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CHEF AND THE CITY

Food, not fashion, is the focus in San Francisco, where former Tampa chef Scott Howard is living the good life.

When chef Scott Howard arrives in Osaka, Japan, in October, he will be welcomed as a culinary ambassador from its sister city, San Francisco, the capital of modern California cooking.

Yet Howard, who owns a sleek restaurant in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, is himself an ambassador to San Francisco from Tampa.

Before Scott Howard the restaurant arrived two years ago at the convergence of San Francisco's Chinatown, North Beach and financial district, there was Scott Howard the chef, wiry, energetic and inventive in the best kitchens from Tampa to Miami.

Twenty years ago, Howard cooked with Marty Blitz, Dwight Otis and the rest of a new generation of chefs who first put contemporary food on Tampa tables. First they were at rg's and then Mise en Place, Capriccio, Next City Grille and elsewhere, and remain friends today. (Of those restaurants, only Mise en Place is still open.) Howard moved to Miami to cook with Norman Van Aken, a Mango Gang master, but returned to Tampa to cook with Blitz's Latin restaurant, Mojo.

As a creative chef, Howard has the rare gift of photographic memory.

"If he sees something, he can re-create it down to perfect detail. All he needs is one look,'' says Otis, who now operates the Ravioli Co. in Tampa.

Howard had come from small-town North Carolina and never lost his taste for barbecue, according to Blitz. The two chefs traveled north to Lexington, N.C., once for barbecue and Cheerwine, and got excited when anyone brought some to Tampa.

But Howard and his wife and partner, Melissa, a South Tampa girl with a career in pharmaceutical and database sales, wanted a bigger market. As food pros, California was the dream.

If Tampa Bay lacked opportunity seven years ago, California had plenty. Howard made the most of them, first with the noted Reed Hearon at the Black Cat. Then came his own Fork, a gem of a bistro named for his North Carolina hometown, on the quaint Main Street of San Anselmo in Marin County.

Low-key cooking of local produce won rave ratings, including the No. 2 Zagat score north of the Golden Gate (behind Napa's French Laundry).

Two summers ago, the Howards sold Fork and put his name on a bigger space across the bay, the old Cypress Club in the city.

Scott Howard (500 Jackson St.; 415-956-7040; www.scott howardsf.com) is thoroughly modern, yet casual. The menu changes daily, all classic Howard: simple entrees of short ribs and lamb loin and Scottish salmon, with brilliant Crane Ranch greens, forest-fresh morels, sharp wines, and homey extras of tomato jam and butterscotch pudding.

The business side is smart, from a "spa'' martini to free recipes. Prices are modest, the big bar busy and the staff lean, 38 including a full-time planner filling private rooms with bank meetings and seminars.

In two years the Howards had three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, a tout in Gourmet magazine, two daughters (Zoe Rain and Sophia Sky) and that ambassadorship.

Here, Howard, 40, describes the move to California, his cooking philosophy and how the chains are eating Tampa Bay.

On his Florida ties:

I was Mise en Place's first employee. (Owner/chef) Marty (Blitz) and I met at rg's. He was the executive chef at rg's north and I was the sous chef at rg's downtown. It was just a deli and catering business then. Later I opened Capriccio on MacDill. You gave us a very good review.

In the early 1990s, I went to Miami and worked for Norman Van Aken at a Mano and opened Lure, my own place on Miami Beach, and opened a lot of others. When I came back for a second round at Mise en Place in 1997, we tried to save Mojo and then I went to Mise en Place Market, but that, with the meal replacement (chef-speak for takeout), wasn't what I wanted to do. We hated to leave, but we wanted to be in a different market.

On cooking in California:

I really developed a new style there (at Fork, his first restaurant in Marin County). Moving to California is a whole different game, the quality of the clientele, the people who raise the products, and all the people in the business.

My cooking is more simple now. I think chefs in California spend a lot more time sourcing their food and less time figuring out what to do with it. Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse in Berkeley) once said that 75 percent of a chef's job is ordering.

We have such an incredible variety of product here, all from these little providers.

This is a very competitive restaurant town. What sets your restaurant apart is the ingredients.

These small producers can't source everybody, and you have to build the relationship. I have this one guy who grows these beautiful greens. It took me four years to get the privilege of serving them. These guys care a lot about what they grow and want to know you treat it right.

On choosing San Francisco over New York:

For me it was the lifestyle. New York's very fast-paced. Here, there's this great little city that has the feel of a big city. But you can get in the car and be over the mountains and down to the ocean. And it's the epicenter of a lot of modern thought. I'm excited to have my daughters grow up around all this creative energy.

On what Tampa Bay needs to become a "food town":

I haven't been back since I left, but my wife goes back to see her family with the girls and I talk to my friends every week on the phone. When I speak to Marty (Blitz) and B.T. (Nguyen of Cafe BT in Tampa's Hyde Park), they say it's become so saturated with chains. That's the big difference. Chains don't survive here. Or maybe, they don't thrive. There may be an Outback around, but I don't know where.

People here support individual restaurants and chefs; they really demand quality.

Of course you've got some really great restaurants (in the Tampa Bay area), but the competition from the chains is really strong, especially in the casual restaurant segment. You (Tampa Bay diners) just can't support many good independents.

On why entrees at Scott Howard are only $19 to $22 and a three-course dinner is $32:

San Francisco is considered the toughest restaurant city, with more restaurants per capita than anywhere. Not only do you have to put out great food and have great service and killer decor, you have to have great value.

I wanted a place where people would come three times a month or more, not a special occasion place. We're a three-star restaurant; our goal wasn't to be a four-star. I'm not a four-star chef. And this is a 250-seat restaurant; we need volume. If I had a little 55-seat place, it'd be different.

On why entrees include scallops, short ribs, venison and lamb loin but rarely steak:

We like to cook proteins that require skill. We're doing a lot of sous vide (slow, vacuum-sealed cooking), a lot of braising. Meat that's well seasoned with little else. I could slap on a steak, some mash and a sauce, and if I had a filet on the menu it would probably be a big seller. But at the end of the day, for me and my staff, it's just not interesting.

On service in modern times:

I think we're experiencing a real social disconnect. People go to work and look at a screen all day and sit in little cubicles. You walk into a restaurant, you want some real human connection and emotion.

We put hospitality and personality way above service experience. We hire nice; you can't train nice and genuine. We can teach them service. Look at Starbucks and the kind of culture they created, a place where people feel good.

We're not trying to be fussy. I ate at Charlie Trotter's (in Chicago), great food but it was so quiet, the waiters whispered. We want our servers to be upbeat; we like a really good energy.

On what he misses about Tampa:

Cuban sandwiches are No. 1. One of my waiters is from West Tampa and when he went home he asked if he could bring something. I told him to stop and get one before he went to the airport. I waited the first day he was back. He forgot it.

On whether the waiter still has a job:

Yes.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or e-mail him at csherman@sptimes.com.

NOTEWORTHY

Bay area chefs who made good, all around

Many chefs and cooks who got their first burns and cuts in kitchens around Tampa Bay are working their way up in sophisticated restaurant towns from Boston to California. And some, like Scott Howard, are shining stars in their new homes.

John Shields, formerly of Grand Finale in St. Petersburg, worked for Charlie Trotter's and Alinea in Chicago and will be the chef at Charlie Trotter's at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Don Pintabona attended the University of South Florida and worked at the Sea Wolf in Tampa before he attended the Culinary Institute of America. He ran Tribeca Grill in New York, recently opened Dani there and has written several cookbooks.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali cooked at Neil's in Tampa in 1983 and 1984, long before he became the star of cookbooks, the small screen and a half-dozen New York restaurants from Otto to Babbo.

Waldy Malouf grew up in Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs and worked at the Swiss House at Busch Gardens early on, then cooked in New York and became chef at the Rainbow Room and the Hudson River Club. A cookbook author, he now operates Beacon in New York and Connecticut.

Chefs who worked elsewhere, then returned:

Leslie Shirah, a native of Tampa, moved to San Francisco where she opened three restaurants, then returned last year to open Fly, a restaurant and bar in Tampa.

Tyson Grant, former chef at O Bistro, went to the now-closed Tahoga in Washington, D.C., and is now the chef at Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg.

Chris Ponte, once chef at the Peppermill in Clearwater, left to study and cooked at Taillevent in Paris and Francois Payard's bistro in New York. He is the chef/owner of Cafe Ponte and Ponte's Tuscan Grill in Clearwater.

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