From the moment customers step inside the Red Fork Café, Esther Etienne wants them to feel like they're at home -- her home.
"I cook as if I were cooking for my own family," said Etienne, owner of the Brandon eatery. She has seven siblings and credits her grandmother Agnes for passing down her culinary skills. "I cook with a lot of love."
The Red Fork Café, 715 W. Lumsden Ave., opened in October and specializes in a particular blend of Caribbean cuisine.
"One of the things I do is that I work with a sweet and mild curry, which is never used in Haiti," she said. "My food is a mixture of the Bahamas, Martinique and Haiti."
Etienne was born in Haiti and moved to New York when she was 9. A social worker by trade, she moved to Florida in 2001 and settled in Tampa in 2005, working with Hillsborough Kids Inc. — a non-profit child advocacy organization — and the county's Child Abuse Council.
During this time, Etienne occasionally indulged her love of cooking.
"Even when I was working as a social worker, I never lost my passion for food," she said. "I'd do stuff on the side for friends, like weddings or parties, and they kept telling me I should have a restaurant."
In 2007, Etienne opened her first restaurant — Caribbean Taste — in McAllen, Texas at the behest of her two older brothers, who were starving for Caribbean food in the tiny town on the Mexican border.
"I had that restaurant for a few years, but people didn't know how to fully embrace the food," Etienne said. "I would have people come in who were angry that we didn't have tacos or tortillas or other food they were used to."
She returned to Florida about a year ago and opened the Red Fork Café. Etienne is particularly proud of the marinated snapper and the slow-cooked ox tail on her menu. She is also adamant about serving fresh food.
"Nothing is pre-made and you'll never find any food on any warmers," Etienne promises. "I do ask my customers to be a bit patient because if it's not fresh, Esther's not serving it."
It's that personal touch which sets the Red Fork Café apart from other restaurants in the area, according to Etienne. She insists she'll remain intimately involved with every dish that leaves her kitchen.
"If I don't do at least some of the cooking, it just feels like something's missing," Etienne said.
For more information, call (813) 685-4290 or visit www.redforkcafe.com