Taste of Florida wows national food critics

How would you feed a guest a full taste of the Tampa Bay area in three days? 

A Cuban sandwich, of course, plus sturdy craft beers and cask-aged cocktails, crackling grouper BLT’s and silky velvet corn soup from Locale Market, airy croissants from Cassis Bakery, and a tour of Bern’s landmark wine cellar with Reverse Manhattans in the new charcuterie caves at Haven

Toss in a night at the Museum of Fine Arts conservatory in St. Pete where Emeril Lagasse showed off the cooking of Florida’s best chefs, including Vietnamese lobster and beef from B.T. Nguyen and savory Middle Eastern rolls from Marty Blitz at Mise en Place. Top off with roof top drinks at The Birchwood and Ulele.

That was the minimum menu earlier in September for 80 of the nation’s top food editors and critics who spent several days crisscrossing the Bay between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The occasion was the 2015 meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, a group that combines its annual meeting with professional training, news gathering and always a non-stop exploration of the culinary pleasures and cultures of the host city. 

Over the years AFJ has feasted on Seattle, New York, Boston, San Francisco, San Juan — and now Tampa’s emerging food and drink scene. The convention was put together by Heather McPherson of the Orlando Sentinel, Michelle Stark and Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times and Jeff Houck, formerly of The Tampa Tribune and now with the Columbia Restaurant group. Tampa is in its primetime, so Visit Florida, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay all chipped in to support the effort.

The local food scene is past due its recognition, Houck told the group at a panel discussion with veteran restauranteurs and innovative chefs. For too long the area has been ignored, “”the middle child between Orlando and Miami.’’ 

“We’re authentic and new,’’ Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place tells the food critics from around the country, but “we’re only one-eighth of the way to getting national attention, a message we hope you will take back.’’

In fact the food writers, quickly nibbling around Tampa Bay found plenty to write home about, post on Twitter and Instagram, and simply savor. 

“I could live here,” says Debbie Moose, a cookbook author, while looking around the wine-barrel dessert room at Bern’s and the after-dinner menu. For Bill Daley, food critic at the Chicago Tribune, it was the Bern’s wine cellar he’d heard about but never seen that left an impression. 

Mouthwatering and scrumptious

Locale market drew the envy of Gwen Ashley Walters, an Arizona chef and author. “If i lived in St. Pete or even Tampa. I would be a regular at Locale,‘’ she says.

Going farther afield, editors noshed breakfast in small Cuban restaurants, savored drinks at Cask & Ale in Tampa, dined on regional Mexican at Red Mesa in St. Pete, and beyond.

Hanna Raskin, food critic at the Charleston Post & Courier chased down a toasty Ms. Crunchy combo of eggs, leeks and cheese at the Refinery.

“Breathtakingly delicious,” she says, but was “most struck by the diverse crowd of office workers at Pho Kien Giang [in Pinellas Park]: Not every Southern city treats relatively recent immigrants' cuisine in such admirably everyday fashion.’’ 

Jill Silva, food editor at the Kansas City Star, whose section won first place in AFJ’s annual awards, gave high marks to Cigar City Brewing’s Madurio and the wall of lettuce at the Epicurean.
Tampa also starred at the opening night reception where a dozen top chefs from Miami and the rest of Florida offered up their best. The standout to Kathleen Purvis of the Charlotte Observer? "That Vietnamese chef in the corner (Nguyen) with the betel nut wrapped beef and butter-poached lobster ruled the night.’’

The new foodie-centric life and energy on both sides of Tampa Bay stems ironically from the recession. Hard times made many people seek new careers in bakeries and food trucks while diners chose to eat food in more affordable locations such as Tampa's Seminole Heights and St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue, leading to a new cuisine of hand-made flavor in unfussy settings like The Refinery and Rooster and the Till

Proofing makes the difference

The area’s restaurants are growing so fast that chefs and restaurant owners now face a  shortage of workers in their kitchens. Chef Chad Johnson of Bern’s and Haven warned that restaurants were paying higher prices for all ingredients and expenses but that entry level wages were not keeping up with the cost of living. 

”Some cost can be passed on to the customer, but unfortunately, some of the balance is made up by pay rates not increasing at the same rate as inflation,’’ says Johnson. “Long story short, there are easier ways for a youngster to make a buck.’’

Other serious conversation fit in between bites as the AFJ group found time to hone their craft with the advice of writing coaches from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, bone up on social networking and explore current food issues.

What’s the state of Gulf seafood five years after the BP spill? Rebounding impressively, says Katie Sosa of Sammy’s Seafood,

The difference between Cuban sandwiches in Tampa and Miami? Besides the salami, local bread has a messier crunchy crust due to its unusual proofing, according to food historian Andrew T. 'Andy' Huse and Andrea Gonzmart of the Columbia.

What’s the fastest-growing ethnic flavor in Central Florida? Asian with a playful, modern pop spirit, according to the owners and chefs at Sushi PopCress in DeLand and Sus Hi Eatstation in Orlando. Is salt bad for you? Not necessarily, says Fabrizio Aielli, the Venetian chef behind Sea Salt in Naples, who recounted historical medicinal uses of salt in a tasting of five of the 100 salts in his kitchen.

Along the way Ray Lampe, a St. Petersburg writer who travels the country as Dr. BBQ, was excited by the impression Tampa and St. Pete were making on the visitors, “”I think we’re showing them our best.’’

Chris Sherman, a longtime food and wine critic, is the Restaurant Editor at Florida Trend and editorial consultant with Story Farm. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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