TAMPA — Jada Vidal grew up watching celebrity chefs duke it out on competition-style cooking shows. She never imagined she’d one day get the chance to watch herself compete.
In spring 2021, the 19-year-old Tampa native battled three other contestants on Guy’s Grocery Games — and won.
“It’s a really weird feeling when you’re watching the show for so long and then seeing yourself in it,” she said.
Vidal, now 20, said the first-prize win on Guy Fieri’s hit Food Network show — which netted her $20,000 — helped boost her confidence and launch her career.
Since the fall, Vidal has been hosting popup dinners around Tampa showcasing her signature style of elevated Southern American cooking.
She held her first event inside the cooking demonstration space Show + Tell at Tampa’s Armature Works in September, and since then she’s hosted several more sold-out popups around town, including most recently a holiday-themed dinner at the North Hyde Park restaurant Willa’s.
A graduate of Riverview High School, Vidal said she fell in love with culinary arts when she was still in elementary school. She started baking when she was 12, selling French pastries at her middle school before shifting gears and switching to cooking.
“I realized I don’t have the patience for some things,” she said of baking.
Vidal said she started watching a lot of cooking shows and was inspired by some of the genre’s biggest names — bad-boy raconteurs like Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain. She came to idolize those chefs, but found it difficult to relate to their image.
“I realized that none of them realistically looked like me,” she said. “There was no one that embodied, at least physically, who I am.”
Throughout high school, Vidal worked catering gigs and private in-home dining events before eventually landing a job as a line cook at the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa. At the time, she was 17 and the youngest cook in the kitchen. A year later she moved on to nearby restaurant Haven, which is where she was working when she received a call from a casting director for Guy’s Grocery Games, asking if she’d be interested in competing on the show.
It was Vidal’s first time traveling alone across the country to California, where the show is filmed. Her victory on the show came across to viewers as effortless, and the judges were wowed by both her dishes: a Korean fried chicken wing dinner with pickled cucumber slaw and a filet mignon with polenta and morels.
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Though Vidal said winning the $20,000 was “amazing,” she said the real prize was getting out of her comfort zone and proving to herself she could branch out and explore her talents closer to home.
“Being on the show just gave me the confidence to do it on my own,” she said.
After the show aired in September, Vidal left her daily restaurant gig and launched her popup series. She knows the occasional popups aren’t the end game. But she sees the events as a way to build her name while she figures out the next step.
“It came about with just the longing to cook my own food and kind of do something on my own,” she said. “I know it’s not going to last forever — I’m still going through the motions of figuring it out.”
So far, the popups, which feature multicourse tasting menus and wine pairings, have been a success and sell out quickly. Vidal keeps the events to around 40 people, which helps her manage the scale.
Though Vidal’s cooking pulls from a wide selection of cuisines, she said she is happiest cooking the food that represents her upbringing and culture.
Her menus draw a lot of inspiration from Southern and African American culinary traditions, which she said stems from her mother’s side of the family, many of whom are from Florida and South Carolina. Her father’s family is Cuban, and her grandmother’s traditional Cuban cooking inspires the other half of her cooking. Vidal said she enjoys merging those cuisines, all the while peppering dishes with the fine-dining skills and techniques she’s picked up along the way.
Vidal’s next popup, at Ybor City’s Sprigs Studio on Jan. 22, features a menu emblematic of her current style. There’s Jimmy red corn bread, served with Hudson Valley foie gras butter and Maldon salt; charred greens in a ham hock dashi with cracklins’ and lemon zest; and confit chicken served with caramelized celeriac dumplings. For dessert, there’s a parsnip gooey butter cake, served with roasted strawberries and parsnip mousse.
“It’s fun to do different cuisines,” Vidal said. “But I find that the food I get the most comfort from is the food I grew up with.”
Vidal’s next popup is Jan. 22 at Sprigs Studio in Tampa. More information on tickets and upcoming events can be found on her Instagram page: @thejadavidal.