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Tampa Bay in Florida is home to a host of restaurants that use local ingredients to create fresh, innovative dishes. These four embrace the produce-driven movement, from sourcing fish straight from the Gulf of Mexico to hand-picking vegetables directly from their own garden.
For Rooster and the Till, The Refinery, Ulele and The Reading Room, sourcing local is a deeply rooted philosophy. Rooster and the Till and The Refinery both work with Tampa farmers and businesses to select the finest produce. Ulele’s famed oysters and shrimp don’t travel far, coming straight from the Gulf of Mexico. And the chefs at The Reading Room need only wander to the restaurant’s backyard garden to gather a sprig of thyme or basket brimming with zucchini and heads of lettuce. The myriad plates at these four restaurants highlight their shared commitment to the farm-to-table movement – proof that local, fresh, high-quality produce creates the best food.
It was only natural that Ferrell Alvarez’s first restaurant should focus on sourcing ingredients from Florida’s landscape.
“We wanted the most fresh items, the most nutrients, the best quality, which all leads you down the road of: ‘I want it to be picked, then on my table,’” Alvarez says. “There’s no better way to do that than locally.”
Rooster and the Till, which launched in 2013 in Seminole Heights, showcases modern American cuisine inspired by dishes from around the world. The menu is progressive – think fried okra tossed with goat-milk feta, watermelon-rind konfyt (a South African jam) and sunflower-seed butter – but it keeps faith with the farm-to-table movement. Alvarez has forged connections with local farmers and businesses, seeking out the best ingredients and products to use in the restaurant.
“If you want eggplant, check out who’s doing local eggplant – sample it, see what’s most fresh,” Alvarez explains. “The best product comes from the best people.”
At Rooster and the Till, there might be swordfish belly crudo – thinly sliced wisps of fish crowned with grilled cantaloupe, cherry-mustard relish and fresno chili – or the Asian-inspired crispy cobia collar, a bone-in fish collarbone infused with Korean lemongrass and soy sauce, swimming in a pool of nước chấm (Vietnamese dipping sauce).
“I’m a very global chef in terms of what I like to cook. I do everything on my menu; it’s all over the map in terms of cultures and flavors,” he says. “You can’t help but be influenced by your surroundings.”
“We never set out to get any local or national fame,” says Greg Baker, chef and founder of The Refinery. “We were just doing what we wanted, creating the spaces we wanted to see here.”
In fact, Baker hadn’t even anticipated opening a restaurant at all; his initial plan was to open a dive bar in Tampa that served good food. But because of a complicated permit process, The Refinery morphed into a restaurant before Baker could get the bar off the ground.
Baker is adamant about building a restaurant with the community, not merely parallel to it. “I never wanted to open a restaurant that you could just pick up and drop someplace else,” Baker says. “It had to be unique to this place.” He focuses on working with local farms and businesses to take advantage of Florida produce as well as sustain the community.
“I’d rather hand the check to somebody and know that it’s going to their kid’s college tuition than getting shipped off to some bank account in Houston,” he says.
He’s also made it his mission to establish a restaurant that provides good food for everyone – not just people who have money. Back when he was a line cook, Baker couldn’t afford to eat where he was cooking; that was his impetus to craft a space that everyone could be a part of.
“When I look out and see a cross section of so many demographics eating in the room, it comes down to the idea that food’s the great equalizer,” Baker says.
Those economics and that farm-to-table feel are certainly evident on the menu. Small plates and snacks hover around $9, and larger plates range from $13 to $35. The menu changes frequently, with highlights including smoked catfish and buttermilk beignets accompanied by a pot of habanero-saffron aioli, and summer squash pie, which is filled with zucchini, yellow squash, goat’s cheese, parsley and mint.
“We’re a huge agricultural state, but nobody really realizes that. We don’t have any soil; we have sand with some organic matter in it. The fact that all these things grow and thrive here is odds-defying,” he says. For Baker, cooking in Florida is perpetually exciting, especially as a chef who’s most inspired by ingredients, not dishes. “The diversity is really amazing. To have it all available really keeps you on your game. You can’t help but be creative.”
At Ulele, Columbia Restaurant Group president Richard Gonzmart and chef Keith Williamson seek to pay homage to how, generations ago, Native Americans in Florida used the land and sea to source fruit, vegetables, seafood and proteins. With that history in mind, Ulele celebrates and supports both local ingredients and farms.
“Being able to use these local ingredients that are here – that the indigenous people back then were able to use – all those are on our menus,” chef Keith Williamson says. “And it’s great for the community. We try to support local businesses because Richard [Gonzmart] is such a huge advocate in giving back.”
That impressive mission is palpable throughout the menu, which lists where ingredients come from. Fish such as grouper and snapper are caught nearby. Oysters – one of the most popular offerings on the menu — and shrimp are all sourced straight from the Gulf.
“Not too many restaurants can say that,” Williamson says.
Here, seafood is undeniably the star. Blistered and Creole-seasoned shrimp and scallops are swirled into jalapeño-cheddar grits in a twist on the Southern dish. Florida pompano is lightly seared, then painted with sun-dried-tomato-shallot cream and ribbons of fried carrots. Hunks of octopus are cut thin, served raw and drizzled with spicy piri-piri sauce. For those looking for something other than fish, cuts of meat, duck and chicken, and vegetarian options – such as the ‘Three Sisters Stuffed Portobello’ (a portobello mushroom that’s been roasted and crammed with zucchini, squash, onion, pepper, spinach, cranberry beans and manchego) – round out the menu.
Despite the challenges of working as a chef in Florida – the short, hot growing seasons make farming difficult – Williamson thinks of it as a manageable challenge.
“Most chefs may think a zucchini is boring, but we put a lot of flavor into [it],” he says. “We take something that’s kind of bland and kick it up a notch. That’s the challenge.”
Chef Lauren Macellaro’s favorite thing about The Reading Room is its garden.
“I have access to certain things that no other restaurants have because of our garden,” she says. “That’s fun for me as a chef.”
The gardener at the St Petersburg restaurant plants and cultivates herbs and vegetables that are a bit untraditional for the Florida terroir. Because the state’s climate is similar to those of Southeast Asia and India, The Reading Room’s garden grows a host of tropical plants not likely found in local supermarkets; pandan, moringa and herbs derived from Thailand and Malaysia can often be plucked from the soil.
Macellaro began her career at a New York City restaurant. “The chef would go to the market before he would come into work and bring in things that had just been picked,” Macellaro recalls. “I thought that was a very interesting approach to food because I had never seen that before.”
Nowadays, Macellaro has put her own spin on that kind of practice. Instead of walking to the market, she heads outside behind the restaurant, harvesting herbs and yanking out stalks straight from the ground. Not everything used in the restaurant comes from the garden, but Macellaro is steadfast about wielding the highest quality produce in the kitchen.
Here, dishes are conceived with both produce and the restaurant’s wood-fired oven in mind. “We have the tagline, ‘garden-inspired and wood-fired,’ and I think that really describes what we’re doing,” Macellaro says. Plates range from pink beets dotted with blue cheese, hazelnuts, celery and pears to a mustard-glazed bone-in pork chop with apples, cabbage and sweet potato.
With The Reading Room’s focus on produce at its center, Macellaro hopes guests will also encounter the comforting community experience that floats in tandem with the meal. For Macellaro, the familial, communal feel is just as important as the cooking.
“I really enjoy the camaraderie that comes with food. You get to have good food and people around that you like,” she says. “It’s nice to be the person that’s creating the food.”
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