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Tom Pritchard, local culinary rock star and stuff of legend

The old man looks uncomfortable.

Tell the one about the dead baby, everyone is saying. Tell the one about stealing three cabs in one night.

It's late afternoon at MJ's Martini Jazz Lounge in St. Petersburg, and Chef Tom Pritchard is holding court on the patio. The 50 or so guests here to plan his upcoming charity roast have adjourned their meeting and some are now mingling around the guest of honor, wine glasses in hand, prodding him.

Pritchard sits quietly, but he wants to please.

Tell the one about snorting Tabasco.

Pritchard looks up.

"Anyone can drink Tabasco," he mumbles.

Thus the man who has arguably had the largest impact of any chef on the local culinary scene in the past 20 years begins his story:

"I was in a hard-boiled egg eating contest against the 400-pound hard-boiled egg eating champion of Aspen, Colo., so I knew I had to cheat if I wanted to win.

"I gargled Tabasco sauce to strip the lining of my mouth and I snorted it — I drove a straw through a cheese ball and put it in my nose and snorted it — to strip the lining of my nasal cavity. You can eat faster that way."

The crowd is laughing now, and leaning closer.

"I got so far ahead of him. But by the end, he almost caught me because I ran out of hot sauce."

The crowd erupts.

This is the one about snorting Tabasco. There is one about serving Sonny Liston seven pounds of carp. One about talking Mexican tequila with Richard Nixon. One about smuggling hash into Spain in a size 13 cowboy boot box.

One for every place, every recipe, every occasion.

Chef Tom Pritchard has lived an incredible life. So the story goes.

• • •

Pritchard, 67, lives in a modest house on a finger of land in northeast St. Petersburg. On this Monday afternoon, he stands in his driveway beside a 1981 Jeep with a stone crab cracker mounted on the rear. Something resembling a pitch fork is poking out the back.

"It's a dung fork," he says. "One thing about chefs, we're all full of s---."

He leads the way through the house — spare, classy, lots of books and original art — to a screened patio overlooking a channel on Tampa Bay. We talk while he plays fetch with his golden retriever. Pritchard is wearing his uniform: sauce-stained T-shirt (pens, papers and a thermometer protruding from the pocket), shorts, Velcro shoes, a grungy ball cap and his signature beard. This is how people know Tom Pritchard.

"He has his own unique dress code," says Howard Sachs, a financial planner. "If the occasion calls for a name tag, it never says Tom Pritchard. It says Gorilla Monsoon or Tom the Busboy."

Pritchard is executive chef at four independent restaurants: Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores, Island Way Grill and Rumba Island Bar & Grill in Clearwater, and Marlin Darlin' in Belleair Bluffs.

In the mid 1990s, he partnered with Frank Chivas, a seafood broker who had experimented with a small chain called Pep's Sea Grill, to open the first, Salt Rock Grill.

There were other fine dining establishments at the time, but Salt Rock broke new ground.

"The result is so far above beach condo bland I am tempted to invoke a word rarely heard in these parts, 'hip,' " wrote restaurant critic Chris Sherman in the St. Petersburg Times in 1997.

Salt Rock's kitchen, under Pritchard's guidance, became a training ground for up-and-coming chefs.

"I heard about him as soon as I moved down here," says Mark Hrycko, chef at Island Way Grill. "He's a culinary legend is what he is."

"He's the reason I'm here," says Bruce Turner, manager at MJ's Martini Jazz Lounge. "It's always a pleasure to be in Tom's presence. He's either teaching you something or making a situation better."

"He supports a lot of independent restaurants," says Marty Blitz, chef at Tampa's Mise en Place. "He's kind of like an icon in the Tampa Bay area."

Tell Pritchard what people say about him and he smiles.

"That's very nice," he says. "Thank you."

Not bad for a guy who lied his way into the restaurant business.

• • •

His first restaurant job came at 14 in Baldwin, N.Y.

"My dad says, 'Tommy, go down and see Guy Lombardo. He's got a job for you.' "

That Guy Lombardo. The band leader. Pritchard went to work shucking oysters at the East Point House on Long Island. He left home for college in Des Moines, Iowa, and was drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Germany for several years, then hop-scotched across the region — Scotland, London, Morocco — before settling on Majorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean.

"The caper capital of the world," he says.

He fell in love with food in Majorca, at the fresh markets, walking past suckling pigs, fresh vegetables and a copious caper harvest. He bought a British bar that served Watney's Red Barrel ale and had Otis Redding on the jukebox.

He moved into a house near the Spanish artist Joan Miro and had a fling with a rich American expatriate whose millionaire father had sent her to live in Spain due to her love for Johnny Walker scotch.

After three years abroad, he moved in with friends in San Diego, then went in with a partner on a company called Land and Sky Waterbeds in Denver. This was the early '70s, before waterbeds caught on, and the company scored an order for 3,000 from Playboy's Hugh Hefner.

"I walked into the United Bank of Denver and got a huge loan with Hugh Hefner's letter," he says. "That money went . . ."

He trails off, smiling.

"That money went where it shouldn't have gone."

The contract fell through, and the company missed its loan payments. Pritchard stole the loan paperwork from the bank, fled to Juarez, Mexico, and acquired the alias Moose Mazaraka.

Pritchard wound up in Miami and got a job as a chef at the Rusty Pelican with an embellished resume and no culinary training.

"You just say you worked at La Cote Basque in New Port, Calif., and trust that they won't call."

He was a quick learner, and he faked his way into knowledge. He attended a wine seminar and introduced himself to Clive Coates, the British wine writer, then stood as close to him as possible during the tastings. Everything Coates did, Tom Pritchard did.

"The secret to learning is being around people you think are smarter than you," he says.

He entered cooking contests under the name Milo Wellington ("Milo sounds sophisticated, Wellington sounds like something you eat") and worked his way into a job as executive chef for Specialty Restaurants Corp., which owned some 60 restaurants.

He found himself frequently in Tampa on business, met a woman who wouldn't move, and thought about settling down. The two bought the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant in 1991 and went into business for themselves. When the roof collapsed a few years later, Pritchard went looking for another way in. That's when he teamed up with Frank Chivas.

Pritchard is asked how much of this whole story is true.

He fetches an old, gray photo. It's Pritchard and another man, leaning on a Ford Thunderbird in front of a Spanish villa.

"The first time we met I was chained to the wall of a jail in Germany," he says.

This is the guy, he says, who can verify everything.

• • •

Now Pritchard is standing over four bowls in the kitchen at Salt Rock, working on his latest creation. This is where the magic happens.

He's trying to perfect a recipe for sangrita, a tequila chaser he first tasted in Guadalajara. Five recipes are typed in code (K sal is kosher salt) on a sheet of paper, and an assistant chef is adding pomegranate molasses and pureed peppers.

"Let's put another cup of tomato juice in this one," Pritchard says.

Pritchard doesn't cook much anymore. He's 67 and has known for a year that he has Parkinson's disease. His hand shakes sometimes, and he has issues with balance.

"Grab another bowl and let's mix some of this and that and try it," he says to one chef. He calls another over for a taste test. Everyone agrees the thin sangrita is best.

"That's my original recipe I wrote years ago," he says. "The rest of these I picked out of books and off the Internet. I guess these newfangled ways of doing it aren't working." This from a guy who still uses the oldest cell phone he could find.

He orders bottles of Don Julio and Herradura brought from the bar and talks about complimenting Richard Nixon — whom he met at Miami's Jamaica Inn — on working out a trade agreement with Mexico in 1968 that allowed the free flow of good tequila across the border.

Really?

Yeah, he says.

This is what's perhaps most interesting and hard to believe: Pritchard seems to know everybody, and he has an inventory of stories for every situation.

"He's like the godfather of chefs," says Dan Smith, owner of Pacific Wave restaurant.

"There's never been one time that I've told a story about being somewhere that Tom hasn't known something about that place, or known someone from there," says Howard Sachs. "Every story he's told me is beyond convincing . . . He's as close to Forrest Gump as anybody I've ever met."

His wife, Jody, knows the stories by heart.

"You think they can't possibly be true," she says, "but then years later I'll run into somebody and find out that they're true.

"It's amazing."

• • •

Brad Dixon is the sommelier at Bern's Steak House in Tampa. He has known Tom for 20 years and has heard all his stories. He used to have a hard time believing them.

"This is what I call the confirmation story," Dixon says. "One night, I was working for him at the Island Way Grill, and I was talking to this guy named Harvey who had been in once or twice before. He was buying some fairly expensive bottles, and I was spending some time with him. That's my job.

"Anyway, we were deep in conversation about wine, and I totally lost Harvey. He was looking up. He was looking at Tom. It was 10 p.m., and Tom has just come in from a day of catering.

"He says, 'Who is that?' I say, 'That's Chef Tom. He's a partner here.' He says, 'Tom Mazaraka? Moose?' "

Uh-oh.

"I'm thinking, 'Wait a second. What if Moose stole this guy's money. Or what if Moose slept with his wife?' Those Moose Mazaraka stories were crazy. So I go over to Tom and tell him this guy is asking about Moose Mazaraka. Tom says, 'Oh s---. That's Harvey. He was vice president of the waterbed company!' "

• • •

The guy in the old picture — the guy who can confirm everything — is Mike Boren. I track him down in one of the most desolate places in America: the Big Bend National Park, on the Mexican border in southwest Texas. Boren is executive director of the Big Bend Natural History Association.

"I don't know why he had you call me," he says on the phone, "because I know where all the bodies are buried."

Is it true that they met in a jail in Germany?

"That's true," says Boren. "You know what he was there for? Impersonating an officer. He had stolen a brigadier general's jacket and was bracing soldiers in bars."

Boren says he worked at the jail and, one day, heard a prisoner screaming. The guards said the prisoner was a spook, an intel guy who runs all the Army computers, and he was telling them that if they messed with him, he'd have their furniture shipped to Alaska.

Boren walked back to see.

"He starts yelling, 'Go ahead, torture me! I know you f------! You're going to torture me!' I said, 'Not really. How would you like to get out of here with no record?' He said, 'Yeah, okay.' I said, 'I've got a friend in Kampala I want to go visit. Can you get me on an embassy flight to Kampala?' He said, 'Yeah, sure.' . . . Well, I cut him loose. That sumb---- never did get me to Kampala. He couldn't get me closer than Ethiopia."

Boren laughs, then stops laughing.

"Did he tell you about the Congo? Did he tell you about Beirut?"

No, and no.

Boren says they went to work as mercenaries in the Congo — "One of the spookiest f------ places in the world" — and then fled because they thought they were being set up for the assassination of ousted prime minister Patrice Lumumba. They tried to smuggle some hash into Spain in a size 13 cowboy boot box, but Pritchard got spooked on the ferry and dumped the hash overboard.

In Majorca, Pritchard began hosting a yearly expatriate Thanksgiving dinner.

"He said, 'You gotta help me, buddy. I don't know how to cook.' I said, 'How many people have you invited?' He said, 'About 300.' I said, 'What are you going to do?' He said, 'Buy some turkeys.'

"I'll be damned if that wasn't the best Thanksgiving dinner I've ever had."

• • •

It's after dark, and Pritchard is working the dining room at Salt Rock. Table to table he goes, saying hello, asking about the food. All the while he's looking for ways to improve. Is the lighting right? The sound?

When he's finished, he shuffles over and sits at a table and orders a dark import.

I tell him I talked to Mike Boren, and he smiles.

"Only a fool would've given you that number," he says.

I want to offer a last shot at coming clean. I look at his eyes.

How much of that is true?

"All of the above," he says.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

The roast

Chef Tom Pritchard's charity roast is at 6:30 p.m. Monday, at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $100 and include a reception and wine dinner. They can be purchased at abilitiesfoundation.com. Only a few tickets are still available.

Tom Pritchard, local culinary rock star and stuff of legend 01/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 11:02pm]
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