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Stick a fork in it— or don't

Attendees at the Republican National Convention may require special tools to fully enjoy their visit: toothpicks. At many parties, that's what they'll be eating with. Governmental party regulations have tightened since the days when lobbyists wooed politicians with champagne and caviar. For both 2012 conventions, the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee restrict the giving of "gifts" to elected officials in the form of lavish meals. What does this mean in real terms?

"I can sum it with this: no forks," says Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Mise en Place and RNC host committee member. "A meal isn't a 'gift' if you're not sitting down with a plate and fork and knife."

That's right, one of Tampa's most celebrated restaurants is booked to serve 1,950 people at the restaurant and another 3,095 for off-site RNC events, largely without forks or knives.

Ybor City restaurateur Jason Fernandez has run into the same thing for parties he's booked at his Bernini, Carne Chophouse and other locations.

"They're all very strict on how you serve, what you serve: no forks or knives, all hors d'oeuvres style. And groups are very conscious about not doing lavish or extravagant parties, especially when they know there are going to be government officials in attendance. There's no alcohol at breakfasts or lunches."

Fine, convention attendees can forego that Bloody Mary at breakfast, but this raises questions about how local restaurants will shine with these restrictions.

"We're coming up with things," says Ferenc. "You're looking for things that either come in their own container, like a cucumber — things that aren't all bread. We're doing a tuna sandwich where the bread is the cucumber, and we've found other interesting carriers like a traditional patatas bravas that we're cooking in a french fry vat so they become crispy and portable."

Fernandez's list of goodies: "We are doing a bacon-wrapped date stuffed with manchego cheese, raspberry and brie en croute, mini beef Wellingtons, seared tuna wontons, Cuban sandwiches, mini deviled crab and things that have Ybor City flair to them. And for dessert it's cookies and bars, a lot of them being customized with logos."

Then, of course, there are loopholes. Chopsticks? Skewers? Filet mignon lollipops? Time will tell. Ferenc says that all menus have to go in front of the ethics committee for approval. Despite the paucity of cutlery, Ferenc says the process of menu selection has been exciting.

"While this restriction has been challenging, it's been really refreshing and fun to see (these groups) are concerned about sustainable fish, with a commitment to larger causes and health and quality. We have national clients who actively want to use Gulf seafood. There's a real corporate awareness about what's going on in the world."

Now how many ways can you eat Gulf seafood with your fingers?

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.

>>the rules

Ethics manual

According to the House Ethics Manual, House members and staff may attend "receptions offering only 'food or refreshments of nominal value' that are not 'part of a meal' (e.g., light appetizers and drinks, or soda and cookies)" or at "widely attended events" where a sit-down meal is acceptable.

Stick a fork in it— or don't 08/26/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 26, 2012 8:43am]
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