they are, and you teach them those skills. And I think that opportunity presents itself in a lot of young cooks. So if you can identify that person, sit down with them, identify that they have the will to do the job, and you can show them the skills, then you get to watch someone evolve. We've been fortunate. A couple of people in our organization have gone through that, and it's super neat to watch.
click to enlarge Noel Cruz, Chef and Founder of Ichicoro, Gangchu - PHOTO BY JAMES OSTRAND
Photo by James Ostrand
Noel Cruz, Chef and Founder of Ichicoro, Gangchu
Noel Cruz, Chef and Founder of Ichicoro, Gangchu

Restaurants have to remember the human factor. We want to build teams in a positive way. Our job is not just to come up with ideas—that’s the part that is formulaic.

When you build a team you have to address a lot of the things that need to change in this industry. If our teams are going to be our second family, then our job is to nurture them so that they can do a better job than we’re doing.

It’s important to be fair. It goes for every part of the restaurant, front and back. You need to do more listening than talking. You have to understand the other person that way you can not only lead by example but with a lot of mutual respect.

About The Authors

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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