SPRING HILL — Dressed in his white linen chef's jacket, Kevin Howe seems to glide across the floor in the dining room of his restaurant when he sees a customer waving to him. On a typical Wednesday morning, a few minutes before lunchtime, he stops to chat with a couple finishing their breakfast at Chef's Cafe.
"How was everything?" he asks the woman, a new customer to his establishment.
Howe has always been eager to know what his customers think about his cooking. But with his latest restaurant venture just taking off, opinions on everything — food, service and decor — are essential.
"It's wonderful, just wonderful," she tells Howe with a smile. "We'll definitely be back, and soon!"
After a four-year hiatus, Hernando County's very own celebrity chef is back doing what he loves most: serving as captain of his own culinary ship. The ponytailed kitchen impresario — who parlayed an in-house specialty at the former County Line Cafe & Grille into a contest finalist a few years ago on the nationally televised Live! With Regis and Kelly show — has returned to the location at U.S. 19 and County Line Road where he launched his first Hernando dining establishment.
And Howe's longtime customers couldn't be more thrilled. In early April, as Howe and his wife, Karen, were cleaning and readying the establishment, many of them stopped by to check on the progress.
"When customers tell you how they missed you, it means a lot," Howe said. "I've missed it, too. It's where I share my heart and soul every day."
The 40-seat restaurant where the Howes introduced customers to Kevin's skill at creating fare such as chicken brandy walnut Gruyere, pan-seared scallops with apple brandy cream sauce and she-crab soup, plus what many considered to be the tastiest homemade raisin bread they'd ever eaten, has gotten a new life.
Now sporting cheery sunflower-yellow walls and hand-painted brick inlays, the interior reflects the couple's renewed vigor for playing host to delighted diners. It also reflects a change in the Howes' approach to the restaurant business, Kevin said.
"The restaurant business means that you put in long hours, and you can't do that without the right attitude," he said. "We decided to come back because we really wanted to, but we knew that we had to do it smarter than we did it before."
Howe, who has spent most of his adult life working in commercial kitchens, and for more than a decade was a chef at some of the Florida Keys' toniest dining establishments, decided in 2010 that it was time to take a break from the business. He and his wife sold the restaurant they had operated for 10 years to new owners and settled into a life that revolved comfortably around more family time with their daughter, Ronnie.
Howe, however, never let his culinary creativity go idle. He worked part time in a number of Hernando establishments, including the former Duke's American Grill, the Palace Grand and, finally, at Timber Pines Country Club. When he learned his former restaurant was available for lease, he was immediately intrigued by opportunity to once again be independent and creative in the kitchen.
"We didn't want to go back and re-create the past," Howe said. "We wanted something totally different, something fresh with some new twists along the way."
Indeed, Howe's approach will be to use more locally grown produce and locally caught seafood in an effort to hold down prices. He also wants to spend more time exploring and tweaking his recipes.
Breakfast might include interesting variations such as sweet potato pancakes, eggs Benedict with biscuit gravy, or a variety of breakfast burritos. The lunch menu includes new items such as French bread pizzas, wraps and taco salads.
Dinner specials will flourish from Howe's creative prowess, from favorites such as prime rib, to pork, chicken and pasta entrees.
Much of the renewed focus will be on healthier eating trends such as gluten-free breads, and he wants to add more vegetarian choices for his customers who choose to forgo meat.
Howe promises plenty of surprises along the way.
"People who know me know that I like playing with food," he said with a laugh. "That's a given with me. I don't think I was made to be ordinary in the kitchen."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.