Michael Stewart, owner of Tampa's 717 South, was in Los Angeles eating dinner at Bestia, Ori Menashe's hot regional Italian restaurant. He was checking out the Acunto wood-fired oven, a very expensive toy he himself had just purchased for his soon-to-open Ava, a collaboration with Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, that is set to open this summer in the Post SoHo apartment complex at W Swann and S Howard avenues.
A young chef stood before the oven's maw overseeing the pizzas and breads. He told Stewart that unless you know how to use these things, they will eat you alive. Stewart was intrigued.
That short conversation led to this: that young chef, Joshua Hernandez, 29, has relocated to Tampa to head the kitchen at Ava - Acunto oven and all. We caught up with Hernandez by phone to get a preview of what Ava will bring to South Tampa diners.
I hear your return to Florida (he grew up in Sarasota) had some other motivation beyond a pizza oven.
Yes, love brought me back to Florida. I had been in a relationship for most of the past 10 years and had been making some clandestine plans to come back to Florida. Then I met Michael, and we started talking about pizza. We had a meeting the next day and hit it off.
Tell us about your previous jobs in the kitchen.
I went to Florida State for viola performance, but I started cooking my last year in college at Clusters and Hops. I ended up moving to Los Angeles and first worked at Short Order, basically a gourmet burger joint part-owned by Nancy Silverton, where I was sous chef and saucier. Then I moved on to the opening of Mess Hall, a New American place where I got the chance to really grind on the line. Then a short stint at Mark Gold's Eva and a little bit of time at the classic brasserie, Palihouse. And then I ended up at Bestia.
What are diners going to see on the menu at Ava?
This Italian menu will be multi-regional. We have a lot that we're drawing from, emphasizing simple, fresh, ingredient-centric dishes that are not about hitting someone over the head with cheese or cream. It's about letting the tomatoes speak.
The salumi (Italian charcuterie) board is going to be central. We'll be doing a lot of that in-house. I plan on using my own bread on that, and Ori gave me some dough starter from Bestia. There won't be a lot of fuss about tall, composed food. It's going to be rustic. The spirit of this food is you use a couple ingredients but they're always the best.
And how has it been to work with local celebrity Joe Maddon?
That celebrity status means a lot to a lot of people, but to me he's Joe and I want to tell him my new salumi ideas. He's passionate about food and wine.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.