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Food critic, former chef Jason Sheehan picks on Florida in memoir, 'Cooking Dirty'

Food critic and former chef Jason Sheehan finds parallels between being a writer and working in the kitchen.

BRYCE BOYER | Special to the Times

Food critic and former chef Jason Sheehan finds parallels between being a writer and working in the kitchen.

Jason Sheehan doesn't like Florida.

In fact, in his memoir Cooking Dirty, to be released June 23, he writes, "To say I merely disliked Florida would be an understatement of colossal proportions. I truly hated it, loathed every inch of the place with the kind of wild, sputtering passion that can generally only be mustered for the hating of another living thing."

Specifically, he doesn't like Brandon, Lakeland, Plant City and central Tampa, comparing living there to camping out in a longshoreman's underpants.

Sheehan is a former chef and the food critic of Westword in Denver. His writing has appeared in Best American Food Writing for the past five years, he won a James Beard award in 2003 and his essay "There's No Such Thing as Too Much Barbecue" was included in a book called This I Believe: the Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. And now this remarkable man, who clearly knows something about food, has penned a gritty tale of an itinerant cook's battles with deep fryers, psychotic kitchen managers and, evidently, Florida's humidity and big bugs.

Only part of the book takes place in Florida, but Sheehan claims his personal nadir in the kitchen came in 1997 in a huge seafood restaurant in Tampa he calls Jimmy's Crab Shack, which, he hinted on the phone to me recently from his home in Denver, is not far off from the restaurant's real name. Just what was so wrong about Tampa and its restaurants in those days? I called to find out.

"Like a lot of places then, Tampa restaurants were cooking a sort of whore's version of California cuisine, cheap and passionless. At that time, you filtered California cuisine through that fine mesh screen called the Midwest so that nothing survived when it got to the East Coast, then filtered it again when it headed south, so that only small grains of what was good remained. It was so aggressively non-regional. It wasn't the food that belonged in that place."

I decided to run this claim by a couple of local culinary superstars.

Chris Ponte, chef/owner of Café Ponte in Clearwater, was somewhat diplomatic.

"Food here has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. I'm sure if he had gone to Boston during that time it would have been the same. I think it's better across the country now. I tell my guys now that they don't have to go to Europe to train."

So, is Ponte saying that food around here was subpar back then?

"Marty Blitz, Eric Neri, Tom Pritchard — we have a lot of talent here. I think this guy needs to come back now and try our local cuisine," Ponte says, adding jokingly, "Anytime he wants to challenge us to an Iron Chef . . ."

James Canter, former chef at the MFA Café in St. Petersburg and soon to be chef at Tampa Gastropub, is blunt.

"I kind of agree with Sheehan about back then. I moved back here recently, because I finally thought it could sustain my attention culinarily. I remember back when people were like, 'What the hell is mesclun mix?' "

Ouch, that's some tough love. But what was so awful about the place itself?

Says Sheehan, "The weather was like being slapped in the face with a wet goat. It was like stepping into a novel, with everything cocked 10 or 12 degrees from what I knew. I was living in Brandon while they were tearing the guts out of it. You'd drive down Brandon Boulevard with its massive parking lots, strip malls and chain restaurants, and immediately behind it all was swamp and trailer parks and huge cockroaches."

Fine, Mr. Sheehan, we don't want your kind of negativity around here anyway. But before you go, what advice do you have for Florida chefs?

"Cook your food. It's a state surrounded by water, you have all this great seafood, and you have at least two of the greatest of American regional foods: fried plantains and the Cuban sandwich. Cook nothing but that."

So while Tampa Bay chefs sit around making Cubans in their longshoreman's underpants, Sheehan has moved on, cooking and carousing in Rochester, Buffalo and Albuquerque before getting out of the kitchen and becoming a food writer. He didn't mean to quit cooking, he says, just cooled his heels with a writing gig after 9/11, when restaurant jobs dried up.

"I was worried I'd have to give up all the fun if I quit cooking. I call myself a bit of a traitor now, giving away the family secrets."

The family, of course, is the brotherhood (less often, sisterhood) of chefs, a motley crew of mercenaries who, as Sheehan says, "mostly came up the same." Now that he's a desk jockey, there are things he misses: wearing the white coat, the fast pace and that moment at the end of service when the kitchen crew gathers in the bar ("that moment of infinite possibility — so many crimes, so little time").

The kitchen may be closed to this half-bright potty-mouthed thug (his words, not mine), but he sees parallels between being a writer and being a cook. He says that one thing all kitchens have in common is that, when there's a lull in the action and there's nothing to do in the kitchen, cooks set to telling stories.

"It's like cavemen around the fire."

If the shoe fits, Mr. Sheehan.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining .

Food critic, former chef Jason Sheehan picks on Florida in memoir, 'Cooking Dirty' 06/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 5:30am]

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