A sizable swath of the area’s top restaurant talent gathered a few weeks ago in downtown Tampa, not to cook but to sip — and to talk shop. A mix of kitchen veterans, young up-and-comers and a legend are two, these are the chefs you’ll get to meet — and whose food you’ll get to taste — if you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket to Meet the Chefs, the kickoff to CL’s 10th Annual Restaurant Week June 15-25. (I know, that’s longer than a week, but who’s counting?)
We met at The Vault, the elegant downtown Tampa venue where Meet the Chefs will take place on the 15th from 6-9. After a wine-tasting led by spirits guru Dean Hurst, we launched into a wide-ranging discussion of the chefs’ inspirations and frustrations and the tough but satisfying work of feeding people and making them happy.
I began with a question for the duo who will be opening CW’s Gin Joint next door to the Vault sometime in the near future: head chef Cody Tiner, at 23 the youngest in the group, and executive chef Gui Alinat, now known primarily as a caterer and cookbook author but remembered fondly for his time as executive chef at Le Bordeaux in South Tampa — and who, when I asked his age, said in his impossibly charming French accent, “I thought it was illegal to ask these kinds of questions.” (He confessed anyway: 46.)
What will your roles be at the Gin Joint?
Gui Alinat: it’s really a team. I was hired to set up the menu and help run the restaurant. Cody has a very hands-on experience. I haven’t been behind the line for gosh, maybe 15, 16 years — and please don’t put me behind the line! The difference there, Cody makes things happen in more ways than I could.
Group: You saying he’s young? [Laughter.]
Cody Tiner: It’s a collaboration — he knows things I’ve never known. He’s taught me a ton, and vice versa.. so it’s a really dynamic team.
How many here have worked the line or been a sous chef? [Everyone raises hands.]
GA: Dishwasher, as a matter of fact!
Viet Vo: I will say I’m the executive dishwasher. I will outdo the dishes of anybody here!
Viet, you’ve been in many roles. You were a sushi chef at Souzou?
VV: I opened that place. I made the entire sushi program for Souzou — then went to Ox & Fields, I did the entire sushi program for Tampa Resorts, Amalie Arena, Le Meridien… all the sushi in the bay area is probably mine.
Group: No wonder there’s no good sushi.
VV: I know, right? … My roles have changed obviously in recent years. Now as director of culinary operations for Salt Block Catering, I oversee everything from food trucks to private catering to the restaurant context. And in terms of the chefs here, we all know what it takes to open a restaurant, we all know the grind. So an 18-hour day is a half day. A 22-hour day is a full day — and we sacrifice but we do have fun. We love what we do. The chefs in this room now, the owners in this room now — Marty Blitz [of Mise en Place] is the godfather of all of us pretty much. I have the utmost respect for him and anything that he does. If you were to tell me to wash dishes for him right now, I would do it in a heartbeat. And I’d do it for free.
Marty, will you take him up on that?
Marty Blitz: Let’s go, man!
VV: Let’s do it! And I have the utmost respect for Mr. Cody Tiner, who was a student of mine when I was at the Art Institute and has become a chef in his own right. I make fun of him, but he deserves to be at this table. And chefs like Greg Baker [The Refiner/Fodder & Shine], who’s made a name for himself as the true founder of farm-to-fork in Florida. Everybody here deserves to be here because they love what they do. Although I have a rap sheet of whatever, I’m here as nothing more than just a person, a human being, I”m just V, I don’t have to be called “chef” among the men that are here — although there needs to be a woman chef here. [Editor’s Note: We tried!] I have a chef crush on Mr. Danny Hernandez [Holy Hog BBQ], because I love his picadillo, and Dr. BBQ is the man… There’s not a person here that I don’t respect for what they do…
Dr. BBQ, can you talk about what it’s been like getting your new restaurant started? [Dr. BBQ, who’s been living in the Tampa Bay area for close to two decades — Lakeland for 10 years, St. Pete for 8 — is slated to open his eponymous restaurant sometime this summer in St. Pete’s EDGE District in partnership with Suzanne and Roger Perry of Datz/Dough/Roux.]
Dr. BBQ: I was kind of a secret around here. I liked it like that. The restaurant business is not my thing. You guys work way too hard, I’m too old, you know? [He’s 60.] I’ve worked for one restaurant before, Justin Timberlake’s [Southern Hospitality BBQ] in New York, in very similar fashion to workin’ at this one. You won’t see me carrying around any heavy boxes. I’m too old for that stuff.
We won’t see Justin Timberlake either?
Dr. BBQ: You never know, he might show up. But he won’t be carrying anything.
Group: Just that gorgeous face. [Laughter]
Dr. BBQ: So Roger and Susan called and said they were interesting in opening a barbecue restaurant, but they get it that barbecue is such a specific cuisine that having someone like me on board is important. You can go learn anything you want about barbecue, but I started in 1982 — so you can’t bring that to the table. Great story: Twenty, 25 years ago I was invited by Sodexo Marriott to their test kitchens to put a barbecue menu together, but there was no understanding that the barbecue guy actually knew some stuff. These guys were like high-flying chefs and they were like, “What is this guy doing here?” Now all that’s changed — barbecue places, and barbecue people, have gotten very famous, they’re revered for what they do — and by chefs. I’ve spent my life learning one specific thing. Luckily, Roger and Suzanne understood that, and they’re bringing in a really good team. It’s a challenge because there’s a lot of barbecue restaurants around, and we can’t do the same thing as everybody else.
So, Danny Hernandez of Holy Hog, with the big dog Dr. BBQ opening a restaurant, will we see Barbecue Wars starting here?
Danny Hernandez: He knows that if there’s anybody that’s a big fan of his, it’s myself, being that he was probably one of my first customers. Going back to 2010, he walked in with a bunch of bbq snobs and said “Who’s cookin’?” I was cooking, but I was also ringing you up and slicing brisket and also busing tables. I didn’t know who he was, so I wasn’t starstruck until four or five visits later they were still coming back into the restaurant and still enjoying the brisket, and we had a great conversation about whether you’re a barbecue guy or just a restaurateur. Going back to my background in Pipo’s, I was a restaurateur, then became a barbecue guy, and that’s all about the passion.
Dr. BBQ: I would say when I met him he was a restaurant guy first, and now he’s a barbecue guy.
DH: I appreciate that. But I personally think Dr BBQ not being a secret in the Tampa Bay area really elevates all of the genre of BBQ — the same way Marty does, the same way Greg does, the same way all of you guys at the table do to that genre that you’re in, you guys elevate the conversation [that] Tampa needs to be a destination. I just got back from Atlanta and went to a couple of the joints that were rated #1 on Yelp and Zagat and all that. And guess what? I hope he brings that to St. Pete and we compete. We should be sharing and networking and collaborating together. I may not be as good as that certain dish he brings to the table, but I promise you our brisket’s pretty damn good, and that’s a fact. [Applause.]
Greg, can you talk a bit about using a restaurant as a vehicle for social change?
Greg Baker: I guess since Michelle and I opened The Refinery, it’s always been a grander picture than simply just a restaurant. I say that, it sounds pretentious as hell, and I don’t want it it to be that. Really what we wanted to do was to provide food prepared by passionate professionals to as many economic classes as we possibly could — grown right, prepared right — and tried to keep ourselves on a price point same as TGIFriday’s for the entirety of the existence. We’ve also joined the Sanctuary Restaurant Program — sounds like a sanctuary city but it’s really not. Basically it’s just declaring the place as a safe zone from racism, sexism, homophobia…
You monitor that in both your kitchen and your customers?
GB: Yes, I’ve thrown customers out for being out of line. It’s always been my rule — that the customer isn’t always right. We’re in the service industry, we’re not servants. I can’t expect my staff to have my back if I don’t have theirs. [Applause.] I also attended a James Beard boot camp earlier this spring in policy and advocacy training — a three-day intensive on how to become a lobbyist in the area of food policy. We will go to Washington and actually lobby senators.
And run a restaurant.
GB: I don’t like to keep my plate too empty.
One key decision in opening a new restaurant is what to name it. Marty, you were a pioneer in the restaurant business here when you opened Mise en Place. How did you come up with the name?
MB: When we started out 31 years ago, it was a small catering business. I was at a jazz pianist show with McCoy Tyner at Ruth Eckerd, sitting there enjoying the show, and honestly it just came to me: Mise en Place, shit, that’s a great name! It means "everything in place." I told Maryann [Ferenc], my partner, so we started with that. At first people called it “mice in place” — but I think it’s great. It’s about having your station in order.
A.J. Lambden: When we opened Proper it was a simple derivative of what we were trying to do — just elevated chef-inspired Southern cuisine and just really good quality barbecue done the proper way. Passable is not adequate — everything’s got to be done the proper way.
GB: We kind of crowd-sourced The Refinery. My first choice was The Laundromat [a takeoff on Thomas Keller’s famed French Laundry]. My next choice was Lavamatique, which is French for laundromat.With Refinery I tried to find something that was slightly elevated but still has more of a working-class ethos.
It’s refined but it‘s also a factory.
GB: Could work either way that you look at it. Fodder & Shine was just working through the dictionary and finding [the right words].
What are the different forces at work at a hotel restaurant?
Patrick Gossett: I mean with the history that we have at the Don CeSar, we don’t stop. There’s no slow season. The fact that we don’t slow down doesn’t ever give our guys a breather. I’m sure a lot of people here can attest to staffing issues in the area [rueful laughter] — finding the quality [employees] to be able to handle that volume at all times is difficult. I have a lot of people, young
Group: I’ve been to those weddings and it’s miserable.
PG: It’s got its ups and downs. I’m not worried about job security. I’m not sitting here going, “Are we going to make our numbers?’’ I’m gonna make my numbers this month because I’m as busy in March as I was in September. If you’re up to working 18-hour days all year round, then you enjoy yourself.
Elevage comes with the extra problem of being in an hotel called Epicurean.
Jonathan Atanacio: Being in a foodie hotel you have a certain expectation. We only have one outlet but four different spaces. But our niche is, we like to do banquets — à la carte — whether 40, 50, 120, we give them a menu and let them order instead of taking a pre-order a week in advance. My job is to figure out percentages. I’ve really gotten quite good at it, [and have kept] food costs at 25 percent across the board. It took me about three years to figure out the math. The rest was the easy part because I come from small restaurants. We get to run a hotel like a restaurant — that’s the best part about it.
Brad, can you talk about what happens to a restaurant after a rave review comes out? [Cru Cellars got a rave from the Times’s Laura Reiley the day before the roundtable.]
Brad Sobo: Having worked at SideBern’s, I remember when Chad [Johnson, executive chef] got his first review from Laura Reiley [in] the post-Jeannie [Pierola] era. You do see a bump from it. I was excited for [the Cru Cellars] review to come out and highlight a lot of things that I’ve tried to highlight. I’m hoping with this review we’ll be seen equally as a restaurant and a wine bar. “You’re the cheese and charcuterie place, right?” Yes, but if you want to flip the menu over, I’d really appreciate it.
Josh, you had a celebrity [Joe Maddon] open your restaurant.
Joshua Hernandez: He was actually a big asset. For me it was my first opening as an executive chef. I had a learning curve as far as learning how to deal with a staff of 30, and you know what? His job is to manage 25 personalities, so Joe was actually helpful as far as building on the skill set that I was working on and showing me a different perspective. His job is to manage a lot of egos.
He gave you tips on managing egos?
JH: 100 percent. Really, he did!
Does Joe still come by the restaurant?
JH: In the off season he’s in almost every day. He likes to come in and not talk about baseball. He’ll come in real interested in the bread and the salami I’m making that day.
Does it bug you sometimes that people think of it as Joe Maddon’s restaurant?
JH: Obviously it has been a blessing having him involved, but we do get that contingent of people that comes in and says, “Where’s Joe? I wanted to try his meatballs!” Well, they’re my meatballs …
How involved have all of you been in determining what your restaurant’s space looks like?
AJL: I know when we started Proper we came in with a vision of down-home Southern. I’m from Oklahoma; our family had a cabin in north Georgia. My ideal vision has been almost like Grandma’s living room — wood and distressed cedar touched home for me. Stephen [Schrutt], our owner, was looking for suggestions on how to make the space our own, coming from a converted wood-fire oven restaurant [Wood Fired Pizza], after that it was like ’80s [Pow], who knows what that place was? We wanted something that was relatable to everybody, where everybody could come in and enjoy a meal and sit down and feel like grandma was in the kitchen.
AJL: Or Grandpa. I mean, my grandpa was a great cook. I still remember watching him make his six-hour applesauce out of Granny Smith apples. I would sit there and had no idea how to use a peeler. I remember one time when I first tried, I was like maybe 7 years old, I was trying to peel an apple with a spoon. It was atrocious…
Do you still have the spoon?
AJL: I actually do. It was given to me by my grandma — it sits in the top shelf of my toolbox. It’s a really weird curve-handled spoon. I don’t really use it much anymore.
Gui Alinat: The kitchen of CW’s Gin Joint will be 30 feet from where we’re sitting. CW stands for Caroline Wilson, who owns this space — she’s sitting right there. [Applause.] She has an eye for design. Food, atmosphere, design — those are the three parts we’re emphasizing.
How much are you as chefs involved in creating your cocktail programs?
GB: Well, I‘ve got a really talented bar team, but nothing is going to make it on the menu without going past me first.
Is that true of everybody here? You would taste every cocktail your bar team makes?
GB: Well, I’m in a different position — I own the joint.
[From discussing cocktails and wine, we moved into the question of giving the customers what they want — even when what they want is appalling.]BS: If you want to drink chardonnay with your steak, who am I to judge you? You want a beer? That’s fine, too.
PG: At the end of the day they’re walking out the front door satisfied.
BS: What we do is one of the few industries where you spend a bunch of money and you leave with nothing. Go and spend $1,000 at Bern’s and what do you leave with? Probably the baked potato you didn’t eat because you were full of steak... So you have to give every guest what they want, because they leave with their memories, they leave with their idea, but they don’t leave with a… it’s not like, “I bought an iPhone.”
At restaurants like The Living Room, Tony, with fans who’ve been coming back again and again, how do you please the regulars and still keep the menu fresh?
Tony Bruno: I don’t think you can ever please all the regulars. What I like to cook basically is what I would like to eat, depending on the season, the day.
If I were going to go to your restaurants tonight and ask what I should order, what would you tell me? [One chef — not sure which — said his answer would be, “You’re a jerk.” Nevertheless, everybody came up with a suggestion.]
JH: The charcuterie.
Chris Artrip: White truffle lobster risotto.
TB: Lamb belly flatbread.
DH: My burnt ends — they’re tender and smoke-filled — and our collard greens and Brunswick stew.DR. BBQ: Our homemade pastrami.
CT: The seafood on the menu.
AJL: The same thing we’re going to showcase at Meet the Chefs — our certified Angus beef short rib.
PG: Probably our goat cheese fritters with poached pear and salsa
JA: I’d [say] blackened grouper with grits and rock shrimp and okra stew. I came down here [from New York] and thought okra was gross and slimy. Then I cooked it.
BS: Our merguez toasted ravioli with North African lamb sausage. And our blackened octopus. I put blackened octopus and chicken wings on the menu at the same time, and sold blackened octopus at a ratio of 30 to 4, blackened octopus to chicken wings.
VV: The best thing I’ve ever sold to any one of my clients is something I don’t even make. It’s my mom’s egg rolls. My mom will make it for me, package it — I bought her a vacuum sealer — so the next time I visit any of you I will bring you my egg rolls.
Group: Free labor, by the way.
GB: Green beans cooked in an obscenely large amount of black pepper, finished off with a green bean and Stilton blue cheese ice cream.
GA: We have this baked potato — 18 ounces. We load it up with lobster, crème frâiche and chives — only three ingredients, but when you have a potato that big… One thing you learn in the USA, you go big or you go home.