Fans of chef Joshua Adam Garcia, the hustling young cook in Food Network competitions last year, will see less of his smiling baby face when he arrives for the Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival.
Not that he's given up cooking or eating arroz con gandules and fried chiccarones. Just working harder at his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts.
A TV chef who doubles as a martial arts fighter? That's not enough for Garcia, who does everything in threes and branded himself JAG for his initials. He's also a musician. "Hear that?'' he asks as he holds the phone to a guitar. His favorites: gospel, hip-hop and Caribbean salsa.
And he started all of it 20 years ago. That's when he says at the age of 7 he drummed with the cardboard rods of coat hangers. That was in the Bronx, where he first learned about cooking.
While his mother worked, he says he made the meals. "They loved my breakfast, especially french toast once I learned to keep them from going soggy in the center.''
And, he says, he worked with his grandmother in her tienda in the mountains of Puerto Rico.
It's all come together into enough celebrity for the Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival to invite him, along with ex-Sopranos star Lorraine Bracco, to the three-day event beginning Thursday. Robert Irvine, whose resume-padding cost him a show on the Food Network, was the main attraction of last year's event, along with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
This year, the culinary experts are mostly prominent bay area chefs, including Marty Blitz of Mise en Place in Tampa, Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grille in St. Petersburg and Doug Bebell of Mystic Fish in Palm Harbor.
For Garcia, the festival will be a chance to showcase his post-Food Network career, now based in North Carolina. He has recovered quite well from having to pull out of the third season of The Next Food Network Star because of resume inconsistencies. He had been a finalist.
Now he's back in the kitchen of Stacia's Lieu Secret on the coast of North Carolina and living with his family.
There he cooks some of the fanciest meals in New Bern and champions his twist on Caribbean cooking that he calls Latino Fusione. That's a threesome too: Latin with French technique and strong Italian background.
That means good fish from the coast, Southern pork and Garcia's Caribbean accent. Plus a spice trinity of cumin, cilantro and garlic. And probably a mild touch of hot pepper to "JAG" it up.
"I want the Caribe to have its own cuisines and I want it to be everywhere," he says. He has dreams of a restaurant next year called Firefly and three cookbooks.
Meanwhile his music is on the Web, and he says he's formulating a new school of fighting that combines the close combat of the Marines, Asian weaponry and Brazilian fighting into one more JAGged-up fusion.
Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes or (727) 893-8585.