For a few short hours last weekend, it looked like Tampa's culinary superhero version of "The Avengers."
Working the line in the kitchen at SideBern's, Habteab Hamde of Bern's Steak House stood next to The Refinery's Greg Baker, who was shoulder to shoulder with Zack Gross, the crazy-mustached, unpredictable maestro of Z Grille in St. Petersburg.
Next to him was Marty Blitz of Mise en Place. On the other side of the hot line, Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill helped with plating. Across the stainless steel exposition table, BT Nguyen of Restaurant BT wiped dishes clean for presentation and checked quality along with Chad Johnson of SideBern's. On the prep table near the back of the kitchen, Bern's Steak House pastry chef Kim Yelvington was swiping ganache on plates as a base for her dessert.
The occasion for the one-night alliance: To cook a six-course, $200-per-ticket dinner celebrating the area's recent success in being nominated for James Beard Foundation awards, the most prestigious in the food industry.
Two weeks ago, Baker was again named a semifinalist in the regional Best Chef: South category. (Peter Arpke of Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach is a semifinalist in the same category.) Baker and Johnson were nominated in the category in 2012 and The Refinery was nominated as a Best New Restaurant.
Johnson had the idea to bring the chefs together for a night that would both display each one's considerable skills while benefitting Beard Foundation culinary scholarships.
It was a relatively new concept for Tampa. Chefs see each other at charity functions and culinary events, but it is rare for them to cook side by side or execute each other's dishes. They've got their own kitchens to run, after all.
TV shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and "Top Chef" thrive on the idea that chefs are ultra-competitive, back-stabbing smokestacks of ambition. That's not entirely inaccurate.
But here were many of Tampa's best, along with their sous chefs, working together, assembling each other's complex recipes in narrow confines.
To put it another way, if you're Greg Baker and you're serving 84 plates of sturgeon confit with grits and a broth made with clam juice and smoked ham, and then adorning the fish with roasted beets, red mizuna lettuce, whey and sorrel herb, there is a nightmare scenario in your head. Undercooked fish. Salty broth. Ugly plates. If you're Baker, you have to trust that everyone on the assembly line, people who are fierce competitors in the marketplace, is someone you can trust. You have to believe they have your back for no other reason than they want to be a successful part of an important evening.
So Gross, who made lobster deviled eggs and foie gras toast appetizers, and Grant, who made oysters with sea urchin emulsion and spoonfuls of panna cotta with wagyu carpaccio, helped Baker make his fish. And Baker helped Blitz plate his buffalo short rib with wild boar bacon kabocha, squash, trumpet royale mushroom posole and celery root orange pepita salad.
Blitz lent Nguyen a hand in making her beautifully composed big-eye tuna tai chanh with Hawaiian hearts of palm, microgreens and passion fruit champagne vinaigrette. Nguyen assisted with Hamde's 100 Days dry aged Delmonico steak, bone marrow and black trumpet flan, fingerling potato, asparagus and Cabernet reduction. And Hamde jumped in to build Johnson's elegant duck "Ballotine" with goat camembert, root vegetables, Tasmanian truffle, Vadouvan granola. And because desserts generally scare savory chefs, Yelvington was left alone with her assistants to create a decadent praline pistachio torte with caramelized pistachios and pistachio chocolate macarons.
There was no shouting. If anything, the silent focus for the first few dishes was deafening. Eventually the group loosened up. Jokes were made about how spacious the kitchen is at SideBern's, how fancy their gadgets are. Baker and Gross and Nguyen work in kitchens the size of a Mini Cooper. SideBern's is a stretch Hummer by comparison.
Between courses, the chefs shared a joke. Nguyen joked with Blitz. Johnson and Baker talked in a low hush. Gross grabbed a drink and threw out a few jokes.
When it was over, it was time for them to grab some leftovers. The charcuterie tray took a hit. So did Nguyen's extra tuna tartare and the remaining slices of Hamde's Delmonico.
What struck me as I watched were two things:
First, this was, in one night, a snapshot of Tampa restaurant history. You had the grand battleship of cooking, Bern's, that helped put Tampa on the food map. You had the stylish Jaguars of Mise en Place and BT, which took that flag of fine dining and carried it into more modern times. And you had the Millennium Falcon in The Refinery, SideBern's, Z Grille and Parkshore Grill, which now push the boundaries of service. It was by no means a complete picture — there were many worthy chefs in town deserving to cook at the dinner and at future Beard events — but it was a nice frame for one night.
Second, as exciting as it was to watch The Avengers, I thought about the No. 2s in the kitchen who will rise one day to take over these restaurants — or start their own. What path will Courtney Orwig and Price Evans of SideBern's take? How will Matthew Smith of Parkshore Grill develop? Where and when will Karl Mohler of Bern's get his shot at the top? What will Refinery chef de cuisine Eric McHugh do with his talent?
It's food for thought. Enough that you could feast all day.