By Janet K. Keeler
Florida is the third-most populated state in the country, and you can best believe all those Floridians are looking for good places to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Combine that with nearly 130 million annual visitors and there are plenty of opportunities for chefs and restaurateurs to serve up original and delicious fine dining.
Florida chefs are doing just that.
From the Florida Keys through the middle of the state’s theme park empire to the beaches of the Panhandle, the culinary map is dotted with seafood, Latin specialties and updated country staples.
Add to that dishes perfected by Florida chefs who were “Top Chef” competitors and James Beard Foundation award nominees and diners will eat up a state full of culinary innovation.
The list following is just a taste of what Sunshine State chefs are bringing to the table...
Jeremy Ford, Stubborn Seed, South Beach
The season 13 “Top Chef” winner turns out stylish, modern food just a block away from South Beach’s legendary Joe’s Stone Crab. Ford is a Florida guy, born and raised in Jacksonville and inspired to cook by his grandmother. Ford’s food is vibrant and architectural plus it draws raves from foodies and reviewers. A taste of the menu: Jojo Tea Cured Cobia and Kusshi Oyster with Thai Chili Mignonette.
Naomi Harris, Madruga Bakery, Coral Gables
Harris is a Florida native who left the state and then returned to her hometown to show off what she learned. What she learned is how to mill grain to bake a multitude of muffins and breads that bring early morning crowds to her restaurant. Her work has garnered lots of honors, including a James Beard nomination for best pastry chef. A taste of the menu: Alfajore (dulce de leche sandwich cookies) and house ricotta with tomato jam on a thick slice of toasted sourdough Sonora loaf.
Niven Patel, Ghee Indian Kitchen, Miami
Patel has graduated from chef de cuisine at the legendary Michael Genuine Food & Drink to his own successful restaurant. He’s showing off the food of his Gujarati, India, heritage at two locations in South Florida. His menus meld modern technique, local ingredients with traditional Indians flavors, and his creations have garnered the attention of critics and diners, too. He’s another James Beard nominee. A taste of the menu: Rancho Patel Kale Saag Paneer and Avocado Wahoo Bhel.
Derrick Turton, House of Mac, Wynwood
No doubt, “Chef Teach” is an interesting and hip guy who claims fontina as his cheesy secret weapon. He’s the longtime music manager of singer Pitbull and operator of a popular food truck. Visitors of the murals at Wynwood Walls can check out Turton’s signature mac-and-cheese concoctions at his nearby restaurant. Good food isn’t always fancy food but the addition of truffles and a nod to veganism make Turton’s House of Mac worth a stop. A taste of the menu: Chicken Cordon Bleu Mac & Cheese and Parmesan Truffle Fries.
Gaston Acurio, La Mar, Miami
The five-star Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key is a luxurious respite with phenomenal water and city views. Phenomenal could also describe the food coming from the kitchen helmed by Chef Diego Oka. The celebrity chef name graces the restaurant concept and the menu features the flavor of Acurio’s native Peru with extensive ceviche offerings featuring seafood from local and farther away offerings. This is luxury on a plate, and an especially popular brunch spot. A taste of the menu: Lobster a la Plancha Antichuchera and Arroz Cebichero (seafood).
Clay Conley, Buccan, Palm Beach
His family’s Maine farm inspired Chef Clay Conley to get into the kitchen when he was just a teen. Now as a lauded Florida chef, Conley is bringing his love affair with fresh ingredients and bold, global flavors to the Sunshine State. He earned lots of chops in Todd English kitchens and now has broken out on his own in a bright, homey space. A taste of the menu: Hand Rolled Macaroni and Pork Belly Slider Bahn Mi.
Rachel Bennett, The Library / St. Petersburg
The Library is one swanky hospital restaurant and is hardly what doctors, nurses and visitors might expect when they want to grab a bite. On the campus of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the Library with Chef Rachel Bennett is fast becoming a lunch, dinner and weekend brunch favorite for locals. The James Beard folks have taken notice too and Bennett has landed on the list of best-of nominations. Big salads with lots of room for personal touches plus amazing avocado fries with a spicy dip are big sellers. A taste of the menu: Tomato Prosciutto Flatbread and Harvest Tacos with crispy cauliflower and corn salsa.
Jeannie Pierola, Edison: Food+Drink Lab / Tampa
Chef and restaurateur Jeannie Pierola is a master of reinvention, evolving into one of Tampa Bay’s top chefs as she’s left her mark on various venues. She’s a Florida native who has spent her entire adult life in local kitchens, including as executive chef at the legendary Bern’s Steak House. Edison is one of the city’s most interesting restaurants where the chef’s steady hand shows in every dish. She’s recently opened the casual Swigamajig at the Sparkman Wharf, an outdoor food hall fronting a Tampa Bay channel. Oh, and she’s another James Beard nominee. A taste of the menu: Crunchy Coconut Kale Salad and Culantro-Scented Florida Black Grouper.
Ann Kearney, Oak & Ola / Tampa
James Beard winner and Florida newcomer, chef and owner Ann Kearney has made a quick and good impression at Oak & Ola. She’s come to Tampa via her Ohio home and a long professional stint in New Orleans where she won lots of fans and awards at Peristyle. Oak & Ola in the Armature Works food hall has created buzz with its Provencal flair. Food is the star but drinks play more than a supporting role thanks to curated mixers and fresh ingredients. A taste of the menu: Horseradish Dressed Blue Crab and Pan-Roasted Tarragon Chicken.
Jeffrey Jew, Stillwaters Tavern / St. Petersburg
Chef Jeffrey Jew is a Top Chef veteran and what is likely more pertinent to diners is that he worked at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in London. His Stillwaters Tavern on the city’s booming downtown waterfront has both indoor and outdoor dining and is a popular place year-round. The menu showcases Jew’s love affair with American favorites, twisted globally. The clam chowder features a couple of small Cedar Key clams hidden like treasure at the bottom of the mug. There’s a vast craft beer menu, much of it local, and the bourbon selection is ample, too. A taste of the menu: Blue Crab Spaghetti and Salmon Chopped Salad.
Michael Mir, Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro / Naples
Executive chef and owner Michael Mir brings his vision of Mideast cuisine to main street Naples. A winner of Florida Trend magazine’s Golden Spoon awards, Bha! Bha! highlights Persian cuisines with aromatic food that celebrates the spices and ingredients of the region. This is a truly special occasion restaurant, with a summer prix fixe extravaganza that’s worth the trip. A taste of the menu: Warm & Crispy Persian Lavash Bruschetta and Pomegranate Lacquered Fresh Salmon.
Gerald Sombright, Ario / Marco Island
These days, every upscale hotel needs a great restaurant. Ario at the Marco Island Marriott Resort fits the bill. Chef Gerald Sombright brings a wealth of experience into the kitchen, thanks to stints at acclaimed restaurants at the Four Seasons and Disney World and under the tutelage of Michael Mina and Fabrizio Schenardi. Oh, yeah, and he was on Bravo’s Top Chef. Ario features dry-aged steaks, lots of seafood and curated cocktails (Smoked Manhattan and Spicy Passion Fruit Margarita). The large selection of sides could make a meal themselves. A taste of the menu: Pear Terrine and Butter Poached Lobster Tail with smoked fennel and Buddha Hand Granola.
Hari Palapaka, Cress / Deland
For a dozen years, Cress has brought sophisticated dining to Deland, population 30,000. In that time, Chef Hari Palapaka and partner/wife Jenneffer Palapaka have kept their day jobs. She’s a podiatric surgeon with a private practice and he’s a math professor at Stetson University. Still, they find time to keep the menu fresh and stay true to their dedication to inventive food with American, Indian and French accents. The James Beard Foundation has noticed too and the chef has been nominated for top honors several times.A taste of the menu: Roasted Vegetable Bisteeya in Pastry and Seafood Bisque.
Scott Hunnel, Victoria & Albert / Disney World
Tucked away at Disney’s Grand Floridian Hotel, is Victoria & Albert. This swanky, award-winning restaurant has long been the spot to pop the question or celebrate a milestone anniversary. Executive Chef Scott Hunnel has racked up a slew of awards from national and statewide organizations. The atmosphere is sophisticated (there’s tufted stools for purses) and no doubt this is a splurge restaurant. Expert wine pairing is part of the experience, and there’s a full vegetarian menu. Men need a jacket but ties are optional. A taste of the menu: Texas Wild Boar with Elote and Salsa Verde, and Chive Gnocchi with Artichokes and House Made Ricotta.
Julie Petrakis and James Petrakis, The Ravenous Pig / Winter Park
The Chefs Petrakis have built a restaurant empire of sorts in the Orlando region. Their Ravenous Pig is a destination restaurant complete with a cookbook that adoring diners can buy as a souvenir. The draw is cheese, charcuterie and other specially curated meats such as lamb ribs and pork belly. The restaurant hasn’t been a stranger to awards, including nods from James Beard. Others restaurants are Cask & Larder at the Orlando International Airport, and The Polite Pig at Disney Springs. A taste of the menu: Rabbit Tagliatelle, Bone Marrow Brulee and Bacon Hushpuppies.
Kathleen Blake, Rusty Spoon / Orlando
The Rusty Spoon bills itself as locally sourced American food with European roots. This popular Orlando restaurant has gotten the notice of national eyes, including James Beard judges. Lauded chef Kathleen Blake was classically trained in San Francisco, and worked in the kitchens of well-known restaurateurs/chefs Joyce Goldstein and Drew Pierpont. She is a farm-to-table devotee and diners can see the results of that on their plates, featuring ingredients from nearby farms. A taste of the menu: Jamison Farm Lamb Shank, Lake Meadow Chicken Thigh a la Diavola and Red Devil Stuffed Eggs.
Irv Miller, Jackson’s Steakhouse / Pensacola
It’s an honor to be invited to cook once at the James Beard House in New York, but five times? Add those guest appearances to a list of awards including nods from the Wine Spectator and Florida Trend and Chef Irv Miller has plenty of feathers to put in his toque. He’s no stranger to competitive cooking having gone to battle on Top Chef and at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off. His culinary creations pay homage to local seafood and feature well-prepared meats, all served in an historic setting. A taste of the menu: Sesame Seed Seared Gulf Yellowfin Tuna and Gulf-to-Table Whole Roasted Fish.
Emeril Lagasse, Emeril’s Italian Coastal / Sandestin
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has a long history in Florida though his restaurants in Orlando have closed. However, he inches closer to his culinary home in New Orleans with Emeril’s Italian Coastal, a stylish dining experience big with locals and tourists. As the name implies, the chef brings local seafood to the table with Italian flair in his first Panhandle restaurant. Flatbreads from the brick oven and tempting starters such as Gulf of Mexico shrimp over polenta are sure bets. A taste of the menu: Smoked Yellowfin Tuna Dip and Fettuccine Nero with blue crab and spicy Calabria chili.
Timothy Williams, Café Thirty-A / Seagrove
Chef Timothy Williams continues his southern migration from Brooklyn to Atlanta to the Florida Panhandle. Locals and visitors hope he’ll stay a long while at Café Thirty-A in Seagrove. This is one of the small towns of Scenic State Road 30-A that beckons visitors with gorgeous beaches, upscale and new accommodations and more than ever, good food. Thirty-A is a dinner-only place that celebrates classics with a modern twist. A taste of the menu: Pan Seared Scallops with Bacon and Sweet Pea Risotto and Fried Oyster Spinach Salad.
Tom Gray, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails / Jacksonville
Chef and owner Tom Gray brings culinary moxie to Moxie with a couple of James Beard best chef in the South nominations under his belt. The chef was raised in the South but plenty of travel has expanded his horizons and the way he creates his food. The menu feels oh-so-modern with kale, homemade ricotta and short ribs dishes. And then there’s meatloaf. Gray and his partners have a second Jacksonville restaurant, Town Hall. A taste of the menu: BBQ Tempeh, Shrimp and Three-Cheese Grits, and Mexi-Cobb and Blackened Tuna Salad.
Waylon Rivers, Black Sheep Restaurant / Jacksonville
In the trendy Five Points neighborhood, Black Sheep holds up its end of the cool bargain. Thanks to Chef Waylon Rivers’ contemporary vision, diners get a chance to eat what’s great about Florida: seafood, beef and in-season produce. Diners get a two-for with much-respected pastry chef Rebecca Reed and patrons don’t often pass on something sweet to end the meal. Who wouldn’t be tempted by Sweet Corn Crème Brulee or Pumpkin Horchata Panna Cotta? A taste of the menu: Creamed Collards, Crispy Skin Salmon and Smoked Trout Rillettes.
Kerri Rogers, Bellwether / Jacksonville
At Black Sheep’s sister restaurant, Chef Kerri Rogers shows off her style and deep affection for local ingredients. She is a native of Orlando and understands the growing seasons of Florida, which are different than the rest of the country. (Strawberries in December? Yes!) She is a self-taught chef whose daily rotating specials include Short Rib Sliders and Tsukune Bahn Mi. A taste of the menu: Gnocchi Carbonara and Cheesecake Rangoon (fried cheesecake and Biscoff cookie butter filled wontons, blackberry jam, salted caramel, ginger-galangal sugar).
Genie McNally, The Floridian / St. Augustine
In America’s oldest city, The Floridian maps the city’s many cultural influences on the menu. That’s thanks to Chef Genie McNally who is lauded as one of the best in the area. She sources from more than a dozen local vendors, and is also able to bridge the world of beachgoers, history buffs and locals with a menu that ranges from casual (meatloaf sandwiches) to wink-wink clever (biscuits and belly, as in pork). A taste of the menu: Cornbread Panzanella and ’N Grits with a choice of remoulade, blackened or grilled shrimp or even tofu as topping.
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