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Influential Salt Rock chef Tom Pritchard dies after battle with Parkinson's

Pritchard poses on the dock behind the Salt Rock Grill. [Times (2009)]
Published Nov. 26, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Chef Tom Pritchard, who lied his way into the food and service industry and rose to become one of the most inventive and influential chefs in Florida, died Wednesday morning at his home in St. Petersburg. He was 74.

He died from complications after a surgery to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Pritchard was executive chef for Baystar Restaurant Group, owner of Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores, Island Way Grill in Clearwater, Rumba Island Bar & Grill in Clearwater and Oldsmar, Marlin Darlin' in Belleair Bluffs and Salt Rock Tavern in Oldsmar. He trained or inspired many of the Tampa Bay area's most recognized chefs. Known for his connections in the industry and his penchant for storytelling, Mr. Pritchard is hailed by many as a legend.

"He created a groundwork for the culinary scene that's going on today. How many people he touched in his life is amazing," said Tyson Grant, executive chef at Parkshore Grill, who worked for Mr. Pritchard at the Grill at Feather Sound. "That's all he ever did. It was all about the restaurants, eating and drinking and art."

"He blessed the whole Tampa Bay area with his spirit and his food and his charm and his knowledge," said Frank Chivas, his business partner. "He was the godfather of the hospitality industry."

"He's has done more for young chefs in this area than anybody else has ever done," said Zack Gross, an award-winning chef and owner of Z-Grille. "We were all trying to make our way, and he was the one guy who believed in all of us. He did things for me that I could never, ever repay him for."

Mr. Pritchard got his first restaurant job at 14, shucking oysters at the East Point House on Long Island for Guy Lombardo. He left home for college in Des Moines, Iowa, and was drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Germany for several years, then hop-scotched across the region — Scotland, London, Morocco — before settling on Majorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean. After several years abroad, he moved in with friends in San Diego.

Mr. Pritchard, who drove a 1981 Jeep with a stone crab claw cracker mounted on the rear, was also known as Moose Mazaraka, an alias he used when he fled to Mexico after defaulting on a bank loan in the 1970s. He went in with a partner on a company called Land and Sky Waterbeds in Denver before waterbeds were trendy. The company scored an order for 3,000 waterbeds from Playboy's Hugh Hefner.

"I walked into the United Bank of Denver and got a huge loan with Hugh Hefner's letter," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2008. "That money went . . ."

He trailed off, smiling.

"That money went where it shouldn't have gone."

The contract fell through, and the company missed its loan payments. Mr. Pritchard stole the loan paperwork from the bank and fled to Juarez, Mexico. After the Times story ran in 2009, Pritchard sent the reporter a canceled Land and Sky check inside an old envelope from a hotel in Medellin, Colombia.

Mr. Pritchard wound up in Miami and got a job as a chef at the Rusty Pelican with a faked resume and no real culinary training. "You just say you worked at La Cote Basque in Newport, Calif., and trust that they won't call," he said in 2008.

He was a quick learner. He met Clive Coates, the British wine writer, at a wine festival, then stood as close to him as possible during the tastings.

"The secret to learning is being around people you think are smarter than you," he said.

Mr. Pritchard had a story for every occasion. He once beat the 300-pound hard-boiled-egg-eating champion of Aspen, Colo., by snorting Tabasco sauce up his nose, which stripped the lining in his throat and generated saliva. He served Sonny Liston 7 pounds of carp. He talked Richard Nixon into lifting the tequila trade embargo. He smuggled hash out of the Congo in a size-13 cowboy boot box. He stole three taxis in the same night.

"When I first heard these stories, I thought, 'This guy's got to be full of s---," said Jody Hale, his friend and partner for 30 years. "Those stories were so crazy, but I don't think he ever told a lie in his life. Everything he did was true, he just had an amazing life."

"All his stories check out," said Chivas, who has known Mr. Pritchard since 1976.

Mr. Pritchard was telling those stories to the end, to a long line of visitors who showed up at his various hospital rooms in the past two months, as his health deteriorated following the surgery. On Tuesday, Z-Grille's Gross and Bern's Steakhouse sommelier Brad Dixon were visiting Mr. Pritchard at home when the old man raised his voice. "Tell that a--hole to come over here," the chef said.

To Gross, who came to regard Mr. Pritchard as a father, that translated to, "I love you."

"The guy would come in and sit with me and talk to me about being a good person and just doing right," Gross said through tears. "So many of us were touched by him."

"It would always amaze me that he would meet restaurateurs or chefs and rather than think of somebody as competition, he would always encourage them," said Dixon, who worked for Mr. Pritchard until Mr. Pritchard encouraged him to join Bern's, which holds the world's largest wine collection. "He'd share a recipe with a restaurant opening down the road from him."

" 'Mentor' is too trite a word for what Tom did for literally hundreds of people, young and old, in the kitchen," said Chris Sherman, longtime food critic for the St. Petersburg Times. "When Tom got here 30 years ago there were plenty of restaurants but not so many people who call themselves chef. What Tom did was to make them excited and proud to be in a kitchen."

Mr. Pritchard worked in the kitchen as recently as 10 weeks ago, before the surgery.

He was known for surprising his friends by calling in favors and sending them mementos he collected during his interesting life, much of which was spent abroad and in trouble with the law. Sorting through Mr. Pritchard's papers recently, Dixon found a meal ticket for a backstage dinner with the Bee Gees, for whom Mr. Pritchard cooked.

"There was a special bread they wanted," Dixon said, "and he had a hard time getting it."

Another of his stories.

One he recalled fondly was cooking Thanksgiving for 300 expatriates in Majorca. For the past two weeks, his partner Jody said, his biggest worry has been getting the cranberries and gravy ready for Thanksgiving at Salt Rock.

Though details were still uncertain at press time, his funeral is planned for 11 a.m. on Dec. 7 at First Baptist Church.

Contact Ben Montgomery at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@tampabay.com. Follow @gangrey on Twitter.

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