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Ernest Hooper: Tampa Bay Food Fight brings chefs, foodies together for good cause

The inaugural Tampa Bay Food Fight was held last October at The Coliseum in St. Petersburg. This year's event will be at Tampa's Armature Works. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times (2017)]
The inaugural Tampa Bay Food Fight was held last October at The Coliseum in St. Petersburg. This year's event will be at Tampa's Armature Works. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times (2017)]
Published Oct. 10, 2018

Chefs will literally will climb into a boxing ring at Armature Works on Tuesday (Oct. 16).

They will fight for bragging rights, for pride and for fun.

They also will fight to fuel the dreams of others.

At Metropolitan Ministries' Tampa Bay Food Fight, guests will vote for the Best Restaurant Tampa, Best Restaurant St. Pete, Best Cocktail and Best Beer while sampling food from more than 50 restaurants.

The highlight, however, will be the chef showdown between culinary artists from some of the cities' top restaurants. Defending champion Tampa, which won by two points out of a possible 200 in last year's inaugural event, will bring its team of six chefs into the showdown: Rooster & Till's Ferrell Alvarez, Steelbach's Nathan Hardin, Hemmingways' Felicia Lacalle, Sacred Pepper's James Maita, Haven's Courtney Orwig and Forbici's Jason Saldutti. Cena's Michael Buttacavoli and Haven's Chad Johnson will serve as Team Tampa's captains.

St. Petersburg will look to exact revenge with its culinary crew: The Birchwood's Lee Aquino, Locale's Adam Beckett, The Peabody's Rachell Bennett, Il Ritorno's David Benstock, Red Mesa's Chris Fernandez and Dr. BBQ's Lee Jasper. The Mill's Ted Dorsey and Parkshore Grill's Tyson Grant will coach up the the St. Pete team.

Both squads will have to prepare two entrees from an unknown protein. The teams will compete in pairs, with two chefs from each group assigned to prep, cooking and finishing. A panel of judges, including Tampa Bay Times' food critic Laura Reiley will score the dishes.

The competition proved so enjoyable in 2017 that organizers had to turn away chefs eager to join the fray in 2018.

But it's also a chance for the chefs — and the guests — to cook up dollars for students in Metropolitan Ministries' Inside the Box Culinary Arts Program. The event aims to fund scholarships for 100 students in the program. That's an appetizing appeal for chefs.

"It's very unique for them because restaurants get asked all the time to donate time and food to different events," said Cliff Barsi, MetMin's vice president of social enterprise and food services. "But this is the rare cause that allows them to give back to their industry.

"They're helping to create prep cooks, who can move up to become line cooks, to become chefs. They actually take their skill level and go to a two-year culinary school."

Those aren't empty words from Barsi. Since 2012, the program has grown from a simple small business to a catering operation while training 175 students who are employed at restaurants and food service centers across the Tampa Bay area.

Donneka Steadman sings the praises of the Inside The Box program. Raised in Jacksonville, Steadman learned to cook for three younger brothers at the age of 9 by taking instructions from her grandmother, who suffered from debilitating diabetes and simply shouted out instructions from the other room.

She eventually came to Tampa for a new start and spent nine years working for just above minimum wage at Church's Fried Chicken while raising four children. She joined Metropolitan Ministries' residential assistance program and enrolled in the culinary training in January.

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Now, with that training, Steadman has graduated to the "big kitchen" at the University of Tampa dining hall. She's gone from cooking burgers and dropping fries to preparing full-course meals from special recipes for such items as chicken parmesan, macaroni and cheese, and salmon.

In the process, she's boosted her salary to $14 an hour, but in the process, she's gained so much more than higher earnings. Steadman calls the program's instructor, Chef Pete Bates, the father she never had, and says MetMin's services are a blessing.

"I came in broken," said Steadman, fighting back tears. "When I come to MetMin I didn't have confidence in myself. My confidence was so low.

"They build you up. And my kids got counseling, because I learned when you're hurt your kids hurt. They've rebuilt that. Now I know I can survive without a man. I'm working and doing what I have to do. It's the best feeling in the world."

Every chef and every foodie should be willing to fight to give that sense of promise and purpose to aspiring culinary artists like Steadman. And the cause at Tampa Bay's Food Fight will make the dishes just a little bit better.

That's all I'm saying.