By Ileana Morales Valentine
The pork jowl is tender and succulent, and it comes with a creamy corn pudding bursting with sweet summer flavor. Crispy pig ear -- from the same farm in Summerfield, Fla. -- adds crunch. Pickled turnip is a bright palate cleanser between bites.
As the roasted broccoli arrives, a curious neighbor at the kitchen bar leans over because this dish looks especially dramatic. The emerald green florets are sprinkled with puffed farro and come in a bowl painted with a broad, dark stripe of charred bread vinaigrette.
This is Rooster & the Till in the historic Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, where the food is vibrant, fresh, and didn’t travel far to get here.
Farm-to-table, a buzz phrase familiar to most diners around the country, has taken firm root in Tampa Bay and continues to grow. Most chefs define farm-to-table as using ingredients sourced from within about 100 miles.
Rooster chef/owner Ferrell Alvarez resists the label farm-to-table (for him, it’s simply the only way to run a restaurant) but as Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley said in her review, it is “the most diligently local-farm-to-table restaurant in the area.”
Alvarez, who grew up in Tampa, describes his food as forward-thinking American regional cuisine that is primarily sourced from local farms and gardens. He and his staff work with 14. Anything they can’t get their hands on nearby is brought in from other sustainable and reputable sources.
Cathy Hume, owner of Urban Oasis, a hydroponic farm, said the key to farm-to-table in Tampa is having chefs and staff willing to understand that they have to work with whatever is available. “We’re never going to be able to offer the same vegetable 24/7. It’s just not the way growth works,” Hume said.
Restaurants need to be prepared to update their menus accordingly, she said, and to educate consumers.
“I’m not sure all culinary schools teach that,” she said. It requires some extra effort to do that, she said, and Alvarez gets it.
“We want people to realize it's just good food,” Alvarez said, “old-fashioned food made by hand with integrity and properly raised and sourced product.”
A key source of local food for Rooster and many other restaurants in Tampa Bay is a man named John E. Matthews, founder and senior forager at Suncoast Food Alliance. He connects chefs with a network of local farmers and helps them build relationships so their produce and other fresh Florida products end up on local menus.
On Sundays, Alvarez receives an email from Matthews listing available products for the week. Alvarez and his team plan and order on Monday. Deliveries arrive at the restaurant on Tuesday and Thursday (or Wednesday during the summer).
At Rooster, grass-fed beef comes from Providence Cattle Company in Tampa. Pasture Prime Family Farm supplies them with pork and chicken. Duck, lamb, and both chicken eggs and duck eggs come from Lake Meadows Naturals near Orlando. Dairy is from Dakin Dairy Farm east of Sarasota.
Produce eaten within three days of harvest is the most nutritionally dense food you can eat, Matthews said, and that’s one of the most important reasons for eating locally. For Alvarez, using local products also means a tastier and overall better product that keeps more money in the local economy.
It’s clear there’s an appetite for the kind of food Alvarez is serving up. Over the summer, the restaurant expanded and nearly doubled in size, to 2,200 square feet and 70 seats. An open kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, allowing diners to sit at the wraparound bar and watch as local ingredients are transformed.
A staffer delicately places a petite oyster atop a mound of coarse salt and pours over it a champagne mignonette. From its start at the farm to its end at the table, each dish is meticulously prepared, providing one of the best examples of celebrating local food in Tampa Bay.
Farm-to-table Tampa restaurants include:
6500 N Florida Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
Chef Greg Baker, who helped revolutionize Tampa’s restaurant scene, said he works with local farmers because they produce an all-around better product. He also likes knowing the farmers and their families; business can get done with a handshake. His food is countryside cooking (the country inspiring him changes) with a menu that changes several times each week. The restaurant is casual, and the rooftop is a great place to eat on a breezy night. The restaurant was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant in 2011, and Baker was a semi-finalist for Best Chef: South, 2012-2015. He and his wife, Michelle, have also opened nearby Fodder & Shine, which celebrates old Florida culture and food.
1810 N Highland Avenue
Tampa, FL 33602
This multimillion-dollar project is now a buzzing and big restaurant celebrating old Florida ingredients and food native to the area. Don’t miss the alligator hush puppies. Or the Gulf Coast oysters. Steaks come from Strickland Ranch, a southwest Florida farm ranch run by fourth-generation cattle ranchers. Thirsty? Be sure to order a pint made in house— this gem of the revived Tampa Riverwalk is also a microbrewery.
449 Central Avenue, Suite 101
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
A rustic Italian restaurant with daily menus dictated by fresh ingredients that are presented beautifully. The charred oysters with pickled ramps are a must when in season. The seared scallops, served with smoked corn and black garlic, are a solid order. The newest thing on the menu: a second secret menu. Executive chef and owner David Benstock is now featuring the “Confidential” with five courses, and each one is a surprise until it’s brought to the table.
239 S Links Avenue
Sarasota, FL 34236
This is definitely one to visit if you’re craving a taste of Florida’s seafood bounty. Chef Steve Phelps, who enjoys fishing in the area, features Florida rock shrimp and ceviche tossed with locally caught fish on his menu. Phelps was a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef: South in 2014 and 2015.
442 West Grand Central Avenue
Tampa, FL 33606
A pioneer of featuring local ingredients on his seasonal menu in Tampa, Chef Marty Blitz is celebrating 29 years at Mise. It is an institution and an excellent stop for a meal or a round of expertly-made cocktails. Rooster & the Till’s Ferrell Alvarez recalls learning how to source ingredients locally during his time as chef de cuisine at Mise.
4444 West Cypress Street
Tampa, FL 33607
Seafood lovers, look for the Fresh from Florida icon on the menu at this steak house. You’ll find Florida gator marinated in citrus and fried. Big Gulf shrimp and black grouper are available, too. And when it’s in season, don’t miss the stone crab. Steaks are cooked over fires made with Florida citrus and oak wood.
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