TAMPA — Anne Kearney is scrolling through photos on her phone, looking for one she took on the beach the other night.
The James Beard award-winning chef is sitting in Heights Public Market, the popular food hall at Armature Works. She sips coffees and looks out at Armature’s outdoor space, which at 10 a.m. on a weekday is already packed with people.
Places like this and nearby Hall on Franklin and Sparkman Wharf are helping turn the Tampa Bay area into a culinary destination by drawing renowned chefs. Kearney, who was approached by local restaurateurs John and Trudy Cooper to be the executive chef at Armature’s new restaurant Oak & Ola, is no exception.
Kearney, 51, signed on, moving from Dayton, Ohio, to a furnished apartment on Clearwater Beach. The restaurant is one of two sit-down spots that anchor either side of the market.
She got her start in New Orleans, working as a culinary assistant to Emeril Lagasse and as a line cook at Bistro at the Maison de Ville and Peristyle with John Neal. She left the city as one of its most renowned chefs, moving to Ohio and opening Rue Dumaine in 2007. She has been nominated in the James Beard Award’s Best Chef category four times, winning in 2002.
Kearney is known for her take on French Provencal cooking, and the Oak & Ola menu is a broader reflection of that, with “Euro-American” fare that ranges from artfully prepared salads to entrees like pork scallopini and Bregenwurst (a type of German sausage). Kearney partnered with John and Trudy Cooper, Chris Arreola (co-founders of On Swann in Hyde Park Village) and Andy Ganger on the space. The menu resembles the On Swann menu in the way it emphasizes smaller plates meant for sharing.
Kearney went to culinary school in Ohio. But her years working under Neal, a chef who had studied cuisine in places like southwest France, seem to be the most formative.
“Learning something in culinary school and applying it in the real world are two different things,” Kearney says. “It was just (Neal) and I in the kitchen in those early days. He had real-life experience he could share with me.”
After Neal died, she bought Peristyle from his estate. She was 27.
“Sometimes you just throw caution to the wind,” she says. “My mentor had laid such a strong foundation for me, the last thing I wanted to see was that restaurant turned into another gumbo shop.”
She gets emotional when she thinks about that time, which included writing recipes anywhere she could, like in the passenger’s seat of her best friend’s car, and a paltry bank account.
“If I had known it would be that hard to buy a restaurant at 27, I’m not sure I would have done it,” she says.
Three years later, she was on the cover of Food & Wine magazine. The next year, she was nominated for her first James Beard award.
These days, Kearney wakes up before the sun rises and drives from her place in Clearwater Beach to Tampa, getting to Oak & Ola around 6:45 a.m. She opens a couple of times a week, the restaurant still in an early phase that involves lots of training and lots of hands-on time from Kearney.
“I’m a worker,” she says. “I just love to work.”
She talks quickly and jumps from topic to topic, pausing often to notice a cute dog or baby on the other side of the room.
On Emeril: “I worked at Emeril’s for three years. I became his culinary assistant just as he signed on to do Food Network. I got to pack his food and travel with him. You ate and drank and slept when Emeril did. He was such a great chef, and knew how to work a room, too.”
On her kitchen inspirations, specifically female chefs: “Julia Child. I had watched her as a young woman on PBS. Then I got to meet her while I was working for Lagasse, during a taping of PBS’s Great Chefs series. I sat next to her at dinner that night and she asked me, ‘Where do you meet boys in this town?’
“My mother was a great cook. I learned how to survive in the kitchen because of her. And Susan Spicer, who inspired me to move to New Orleans. She was the female chef in New Orleans at the time.”
On getting nominated for James Beard awards: “It changes you on an international level. Each time, you’re being pushed to a new level of exposure. I once had a customer tell me that when he travels, he looks for James Beard award winners. Really, it truly is an honor just to be recognized.”
Kearney shows off Oak & Ola, a gorgeous space with an open kitchen and an ornate bar with a small window that perfectly frames the Tampa sunset.
She makes one of her signature menu items, a salad with Belgian endive, apples, walnuts and blue cheese. She slices apples into thin matchsticks, minces a shallot, mixes it all in a large stainless steel bowl. It’s a recipe she created early on in her restaurant career. It used to be one of the second or third most popular items on her menus; now, it’s more like No. 1.
She’s still getting her bearings in Tampa Bay, figuring out where to get the best local produce. Oak & Ola’s menu will change seasonally, to reflect what tastes good at the moment.
“Why wouldn’t I put asparagus on the menu this time of year? Spring peas, baby carrots, lots of fresh flavors,” she says.
Back in her camera roll, Kearney flits past a handful of standard sunset-on-the-beach photos and finds the one she’s looking for. It’s a wide view down the beach, a picture of everyone else taking pictures of the setting sun.
When she first moved here, she went to the beach every day, popped in a podcast, and walked the shore just before sunrise.
“I woke up that first week, and the sun was shining through the window, and I thought, ‘I’m going to like it here.’ ”
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] Follow @mstark17.