Remember when Emeril Lagasse dominated the Food Network in the '90s, when his evening cooking show was must-see TV? Dunedin chef John Lewis does, because that's what inspired him to open a cooking school and turn culinary education for adults into entertainment.
"The reaction that (Emeril) got from the live audience really impressed me, and I thought it would be neat to have a place where people could come, take classes and have a similar experience," said the 74-year-old who shares his Dunedin home with three golden retrievers. (He has even offered a class on cooking for your pets, but that's another story.)
The cooking school, known as Home Chef's Kitchen Emporium and Kitchen Store and later as Home Gourmet, was a hit and soon led to a summer program for kids called Kids Camp in the Kitchen — half-day camps where children ages 8 to 15 learn cooking skills and work with recipes to produce a gourmet meal for invited guests on the last day.
"We learned from the kids that they are far more competent in the kitchen than most adults give them credit for," said Lewis, who has worked in the food industry for more than 30 years, including 13 years as resident chef on WFLA-TV's Daytime show.
The cooking school eventually evolved into the La Maison Gourmet restaurant, which was sold in 2010. That made way for a specialty catering and culinary events business called Chef John's Creative Culinary Services, which he oversees today. The Kids Camp program marked its 19th year this summer. Lewis and his business partner, chef Debbie McGiffin, have just produced their first cookbook, It's All About the Food, available through itsallaboutthefood.us.
Is there a favorite food you like to cook?
I love seafood, eat it every week, and Southern cooking with a twist. Floridians like seafood but get locked into one or two ways to prepare grouper, and they tend to overcook it. In our classes, we teach them how to cook it properly and how to prepare it differently. Oh, and I still love a good steak. My son recently sent me some grass-fed beef.
What do you cook for yourself?
I like highly spiced foods. Not necessarily spicy hot foods. Very flavorful foods. If I'm hosting a dinner party, I don't just put a piece of meat on the grill. I like to experiment with different flavors and different recipes.
For myself, I'll have a tomato and pomegranate salad with za'atar (a Middle Eastern herb and spice blend), olive oil and topped with feta cheese. I don't get locked into having the same things over and over.
What's your home kitchen like?
It's a standard galley kitchen that I just updated with new appliances. Right now I have an electric range that I'm going to upgrade to a gas range as soon as a problem with the gas line is worked out. But it's good to have a kitchen like the ones most of our cooking class participants have, so I know recipes will work in their home kitchens.
Do you have a least favorite food?
Sweetbreads and brains. I was living in Paris and, without knowing it, ordered something from a menu and ended up with sweetbreads. It was certainly well-prepared, but I really didn't like it. It's a texture thing for me. Also, canned beets. When I was growing up I thought they were the work of the devil. Then a friend convinced me to roast some fresh beets. What a difference.
Any ingredient you couldn't cook without?
The onion family, which includes garlic. You have to be careful with them because they can dominate. But they are both nice ingredients for pretty much everything. Also, peppers, hot peppers. I have a habanero bush in my back yard and make my own hot sauce. I call it the Wild One, and keep threatening to bottle it.
You're consulting on a new restaurant. Can you tell us about it?
It's called Catcher and the Rye and it is under construction now in Palm Harbor. The owner has chosen for its theme Southern coastal comfort food. We helped out with some initial recipe development and will help with final recipe testing and tasting later this month. It's scheduled to open in mid-September.
Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at [email protected] or Irene Maher at [email protected]