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Former busboy has been head chef at top Dunedin restaurant for 30 years


It's Friday around noon at the Bon Appetit, the peak of the midday lunch rush, when the waiter enters the kitchen. Next to the whispery dining room, a sunlit lounge dotted with tables overlooking St. Joseph Sound, the kitchen is a shock to the senses. There are grills sizzling and a steamer buzzing and plates clinking in the wash; cooks are chopping vegetables and flipping fresh salmon; men are appearing out of nowhere to fix salads and fill bowls of french onion soup and whisk trays away.

Steve Farquhar, 52, is standing at the center of the chaos, his eyes sweeping across two plates like a creme brulee torch. He's focused on a half rack of lamb, a cut of filet mignon, sweet potato croquettes and spaghetti squash and sugar snap peas. The waiter speaks up.

"Too spicy," he says, holding a dish of New Orleans-style shrimp seared alongside artichoke hearts and mushrooms. Farquhar turns his eyes to the waiter's plate.

"Too spicy?" Farquhar asks. The executive chef of Dunedin's ritziest restaurant inspects the food for a second — it's still warm, and it smells delicious — then sweeps it into the trash.

"There's no one-size-fits-all," he says. "You just fix it."

• • •

Hand-mashed potatoes. Frozen peas. Farquhar's first years as an aspiring chef at the Pinellas Technical Education Centers carried all the panache of a cafeteria lunchroom.

The Largo High graduate had wanted to cook, really cook, but at age 17 had found his options limited. He settled on a busboy job at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

Gradually, he worked his way up to cook's helper, where he was tasked with chopping and breading and skewering brochettes.

He would study from 5:30 a.m. to noon, work from 3 to midnight and spend his off-time in cookbooks like the Larousse Gastronomique, a "head to the grindstone" mentality that left him exhausted.

Innisbrook's master chef noticed his work. It was the late 1970s, and German-born chef Karl Reidl offered Farquhar what at the time was a rarity in American kitchens: an all-expenses-paid apprenticeship under Germany's culinary masters.

Farquhar was ecstatic. He flew to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a town at the base of the Bavarian Alps, and served as a sous chef at Cafe Adlwarth and Kurpark.

"I told them, 'I'll do anything you want. I'll be your hardest worker,' " he said. "I just want to learn."

Farquhar, who grew up in Clearwater as a drum player and Boy Scout, found himself at the center of a chaotic Bavarian dining hall.

One minute, he would be tasked to prepare traditional meals of roast duck, dumplings and sauerkraut; the next, he would be running down the stairs to the fish tank, plucking a live trout and whacking it with a broom handle so diners could eat it fresh.

The French, Swiss, Austrian, Greek and Turkish employees warmed up to the American teenager, who always seemed to complete his kitchen work by hovering over the chefs' shoulders. He didn't have a fancy culinary degree. He didn't even really know the language.

"I wanted to prove my worth," Farquhar said. "And there's only one way to do that, you hustle."

• • •

In 1980, Farquhar boarded a Laker Airways jet and flew back home. He stopped in to thank Reidl and restaurateur Peter Kreuziger, who had just opened Bon Appetit, when they demanded he accept a job as a cook.

Now, 30 years later, Farquhar runs the kitchen. He has taken on his own apprentice and is as demanding with her as he was of himself. ("You don't call off if you're dead," he tells the 21-year-old former hostess. "You die on your day off.")

What once was a formal dining hall — the waiters wore tuxedos, the hostesses evening gowns — has relaxed over time, though the waterfront restaurant still seats about four wedding receptions a week. Farquhar decides the menus each week.

The dishwasher is still whirring when he turns back to the countertop to oversee a large platter of lobster canape, freshly made. In his chef's apron, he's sweating a bit, though he doesn't seem to slow down.

A 30-year head chef is "kind of an oddity" in this business, he says, before flashing a grin.

"They told me I could stay here as long as I want," he says of Reidl and Kreuziger. "I don't see why not."

He waits for the next dish.

"How many jobs let you do whatever you want?"

Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.

Former busboy has been head chef at top Dunedin restaurant for 30 years 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 8:17pm]
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