The new star ingredient on Tampa Bay menus: Florida's rich history.
It's there in the protein, it's there in the veggies and the sauces and the starches. Together, it might be described as a nascent New Florida cuisine.
For the first time since the 1980s, a style is emerging that feels unique to the Sunshine State, distinct from the foods of the Deep South, Low Country or bayous of Louisiana. It's Southern-inflected, seafood-centric, with a reliance on Florida ingredients, nods to Spanish roots and down-home "Cracker" and American Indian ingenuity, topped off with a bit of Latin and even Caribbean flair.
Take this dish from the newly opened Ulele in Tampa:
Alligator hush puppies with gator, country ham, duck bacon, fresh corn, jalapeno, St. Augustine datil pepper sauce and fresh-ground horseradish aioli.
In a spate of recent restaurant openings in Tampa Bay, chefs and restaurateurs are mining history books and early Florida native lore for inspiration: swamp cabbage and hearts of palm; wild boar, quail and mullet roe; cooter and coquina; coontie flour and palm berries.
It matters because, in a part of the state long known as a bland breeding ground for chain concepts, this paradigm shift could cause the nation's foodies, and even the James Beard committee, to take notice. It has the potential to draw lucrative "culinary tourists" and, perhaps more important, young culinary talent eager to master a new regional cuisine.
There's a coherent story emerging, even if not everyone agrees on what to call it.
"If I'm talking to knowledgeable diners, I call it Gulf Coastal or Southern Coastal cuisine," says Curtis Beebe, owner of Dade City's Pearl in the Grove and San Antonio's new Local Public House. "If you look historically at the Gulf Coast, that food all had an interesting mix of the seafood/Creole-type thing, but also some Deep South stuff. That's where our inspiration comes from."
But "Cracker" isn't quite right in his book.
"The term Cracker where I'm from is not a compliment. … I think what's going on is chefs are trying to connect the local movement and our roots with something that resonates with their customers."
Here's what resonates with his:
Salted boiled peanuts at Local or a free-range local pork belly roulade rolled with caramelized onion and smoked over hickory and served on a bed of fresh greens with long-grain "risotto" at Pearl in the Grove.
Back to Florida's roots
Fodder and Shine menu ideas: mullet ("the de facto barbecue culture in Florida"), tomato gravy and rice ("a perfect commingling, from Senegal via the Low Country") and, for the hardy, squirrel.
Greg Baker, co-owner of the Refinery, will open Fodder and Shine at the end of the year. He's claiming "Cracker food" loud and proud.
He's "geeking out" in preparation for this new project, drawing inspiration from Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered and historical documents to drill down on just what early Floridians ate. He describes this food as a "commingling," listing off Creole and American Indian influences as well as those from slaves, Spanish settlers, and later Scotch/Irish and German settlers.
"I'm not a native, but I've lived here off and on for a good chunk of my life, and things I saw when I was 10 years old are evaporating in front of my eyes," Baker says. "I got tired of Florida being the butt of everyone's joke. I want to celebrate it. I'm proud of it."
Florida food historian Annie Francis sees this trend as "simply what people have always been cooking at home coming into restaurants."
She describes the folklore surrounding Florida cuisine and ingredients as rich because "we have all those convergences. Hispanic flavors are more predominant in the southern part of the state, with Southern cuisine closer to the Panhandle. We're finding this wonderful blend."
She wonders if a renewed interest in a uniquely Florida cuisine could have something to do with the recent 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León's arrival on Florida's east coast.
She studies how the area's indigenous people were influenced by the Spaniards and vice versa, trading ingredients back and forth that dramatically changed what people on two continents were eating.
Not the first time
Food historians with an eye on more recent times will point to another "Florida cuisine." Beginning in the second half of the 1980s, chefs Allen Susser, Douglas Rodriguez, Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken, calling themselves the Mango Gang, began cooking a style of Florida cuisine that came to be called Floribbean.
"I didn't have any idea I was cooking in a Florida vein," Van Aken remembers. "I began seeing there was a difference in what we were capable of doing and what was going on, say, in the American Southwest. We said, "Wait a minute, there is a difference between where we live and what we have available to us."
This was a Miami-centric cuisine, one that drew on sultry Latin and Caribbean flavors and beguiled the rest of the nation with its kicky fruit salsas and chilies.
This is not that.
Van Aken sees something new brewing, but its impetus may surprise you.
"I feel like the manipulative capitalists that took over the food industry have treated the American diet like the banks have — with no human regard. It's a logical fear: What's going into our food. So we're returning to the same food our grandparents ate. If your grandparents didn't eat this food, maybe you shouldn't eat it. What the new chefs are doing is made possible by that thinking. They're not doing it to be trendy first. 'Restaurant' comes from word restorative."
Keith Sedita, managing partner of the new Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits, describes what's happening as "history in the remaking." He points to restaurants like Cask and Larder in Winter Park and Owen's Fish Camp in Sarasota as representative of what's emerging on the gulf coast of Florida: "That's what it was like back in the day, we're not inventing anything."
Calling native Floridians "the original locavores," he describes the muse for Ulele: "The property we have (Tampa's historic Water Works Building) inspired us to go in the direction we've gone. Inspired by the water and the land in this area … we had to say, 'Okay, what did (native Floridians) eat, where did they source it from?' We're not doing Low Country, we're doing our own indigenous cuisine."
Not exactly unanimity
There are naysayers among the new crop of Tampa Bay restaurants.
Ferrell Alvarez, chef and co-owner of Seminole Heights' Rooster and the Till, says, "I got to be honest with you. No, I don't think I'm creating anything new or Florida-centric. When I had to create my website, I just used 'American regional.' American cuisine is a melting pot of everything."
Alvarez is a local foods zealot, ingredients coming together in ways that seem uniquely here and now:
Dirty farro with chicken livers, local pork jowl and collard greens with a sous vide poached egg.
Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Tampa's just-opened Roux, visited New Orleans dozens of times and sent a truck to Louisiana every week to source furnishings and ingredients. The aim was contemporary NoLa, but, as she notes, "there's considerable overlap with our menu and Ulele's." Consider:
Abita beer-battered Florida alligator bites with spicy remoulade.
She's given up Louisiana trout in favor of Florida's and suspects there will be a little more Florida focus as time goes on.
Joy Harris, home economist and author of the upcoming A Culinary History of Florida, says it's about time that the state's restaurants "step up."
"What I think is so exciting is that it all started in St. Augustine, with Ponce de León. The citrus industry, the cattle industry — it all started in Florida. Cuban and Cracker cooking, put the two together. What could be better than that?"
Harris echoed what so many of these chefs and restaurateurs said, each in their own way.
"Florida has got so much potential."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.