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James Beard Foundation scholarship fundraiser draws Tampa Bay's rock star chefs

Chef BT Nguyen makes some final adjustments to her lobster and avocado with sweet peppers, mango, celery, palm hearts, mint, cilantro and passion fruit vinaigrette.
Published Oct. 8, 2014

TAMPA — BT Nguyen leaned over the first plate, spreading bits of hearts of palm, mango, celery and sweet pepper on the plate, topping that with a ripe wedge of avocado and gently poached lobster, finishing the dish with a confetti of micro-herbs and passion fruit vinaigrette.

There was no talking as 25 other chefs and sous chefs fell into line, replicating her work on 94 plates spread out in the Epicurean Hotel's stunning kitchen.

Once those plates were sent into the dining room, the kibitzing began: Z Grille's Zack Gross razzing the Refinery's Greg Baker; Cena's Michael Buttacavoli discussing a recent trip to Italy; Rooster & the Till's Ferrell Alvarez catching up with once-boss Mise en Place's Marty Blitz.

On Monday a James Beard Foundation scholarship fundraiser drew together the bay area's rock star chefs, maybe the densest concentration of local top chefs ever assembled. At $300 a seat, area foodies raised $7,500 for the Bern Laxer Memorial Scholarship and perhaps more importantly, to see how far area chefs have come.

Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation who flew in from New York, sees dinners such as these as more than "a culinary community being supportive." It's a sign.

"In the nation, Florida is becoming a state where people see creative culinary initiatives. There's a local movement happening in Tampa and Orlando. What's exciting about tonight is you have 11 chefs hosted by a great institutional culinary family."

Eavesdropping at the dozen tables in the Epicurean's Grand Cru ballroom, kitted out with pale grey linens and tall candles, diners' excitement was palpable: Have you eaten at this new restaurant? What have you heard about this trendy wine? Darryl Williams and Gwen Ford, both from Plant City, attended the first scholarship dinner last year. How was it?

"It was very good. That's why we're here," said Williams, a hot pepper farmer who sells to local restaurants (for the record, according to Williams the top chef at the 2013 event was Parkshore Grill's Tyson Grant).

By the time Bern's Steak House chef Habteab Hamde plated his chateaubriand with fingerlings and foie gras hollandaise, paired with a 2010 Prunotto Barbaresco, some diners were groaning that too many great chefs meant too much good food.

Chef Chad Johnson, who organized the event, explained why this year's event was so glutted with culinary talent: "I contacted everybody, figuring some would say no. And I'm humbled and flattered that every chef said yes that day."

Or it could be that all these chefs wanted to spend time in Johnson's Epicurean kitchen.

"They won't say it's the best kitchen, but they know it is," he jokes. "It pretty much cost the GDP of a small country."

All joking aside, Johnson thinks these chefs enjoy working collaboratively.

"We don't all exchange Christmas cards. But we play in the same sandbox amazingly well."

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