Greg Baker experiments once a week, mixing and matching whatever the earth gave him into a dish fit for the ever-changing menu at the Refinery.
He clears Thursdays of distractions so he can focus as his tattooed forearms move up and down, chopping and stirring. It would be much easier if Baker relied on ingredients readily available at the supermarket like farmed shrimp from Thailand or tomatoes grown in Mexico, rather than purely Mother Nature.
But here, like a growing slice of Tampa area restaurants, the mantra is: local, local, local.
So local, indeed, that they partner with area farmers to supply fresh ingredients, adjusting their menus based on the season.
The Refinery, on N Florida Avenue just south of Hillsborough Avenue, has a circle-of-life partnership with the Seminole Heights Community Garden, on Violet Street, just a nine-minute walk away.
Here's how it works: The restaurant sets aside some garbage, including peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and vegetable waste, then sends a few bucketsful to the garden every day for composting. In exchange, garden members donate to the restaurant whatever they don't sell or use during harvest.
Also, the Refinery's sous chef, Eddie Shumard, persuaded the Suncoast Food Alliance, a marketing and distribution company of locally grown products from 14 farms in Sarasota, Manatee, and Charlotte counties, to deliver produce to the restaurant, as long as other Tampa restaurants joined in on the agreement.
So far, just three local restaurants — the Refinery, Cafe Hey and SideBern's, both in South Tampa — have agreed to partner with the alliance. Organizers hope that more will join this fall.
Still a number of restaurants apparently have other connections. Downtown, Pizzaiolo Bavaro boasts that its ingredients are either imported from Italy or locally grown. Upscale Mise En Place gets its vegetables from a Lithia farm. Cafe Dufrain on Harbour Island posts a symbol on its menu marking dishes made with sustainable, local or organic produce. On customary tours of Bern's Steak House, tuxedo-wearing waiters tell customers that what they ate came from nearby farms.
At times, the Refinery has used exotic Seminole Heights homegrown broccoli leaves, leafy chards or dinosaur kale, adding a certain zeal to Baker's experiments. Servers make it a point of pride to tell customers that a dish was grown by neighborhood gardeners.
"It's a very small amount," Michelle Baker said of the Seminole Heights produce. "We had to mix it with other things to make it stretch. But there's a little bit of pride from using a little bit of it."
Restaurants that use locally grown ingredients are not new, especially in cities such as Portland and Austin, Texas, both places the Bakers have spent time. But it's more trendy to go organic green these days after consumers have been exposed to the onslaught of scare-me-out-of-eating documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Super Size Me, as well as the nonstop health studies repeatedly reminding us of dangerous pesticides, hormones, corn syrup and fill-in-the-blank additives.
What followed was a backlash of restaurants going "local" to feed off of the frenzy. And there's good reason people value local ingredients, Greg Baker said. Vegetables are most nutritionally dense within three days of harvest. Seasonal farming lets the ground rest and recharge itself, protecting a sustainable food source for generations to come. Buying locally supports area farmers.
It's also what Americans did before food got frozen, sterilized, artificially preserved and freeze dried.
"Food is such a personal thing that the frozen-food aisle has stolen from us," Michelle Baker said.
Still, the concept of restaurants using local produce is relatively new in the Tampa Bay area, said John E. Matthews, who owns the Suncoast Food Alliance. He noted that the region is behind compared to New York and cities out west.
In March, the Bakers visited Asheville, N.C., and noticed menus identifying where food originated.
Greg Baker still talks about a small Asheville cafe he visited that had a restaurant garden on-site and the slogan "delivering food with feet, not fuel."
The setup is ideal. The Bakers hope that their efforts with the Seminole Heights Community Garden have the same effect in reducing restaurant waste and helping the environment.
Trade agreements similar to the one the Refinery has with the community garden have occurred in cities such as Indianapolis, Fresno, Calif., and Montgomery, Ala., over the last few months.
Community gardens have sprung up in East Tampa, the University of South Florida and Sulphur Springs. Metropolitan Ministries and several civic groups are planning one in Tampa Heights that would help the homeless learn job skills and raise money for youth programs.
The Seminole Heights garden is in its second year, providing its members a plot of land where they can meet their neighbors, gain a green thumb and grow something they can sell or eat with pride.
"I think it's wonderful," said Linda Ketley, who owns the garden site, "and I think that was their intent all along to grow wonderful organic vegetables and sell them to area restaurants."
Ketley, who is 60, grew up in land-limited London, where she remembers community gardens everywhere. In Seminole Heights, the garden is more of an amenity than a necessity, but one with a purpose: growing momentum for sustainable farming and environmental stewardship.
The Refinery gives the garden a longer reach by exposing its customers to homegrown food that could inspire them to cultivate, too.
"Here's the chance to give wonderful organic vegetables to people who have never had them," Ketley said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]