Kitchen Magicians: A Dozen of Florida's Best Chefs

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The executive chef at the governor's mansion seeks to defend Florida's title in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, but he's not the only Florida chef with impressive credentials.

Gov. Rick Scott didn't look far for a top chef to represent Florida next month in the competition for "King of American Seafood."

John Minas, executive chef at the governor's mansion since May, will compete Aug. 6 in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans. Minas will be trying to keep the crown in Florida. Chef Dean Max, of 3030 Ocean at Marriott Harbor Beach and Spa Resort in Fort Lauderdale, was the 2010 winner.

Minas, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, is just one of many notable chefs in Florida. Here's a look at a dozen.

Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine Food)

Winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South, Schwartz's Miami Design District restaurant features what the Miami Herald called "fresh, well-sourced, straightforward food with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients." The New York Times said the restaurant "simply radiates joy" and may be the "shining star" of Miami restaurants.
www.michaelsgenuine.com/

Michelle Bernstein (Michy's, Sra. Martinez)

Winner of the 2007 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South, Bernstein first turned heads at Miami's Azul at the Mandarin Oriental in 2001, which Esquire Magazine called "the best new restaurant in America." In 2005, Bernstein and her husband, David Martinez, opened Michy's, which was called one of the "Top 50 restaurants in the country" by Gourmet Magazine and best new restaurant by Food & Wine Magazine. She makes frequent TV appearances, including as a guest judge last year on Bravo's Top Chef.
chefmichellebernstein.com/

Douglas Rodriguez (Ola at Sanctuary, D. Rodriguez Cuba)

The son of Cuban immigrants who was raised in Miami, Rodriguez is considered the leader of Nuevo Latino cuisine. He first gained fame in 1989 at Yuca with his fine-dining approach to comforting Cuban food. He was twice nominated Rising Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. He also found success in New York City's Patria, Chicama and Pipa, and is the author of several cookbooks, including Nuevo Latino.
www.chefdouglasrodriguez.com/

Norman Van Aken (Norman's at the Ritz Carlton Orlando)

Perhaps the most celebrated chef in Florida, Van Aken is he only Floridian on the "James Beard list of ‘Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America” and the father of "New World Cuisine." He is the author of several cookbooks, including Norman's New World Cuisine. He was the James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast in 1997. Norman's has been the highest Zagat-rated restaurant in Orlando.
www.normans.com/home.php

Zach Bell (Café Boulud at the Brazilian Court, Palm Beach; Addison Reserve Country Club, Delray Beach)

A James Beard nominee for four consecutive years – most recently in 2011– as one of five best chefs in the Southeast, Bell recently left his prestigious post at Café Boulud in Palm Beach to be the chef at Addison Reserve Country Club in Delray Beach, beginning in August. His goal is nothing less than to reinvent country club cuisine.

Philip Krajeck (Fish Out of Water at WaterColor Inn & Resort, Santa Rosa Beach)

Nominated three consecutive years as a semi-finalist for best chef in the south, Krajeck is chef de cuisine at Fish Out of Water at WaterColor Inn & Resort, which was named one of the "Top 10 Culinary Country Inns” in the U.S. by Bon Appétit magazine in 2008. Krajeck's menu focuses on fresh, local seafood and organic produce.
www.watercolorresort.com/resort_dining.aspx

Scott Hunnel (Victoria & Albert's, Lake Buena Vista)

A semi-finalist for best chef in the southeast, Hunnel was also a James Beard nominee for "Best Chef in the South” in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Under Hunnel's guidance, Victoria & Albert's has won the AAA Five Diamond Award 2001-2009, a Mobil Travel Guide Four Star Award 1990-2009 and recognition as a Florida Trend Magazine Golden Spoon Hall of Fame Member (Florida's Top 20 Restaurants) among many other accolades. www.victoria-alberts.com/

Jeannie Pierola (Kitchen Bar)

The former executive chef who mixed global flavors with modern flair at Tampa's celebrated Bern's Steak House and Sidebern's, Pierola is now experimenting with one of the trendiest food concepts, the pop-up restaurant. While she explores a permanent location, Pierola moves temporarily into another space for two or three weeks at a time, turning heads and drawing critical raves as she goes.

James and Julie Petrakis (The Ravenous Pig)

Orlando natives James and Julie Petrakis were semi-finalists for the James Beard Best Chef in the South Award this year. They trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in various restaurants before returning home to open this Winter Park gastro-pub. "With attention to detail like house-made sour mix at the bar and much-in-demand cheese biscuits,” the New York Times wrote, "James and Julie Petrakis have made their three-year-old gastropub one of Orlando's most popular gathering spots."
www.theravenouspig.com/

Marty Blitz (Mise en Place)

Once nominated as a Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation, Blitz has been helming the kitchen at Mise en Place for 25 years, a signature accomplishment in a business where few restaurants make it more than a year. Blitz also has represented Tampa for 20 years straight in the annual Taste of the NFL charity fundraiser. Mise en Place is in the Florida Trend Golden Spoon Hall of Fame.
www.miseonline.com/

Irv Miller (Jackson's Steakhouse)

It's an honor to be invited to cook once at the James Beard House in New York City, but three times? Miller's latest trip was June 28 as part of a small group of Pensacola chefs invited to show off the majesty of Gulf seafood. First gaining public attention at Bud & Alley's in Seaside, Miller has been executive chef of Jackson's Steakhouse in downtown Pensacola since 1999, earning the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator and the Golden Spoon Hall of Fame Award from Florida Trend.
jacksons.goodgrits.com/

Erika Davis (Ponte Vedra Inn & Club)

It's not often that pastry chefs get national recognition, but Erika Davis managed that feat last year on the Bravo TV show Top Chef: Just Desserts. Although she didn't win the crown, she was an audience favorite. A self-professed chocolate fanatic, her signature dish is a grilled cheese sandwich turned into a dessert: chocolate cherry bread filled with sweetened mascarpone cheese, dipped in egg and fried.

Tom Scherberger has been a reporter and editor at four Florida newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, where he is an editor and food writer. He lives in Treasure Island and hopes the food truck craze hits Tampa Bay soon.

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