Imagine walking into your favorite restaurant for dinner and ordering an edible Cuban cigar served on an ashtray, or perusing the menu and coming across the roadkill entree complete with all the swarthy visual effects your mind can conjure.
Welcome to the world of molecular gastronomy, where science meets cooking and the results are mind game treats you can eat.
This type of experimental cuisine will be on display when Top Chef contestant and Riverview native Richie Farina brings his skills to the Rolling Pin Emporium's Culinary Center for two demonstration classes Feb. 9 and 10.
Farina, 29, is a 2001 graduate of Riverview High School. Before earning his bachelor's degree in culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, Farina worked for Rolling Pin owners Dave and Karen West when their store was in the Brandon mall.
"I am excited about having him. I think he'll be great," said Dave West, who recalls a very different looking, younger Farina. "I didn't recognize the name when I saw him on TV. But it was him, minus the Mohawk, piercings and tattoos."
Farina is the chef de cuisine at Chicago's palate-inspiring Moto restaurant, a leader in the world of molecular gastronomy. He will be the third Top Chef contestant to exhibit talents at the Rolling Pin, joining Tre Wilcox and Tiffany Derry.
"I want to show what we do at Moto and the science behind it," said Farina, who tries to return to Riverview twice a year to visit his parents, Peter and Marygrace. "I want to show fine dining and flavor without the stuffy attitude. We like to have fun with our guests."
Because the dining scene in the Brandon area is more akin to chain restaurant fare and less postmodern flare, don't expect to see Farina's favorite roadkill plate during his class.
"It looks absolutely disgusting but tastes delicious," Farina said.
Instead, be prepared to learn about these kitchen techniques and perhaps taste a new kind of chili cheese dog — for dessert. Like the edible Cuban cigar, this is a Chicago dog like you've never seen before, made from milk chocolate, cake, raspberry and orange. It could be a taste of more to come.
"Chicago is very open to the postmodern, molecular idea," Farina said. "When you drive down 60 (in Brandon), you see Chili's, Applebee's and Macaroni Grill. I want to open my own restaurant at some point. It would be awesome to come back home and do this in Tampa."
Farina's popularity grew when he was on Season 9 of Bravo's trendy Top Chef program. He said cooking shows are gaining steam because everyone can relate to food no matter your culture or where you live.
"It's all a head game," Farina said of his experience on the show. "Emotions affect how you do. Emotions kill. I got down on myself and made mistakes you wouldn't normally do. I learned a lot about myself. When I got eliminated, everyone there seemed genuinely upset I was going home. I didn't think you could have that effect on people in a short time" — one week.
Farina has been affecting people through food since he was 16. His first job in the industry was working at Sbarro at Westfield Brandon. From there he joined his uncle's catering business in Orlando. He grew up in a big Italian family and remembers Sunday family days in Orlando eating his grandmother's eggplant Parmesan, which remains his favorite family dish.
He probably didn't know then that he would one day cook meals for the likes of Academy Award winner Kate Winslet and former President Bill Clinton. But being unpredictable has always driven Farina's choices. For instance, while he specializes in high-end dining, he enjoys fast food like McDonald's and Taco Bell.
And when it comes to preparing meals, his favorites are what he calls "normal food" such as fried chicken, pizza and fresh pasta. He indulges these delights mostly on Saturdays when everyone prepares something for the staff meal at Moto.
Before arriving at Moto, Farina honed his skills at Wd~50, a restaurant on New York's Lower East Side specializing in what Farina calls a "molecular movement."
"What they were doing blew my mind," he said.
Then he saw Moto owner and chef Homaro Cantu on a TV cooking challenge. Cantu used a laser to caramelize edible paper as well as liquid nitrogen to create "balloons" out of beets. Farina was hooked and soon moved to Chicago, where his younger sister, Stephanie, worked as a sound engineer in the theater industry.
Now Farina, a Dallas Cowboys fan and outdoors enthusiast, works 16- to 18-hour days, serving 16-course meals that make traditional starch/meat/side presentations seem outdated. Through his flair, in his own whimsical way, he tries to convey one simple message:
"I try to convince people that food is more than just substance. Food can be entertaining itself."