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Fast food, Iron Chefs and James Beard on the mind of local restaurateur

TAMPA

Almost immediately after Greg and Michelle Baker opened the Refinery in March 2010, it stood out with its weekly changing menu that featured daring combinations like peanut butter bacon ice cream. The couple committed to using locally raised ingredients, putting the restaurant on the crest of a wave sweeping Tampa Bay restaurants these days.

Last year, the Refinery was nominated as one of the best new restaurants in the country by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the culinary arts by honoring chefs and others in the food industry with some of the nation's most prestigious awards. It was the only Tampa Bay restaurant honored.

The accolades continued this year when the foundation nominated Greg Baker for the regional category of Best Chef South. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Justin George talked with the Bakers about their recent successes, surprising fast food choices and fried chicken.

Recently, celebrity chef Mario Batali visited your restaurant. What did you guys talk about and did he give you a pair of his famous orange Crocs?

Greg: What didn't we talk about? Branding, growth, food, drink, song. We did provide a few (meal) courses, but really, he just wanted to hang out. So we did. I believe that his orange Crocs are like Samson's hair for him. They hold all of his powers. I'd never ask him to part with them.

If you could be a guest challenger on Food Network's Iron Chef, what one secret ingredient would you hope was selected to cook with? Which Iron Chef would you take on?

Greg: Pig, head to tail. And I'd take on (acclaimed restaurateur and cookbook author) Bobby Flay.

You're very focused on healthy and local ingredients, but what fast food would you eat if you had no choice?

Greg: Definitely Chipotle. They have a commitment to local, sustainable foods, wherever possible.

Michelle: Publix sub sandwich. I have a weakness for the Ultimate sub with extra mayo and all the veggies. It should not be as good as it is; it's just a sandwich!

What's your favorite Hillsborough County restaurant dish — outside of your own restaurant, of course?

Greg: Pho at Pho An Hoa in Tampa.

Michelle: I love all of the different grilled cheese sandwiches at the Bricks of Ybor City. They use herbs and veggies grown in their rooftop garden and come up with some serious combinations like jalapeno, Havarti cheese and basil. Yum. But nothing beats a big bowl of pho from Pho An Hoa.

If you weren't a chef, you'd be a …?

Greg: White-water raft guide? Hobo? Hard question to answer, because I really love what I do.

Who is James Beard anyway?

Greg: James Beard was a cookbook author, cooking school instructor, and "Dean of American Cooking" — as dubbed by the New York Times in 1954. The James Beard Foundation honors his legacy.

If you are appointed "Chef of the South," this must mean you have mastered frying up fried chicken — true? What's the secret?

Greg: I don't know if I'm a "master," but I like to think that I make some really good fried chicken. My secret? Buttermilk, double breading — I only use six secret herbs and spices — and deep frying.

Michelle: Greg is a serious American Southern cook because he has to be. It's the food I grew up on! It was a requirement of us dating. All of the women in my mother's family would cook for hours. Fried chicken, ham, collards, gumbo, biscuits, pole beans, butter beans, etc. Greg will still surprise me with fried pork chops, black-eyed peas and pole beans: My favorite meal.

What was the best Valentine's Day meal you cooked for your wife and vice versa?

Greg: We're not really Valentine's Day people. We're in the industry — that means we work very hard on Valentine's. But many years back while we were living in Texas, she did buy me a smoker. I used it to re-create the Alabama style barbecue that we grew up on and couldn't find in Texas.

Michelle: Like Greg said, we are always working but the very first dish I ever made Greg many, many years ago was Chili Mac. This was a dish my uncle would make my sister and I as little girls. We loved it. It's chili and mac and cheese. How could it be bad? Greg was completely horrified — of course he didn't tell me this — but as soon as he tasted it, he was hooked. Chili Mac is still one of his favorite comfort foods.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

Fast food, Iron Chefs and James Beard on the mind of local restaurateur 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 4:31am]
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