Pearl In The Grove: Farm Fresh Southern Cooking In Dade City

Minutes from Interstate 75, situated among kumquat and grapefruit groves sits a converted 1950s house at the corner of St. Joe and Scharber Roads in Dade City. A trellis of jasmine shades patio armchairs and a German shepherd named Dixie greets you at the front door.

If it weren't for the signage and smells of soulful southern cooking coming from the kitchen, you wouldn't realize Pearl In The Grove is a restaurant, let alone one that Creative Loafing Tampa Bay named the "Best Thing To Happen To Sunday Dinner" last year.

Since opening in November 2010, chef owner and Dade City resident Curtis Beebe constantly strives to give patrons the experience he believes they deserve. There are no fine-print rules or plate-sharing charges. If you don't like your meal, he'll cook you something else until you're satisfied.

"I want people to relax and know they're going to get an honest meal," he says.

Wife Rebecca runs the front of the house when she's not teaching sixth-grade English at Pasco Middle School. Their three sons bus tables, wash dishes and clean up after hours. Working together with an additional staff of five, the Beebes have transformed a passion that blossomed out of happenstance into a livelihood.

"It's a complete change of lifestyle," Beebe says. "We'll probably never earn the type of money I was earning five years ago, but it just felt right in an organic growth sense."

Global Experience, Global Taste

For 30 years Beebe had opportunities to sample the cuisines of Singapore, Australia and London through his IT work with Microsoft and Pricewaterhouse.

When he found himself unable to find work at the beginning of 2010, however, he started to flip through his mother's old cookbooks, catch TV food shows and use his wife's words of encouragement to create adventurous family dinners. Beebe caught the cooking bug.

From there it grew into sharing food with other people. They began catering events, volunteering to cook dinner for the Sunrise of Pasco County Domestic Violence Shelter and eventually hosted nine prix-fixe menu, pay-as-you-wish underground dinners at the Dade City Woman's Club during the summer of 2010. The first one drew a crowd of 90 people and, after tallying donations, averaged $35 a plate.

Encouraged by the outpouring of support, they took the plunge and scouted for restaurant locations that were already built out. They finally settled on the old Barthle family house, built for their son after he returned from World War II.

"The more time we spent out here and developed the farm-to-fork concept, the more sense it made to be where the farms are," Beebe says.

Mostly Fresh, Mostly Local

Nearly every item on Pearl's menu is made in house or purchased from local farmers. There's chicken from Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee, lamb and beef from Ocala's Florida Fresh Meats, and pork from Avon Park. Vegetables come from Green Acre Organics while strawberries and blueberries are from Dade City's Glavich Farms. House-baked bread accompanies every meal. Pasta dough is made fresh everyday and all desserts are prepared by Beebe or pastry chef Barbara Cahill.

It's a hands-on approach to food instilled at childhood when Beebe, the youngest of four, watched his mother prepare meals in the kitchen of their Niceville, FL, home. Her cooking often reflected the family's travels to Europe, North Africa and Japan while his father served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force.

Despite the exotic dinners, the one item he recalls to this day is his mother's bread -- a giant, hearty whole-grain loaf made without white flour or refined sugar -- that he slathered with peanut butter and honey for an after-school snack.

A simple treat that seemed ahead of its time in the 70s to Beebe, but now reflects the cooking philosophy shared by a growing number of chefs in the Tampa Bay region -- keep it simple and keep it as local as possible.

"When you eat at my restaurant, you're not only supporting me and my family," Beebe says, "you're supporting the farmers. I value the importance of that."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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