3 culinary trendsetters dish about Tampa Bay area food scene

On first instinct, most people probably don't think of the Tampa Bay region as a homebase for forward-thinking foodies. But the truth is that this little corner of the state is absolutely buzzing with innovative, food-centric enthusiasts of all stripes.

In fact, the Bay area's rich food scene is attracting some of the best in the biz to relocate to Florida. We caught up with three culinary pioneers from all over the country who now call Tampa-St. Petersburg home. Read on for their take on area food trends, the local culinary crowd, and why Tampa and St. Pete are shaping up to be bonafide foodie towns.

Chad Johnson, Executive Chef at Haven

Chad Johnson's small-town, Kentucky upbringing definitely played a major role in shaping his culinary perspective. It was actually his best friend's mother who first introduced him to the restaurant business.

"[She] owned a little Cajun Creole restaurant," says Johnson. "When I was big enough to walk, we would run around her kitchen, picking bread for croutons, folding up boxes for to-go food, all that stuff."

As he grew older, he eventually went on to bus tables and cook in the kitchen, which only fueled the fire. The French Culinary Institute in New York City was the next stop in his journey. He eventually landed a gig at Manhattan's Layla, bouncing around at a variety of well-known eateries throughout the city.

"I was very young and very green. I just wanted to get exposure and see different styles of kitchens," says the 36-year-old.

It wasn't until he blew out his ACL that his path veered to Florida. With his parents retired in Crystal River, Johnson decided to move near them while he underwent knee surgery. He secured a position as a line cook at SideBern's (the sister restaurant to Bern's Steak House) after healing up in 2003.

Johnson then really earned his chops, working his way up to executive chef before the space underwent a massive overhaul and rebranding last year. The restaurant reopened as Haven back in March, with Johnson manning the kitchen as executive chef. 

The new menu is high-end and innovative without the pretentious vibe of a fine-dining atmosphere, Johnson says. The food is inspired by everything from southern cuisine to old French cooking to out-of-the-box flavor combinations.

He says that Haven is reflective of the Tampa food scene as a whole.

"The palate of the general public in Tampa has definitely broadened across the board over the last 12 years or so," he says. "For every person who's freaked out by some of the more obscure ingredients, I have two people who are foodies and are thirsty for it. There's definitely a foodie culture here that I think most people outside of Tampa would be shocked to know existed."

Jeffrey Hileman, Chef de Cuisine at Locale Market

Jeffrey Hileman definitely knows a thing or two about fresh local food. At Locale Market inside SunDial in St. Pete, he uses everything from organic produce to freshly caught fish to create dishes that continually leave guests coming back for more.

"Down at the market, we change the menus over every month depending on what our local farmers have coming up," says Hileman, who helped open the space last year. 

Celebrity chef Michael Mina was the one who brought Hileman on board at Locale. Back in 2012, he'd been working for Mina as the executive chef at The Handle Bar (an American beer hall specializing in whiskey and provisions in Jackson Hole, Wyoming). Hileman says it was an upscale destination spot that served everything from nachos and chili, to local game like elk and venison.

"It was a great time in my career and after two years, Michael Mina asked if I'd be interested in moving to Florida to help the group open up a new concept," he says. "Being in the mountains for two years, I thought it'd be great to get back to Florida and get a little sunshine on my face."

Hileman actually grew up in both Boca Raton and Pensacola. After graduating from FSU in 2002, he eventually went on to earn a degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina. It wasn't long before he was picked up by the Mina Group in Washington D.C., working in the kitchen at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons.

As a transplant to the area, Hileman says he's been pleasantly surprised by the level of camaraderie between local chefs. 

"One thing I like about being down here is that between myself and other chefs in the area, it's more about camaraderie and less about competition," says the 36-year-old. "We'll bounce ideas off each other; it's just a great community of chefs. We all just want to drive the food scene and make it the best that we possibly can."

As far as local foodies go, Hileman adds that more and more people are getting energized about organic foods and understanding the sources for their food.

Eric McHugh, Chef de Cuisine at The Refinery

When it comes to pushing food boundaries, Eric McHugh says that questioning the norm is key. In other words, he's always been more attracted to unique, privately owned joints than big corporate chains.

Enter The Refinery, a Seminole Heights hot spot that's as home-grown as it gets.
"Every week, we sit down with a piece of paper that has a list of all the stuff we're getting from the local famers, and that just allows us the freedom and creativity to build a menu around that," says McHugh, the restaurant's Chef de Cuisine.

McHugh got his start all over the East coast, working in kitchens all the way from Key Largo to Philadelphia. He didn't settle in to life in Tampa until his wife's job relocated them here in 2011. It didn't take long for him to make an impression on the owners of The Refinery, who hired him as a sous chef.
Since working his way up, McHugh jokes that each new week is like an episode of a cooking competition show. "This is your mystery basket [of ingredients]; go ahead," the 30-year-old says with a laugh.

All kidding aside, McHugh says there's no place else he'd rather be. After growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he heavily studied classical and French styles of cooking. He also spent time working at Roy's in Philadelphia, where he specialized in Asian fare and flavors. Today, he says his style can best be described as "global comfort foods."

"I'm just trying to spin them out and do things with food that's never been done before," he adds.

Despite the many chains of corporate restaurants that are sprinkled throughout Tampa, McHugh says there's more of an elevated food scene here than most people realize.

"As I got in with The Refinery, I realized that there is this underground pocket of really food-centric people," he says. "There's a small pocket of local people who are really starting to adapt and catch on to the food scene as it's starting to really evolve and explode in Tampa."
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.