The goal of these dinners, explained Mina Group corporate chef David Varley, isn't to crack open a Ferran Adria cookbook and get busy.
"That would be like busting out an easel and rocking a Dalí."
On Oct. 4, Varley spoke to the assembled guests at the first Immersion Dinner at the Dalí Museum, a group of epicurean experiences running in conjunction with the new exhibit "Ferran Adria: The Invention of Food." From Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill to Greg Baker of the Refinery and Fodder & Shine, Tampa Bay's most celebrated chefs are concocting dinners in honor of Adria, whom many have called the Salvador Dalí of the kitchen.
While introducing the meal prepared by the staff of Locale Market's FarmTable Kitchen, Varley explained Adria's role as muse.
"Ferran gave us a great excuse to dream. He said, 'Damn the torpedoes, I'm going to follow my vision.' "
Yes, the Spanish chef of the now-closed elBulli restaurant in Spain inspired dreaming among local chefs during his whirlwind weekend visit, but also this: nervousness.
Adria came to town for the opening of the exhibition on Sept. 23. He talked (through a translator) to media and museum staff. He visited Cycle Brewing and St. Pete Brewing Company. And he ate with gusto.
Lunch in St. Petersburg
First, lunch at St. Petersburg's Brick and Mortar on the day of the exhibition opening, which turns out to be Dalí director Hank Hine's favorite local spot.
"Hank ran it by (Adria's) people and their assistants came to check it out the Wednesday before the lunch," co-owner and chef Jason Ruhe explained.
Ruhe spent days preparing, with seven employees prepping in the kitchen. From the foie gras terrine with roasted shiitakes and chicken liver pate to the lavender basil panna cotta with local honey, iberico ham and marcona almonds, Adria ate voraciously.
"Ferran was very complimentary throughout," said Ruhe's wife and partner, Hope Montgomery. "It was cool to see such vivacious eating. He literally cleared plates in a minute and a half. He was wiping pate on his wrist and licking it off."
But, not surprisingly, there was anticipatory dread about feeding one of the world's most famous chefs.
"I woke up with a stomachache that day," Ruhe said.
Where Ruhe's strategy was to stick to his signature dishes and not spend much time on the Spanish food in Adria's wheelhouse, Locale Market went another route the next day with its "Dalí Museum Takeover" of FarmTable Kitchen, patio and veranda. Chef-owner Michael Mina was on hand, but the center of activity was clearly the chefs hovering over two giant paella pans in the courtyard.
Varley, Ruhe, FarmTable Kitchen chef Jeffrey Hileman and Fabrizio Schenardi, executive chef of Four Seasons Resort Orlando, ignored the heat of the day as well as the catcalls and advice of a who's-who of Tampa Bay chefs hoping to meet Adria. They added the salmorra, a Catalan tomato and onion sauce, to the veggie paella with local Thai eggplants, as well as to the more traditional assemblage of chorizo, shrimp and local clams. In each giant pan: 7 kilos of Calasparra rice.
Upstairs, while waiting for the finished paella, Adria and his wife enjoyed Spanish meats and cheeses, tapas and pintxos (light bites): wood-grilled Key West spiny lobster, hand-rolled farfalle with local clams and miso, head-on wild Florida hopper shrimp — all washed down with Krug Champagne.
Dinner in Tampa
Turns out, this was just a warmup.
Adria and crew boated over to Tampa that night for a special dinner at Mise en Place.
"Kelly Ritrievi, the development director at the Dalí, had called to explore the idea of doing a dinner in somebody's home," said Mise co-owner Maryann Ferenc. "It got complicated and I said, listen, we have the availability to accommodate it. It would be an honor to support the Dalí, and a ridiculous honor for our team to feed Ferran."
But before Ferenc green-lit this, she had to run it by her partner. An avid reader of Adria's books, Marty Blitz said yes.
"The next morning he called me and said, 'Are we really doing that? I don't know.' I could see the weight go on his shoulders then," Ferenc said.
Like a pickup game with Steph Curry or singing karaoke with Beyoncé, this was seriously risky.
How did Blitz do? Forty-two people, Spanish wines selected by Benjamin Carson of Ole Imports and a menu inspired by Adria's cooking that included sous vide venison with lamb bacon and chanterelles as well as vadouvan-crusted branzino.
"It truly was one of the best nights of our 30-year career. For all of us," Ferenc said.
The guest of honor spoke for 20 minutes, through his translator, about food, drink, hospitality and tourism in America and around the world. And he ate enthusiastically.
"Marty handles pressure so well," Ferenc said of the meal's preparation. "But I could see that stress in him like I never had before."
Adria has returned to Spain and the dishes are done. What's left? Bragging rights.
"We are both shamelessly ecstatic," Montgomery said. "To be quite honest, everyone has had to hear this story."