What do you put on a menu that ties in to a Broadway play called Something Rotten!? That's the kind of challenge Straz Center for the Performing Arts executive chef Edward Steinhoff faces every day when he comes to work. Steinhoff, who took over the post in August, loves the change from creating food for typical dining venues to creating recipes and menus that reflect whatever is on stage at the Straz.
"It was fun working on Cabaret, which was my (late) mother's favorite show," said Steinhoff, a 48-year-old father of two, who grew up in Brooklyn. "Later in the season The King and I is coming up, another of her favorites. So, I'm excited to be creating food for two of my mother's favorite shows."
Steinhoff oversees four restaurants at the Straz, in addition to catering functions for special events and corporate clients. He previously served as executive chef at Hunters Green Country Club, the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club and the DoubleTree Hotel in Tampa.
We caught up with Steinhoff recently to chat about how he got started and what brought him back to the professional kitchen after taking a break to work as a boiler mechanic back home in Brooklyn.
What sparked your interest in food and cooking?
My mother was a stay-at-home mom and cooked every night. I started helping her in the kitchen and realized that I enjoyed it. We spent our summers in Pennsylvania and I applied for a kitchen job in a restaurant when I was 16 and got it.
Tell us about that first job.
I started out washing dishes, but the chefs saw something in me because I was always trying to help with other things when I was done with my own work. That led to a job in the pantry where I learned about creating dishes. Eventually, one chef put me on the hot line once a week.
Why did you become a boiler mechanic?
I continued working in restaurants until I got old enough to need money, to need a big-boy job. That's when I went to work in Brooklyn as a union boiler mechanic for the gas company for 12 years. I saved some money and decided to open my own catering company, deli and full-service bakery.
How does working at the Straz differ from the other restaurant work you've done?
It's a very different dynamic at a performing arts center. We typically have all four food venues going at once, and our menus are themed for the shows that are in town. I read and research each show to tie in the menus and the presentation of the food. I was also drawn to the job by all the changes in downtown Tampa. It's exploding. Everything going on in the rebirth of the city — I wanted to be a part of it.
Do you live downtown?
I just moved in to a cool apartment between downtown and Ybor City.
Do you cook at home?
No, although I made a great chicken soup the other day at home. I work long hours. I come in at 8 or 9 in the morning and I'm not out until 10 p.m. or later when we have shows. So I don't do much eating at home. Besides, there's no one there to clean up. I'd have to load the dishwasher myself.
Are you more a manager now than a hands-on cook?
I typically help out in the prep process. Our other chefs will create menu items, and we get together to taste them and decide together the best way to go. At night I'm usually expediting, which means I sauce and garnish each plate and check it to make sure it looks right before going out the kitchen doors. I won't let it go out unless it's right. Our servers also know what a dish is supposed to look like and they are very good at catching something that isn't right.
What's it like getting food out to guests who must be in their seats before the curtain goes up?
We open at 5 p.m. but we figure that we have about a two-hour window to feed everyone who comes to Maestro's, our main dining room. The other venues are a buffet and a lighter-fare cafe. But at Maestro's we have just two hours to feed 130 to 140 guests. It gets very busy during that short window.
How do you make the time constraints work?
It's because of a good partnership between the folks at the front of the house (the dining room) and back of the house (the kitchen). The front-of-the-house folks are really good and they "get" what we have to do to get guests out on time. Once the server speaks to the guests and offers them the salad bar, a timer starts. They put in the food order and we have 10 minutes to get it out to the table. It's busy, yeah, but the beauty of it is, it's over in two hours. As stressful as it gets, it can only last for (that time).
What menu did you assemble for Cabaret, which ran at the Straz from Jan. 24 to 29?
A German theme. But I also got a comfort food feel after reading it, a home cooking approach. One dish (was) a pork tenderloin stuffed with apples and raisins, served with braised red cabbage and buttered spaetzle. There (was) also a mahi poached in a roasted tomato cabernet crawfish broth called Life Is a Cabernet Old Chum.
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]