In the restaurant world, an amuse-bouche is a treat sent to your table by the chef. Usually one bite, rarely two, it's something of the chef's creation that sets the tone for the meal, a glimpse at who is behind the food. Think of this new feature as just that. A collection of questions we will ask chefs, cooks, caterers, cookbook authors, journalists, purveyors of food and drinks and anyone else who is passionate about food, to give you some insight into how they feel about what's on the table.
Our first installment features a chef whose excitement about food is palpable. Born in Baltimore but raised in Tampa, Ferrell Alvarez is the 37-year-old chef and co-owner of Rooster and the Till in Seminole Heights. This isn't where you go for familiar restaurant staples like chicken Caesar salad. Rather, the menu is sophisticated, edgy, deliciously unfamiliar: Juniper duck sausage, boiled peanut and pork dumplings, chorizo-crusted octopus, falafel spiced tofu, potato and oxtail pierogi, plus a chalkboard full of fresh raw and cured shellfish. The atmosphere is at once rustic and elegant: reclaimed wood, exposed beams and ductwork, light fixtures fashioned out of old farm equipment. The cooks are accessible, working behind the bar in full sight of diners, so interaction with the people preparing your food is not only possible, but encouraged. Just one more way to get to know the faces behind the food. Here's part of our conversation with chef Alvarez.
What does food mean to you?
It's my art. It's what I do well. I enjoy creating and preparing food and watching the faces of people as they taste it. Our kitchen has no barriers, there's nowhere to hide. Diners can see how we operate like a well-oiled machine. It's a cool, open, interactive environment.
In deciding on menu items, do you try to please your guests or yourself?
It's a balance of both. I always want to do new, creative things with ingredients that are available locally. I definitely don't do safety food. If it's trendy and doing well in the market, it won't hit my menu — unless I find a way to turn it into my own thing.
Do you cook at home?
Absolutely. I have two days a week when the three of us are at home together (his fiancee, Nicole, and 11-year-old daughter, Eva) and have a normal family life. But, Nicole is the primary chef at the house and I really enjoy that.
What do you all like to eat?
Lots of healthy, homemade things. Not food out of boxes, although I bring food home from the restaurant sometimes. We're busy, so we keep food fresh, simple and rustic.
Do you have a tricked-out kitchen at home?
Not really. It's nicer basics. A convection oven, KitchenAid equipment.
Monster outdoor grill?
Very much so. We have a large property with a pool and we grill out a lot. Lots of parties with friends and family and staff. My staff are family to me so I host them quite often. We smoke meats, cool sausages, pork butts, wild boar shoulder. Lots of low and slow things. Lots of grilled vegetables.
What's one food, dish, flavor or ingredient you couldn't live without?
Acid and salt, since we do a lot of fatty, rich things and acid, citrus and vinegars cut through that. I couldn't live without it and salt.
Do you have a favorite food?
No, I love so many things from really good barbecue to foie gras and truffles. I like really well-balanced, thoughtful food.
What's your least favorite food?
Vegetables that are overcooked.
What's a perfect meal?
At home it's chicken cutlets with lemon, fresh green beans from a local farm with garlic and olive oil, and oven-roasted potatoes with rosemary and chunks of onion.
Have you had anything delicious in Tampa Bay recently — outside your restaurant?
Brunch at the Refinery, twice recently, it's awesome and they've done some recent renovations, so it's great. Dinner at Cena in Channelside; it's rustic and modern Italian with a phenomenal pastry program and chef Michael always throws down for us. My daughter, who is very food focused and is offended if you give her a child's menu, loves Ella's American Folk Art Café in Seminole Heights. She also loves Bern's dessert room. When we go out, I try to keep my money at independent restaurants and businesses. We don't do chains.
Any food trends you'd love to see go away?
Overuse of the buzzwords farm-to-table, artisanal, handmade, when they are just used for marketing by people who don't fully understand what they mean. It should mean you are sourcing from nearby farms and gardens that are doing business with transparency with honest policies and ethical practices and not spraying a bunch of c--- on the food.
Who would you love to see walk in the door of your restaurant?
Oh, man, there is an immense list of chefs I'd be honored to cook for. But most of all, I love to see local Tampa Bay area folks coming in who want to support what we do.
Irene Maher, Times staff writer
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]