1. Food

Chef takes on rare challenge to bring back national spotlight

Chef Jeannie Pierola spoons rum cane syrup as she prepares cracked conch mojitos during a testing day at Edison food+drink lab in Tampa. Pierola will serve a seven-course dinner for 250 today at the James Beard House in New York.
Chef Jeannie Pierola spoons rum cane syrup as she prepares cracked conch mojitos during a testing day at Edison food+drink lab in Tampa. Pierola will serve a seven-course dinner for 250 today at the James Beard House in New York.
Published Oct. 20, 2015

TAMPA — She leans over the egg yolk croquettas and sprinkles them with chorizo dust, a bit of high-tech sleight of hand that turns fat into powder.

"I need the foam. I need it now."

"Yes, Chef."

A sous chef hustles to hand her the bowl of saffron potato foam. Each croquetta gets a jaunty cap of chorizo round and then a dab of cerignola olive jam, the olives cooked down with sugar and vinegar until glossy. It is a single bite that says something about chef Jeannie Pierola's Spanish-Cuban ancestry.

"We've got to watch the foam for leaching," she says, stepping back from the long table of test plates. "My least favorite thing is leaching."

Tonight at 7 an elite group of food aficionados and the well-heeled will begin with the egg yolk croquettas, a cracked conch "mojito" and 7th Avenue chicharrones with kurobuta pork cheek.

Pierola, the dynamic chef and owner of Edison food+drink lab in Tampa, is telling her life's story over seven courses at the most important home in the country. It is the James Beard House. A beautiful townhouse in Greenwich Village, it is, as South Carolina restaurateur Edna Morris says, Carnegie Hall for chefs.

Pierola is one of only four Tampa Bay chefs ever to be invited to do a whole dinner at the former home of James Beard, the man often credited with igniting Americans' passion for sophisticated fare.

TOP 50: Check out Laura Reiley's list of the top restaurants in Tampa Bay

If dinner goes well, it could pay dividends: Some of these guests are New York's dining cognoscenti, a few are diehard Edison fans, and some of them are actually the James Beard Foundation judges who function as kingmakers in these times when James Beard awards make national news.

A Beard win puts you on the map, which in turn puts money in your pocket as "culinary tourism" gains traction and as investors look for proven thoroughbreds.

Pierola came to the national stage as the controversial chef at Bern's Steak House and its sister restaurant SideBern's. Since opening Edison, however, she has largely been unable to focus James Beard Foundation and national press attention on this new venture. With a strategic and emphatically Tampa-centric meal that showcases her whimsical, sometimes modernist aesthetic, that all may change.

• • •

"We've got to bump up the color on that. We've got to figure that out," Pierola says, squinting down at a plate of grits and grunts last Thursday. The third seated course at the dinner, it's an allusion to her Florida Gulf Coast roots, an indigenous dish that's a corollary to the South's shrimp and grits, with the small white fish named for the audible grunting noise it makes.

Pierola, 53 years old and just a hair over 5 feet tall in her shiny black chef's clogs, is also not happy about another dish, what will be the stone crab "Causeway enchilados." Because stone crab season has just opened and there are none to be had, she's subbed out lobster for this recipe testing day, one of many so her team "knows each dish like the street they grew up on." But lobster doesn't look right.

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So there's a lot riding on there being stone crabs to purchase, in sufficient quantity and at sufficient quality, to merit Tuesday's Beard House dinner. That's the kind of bullheadedness that has won her admirers and detractors over the years.

"(People) have said I have b----. It has nothing to do with b----. It's fear, fear of not doing anything, of not trying."

Melissa "Madge" Judge, who is in charge of brand operations at Edison and has worked with Pierola as far back as the early 1980s, is staying in Tampa to hold down the fort as a team of eight heads to New York. She recognizes what's at stake for her boss.

"In case you haven't noticed, she's very hard on herself. This will easily be the biggest event she's ever done to get validation. If something goes wrong, I'd hate to be around."

• • •

Raised in the kitchen of her family's Catalina Beach Resort on Anna Maria Island, Pierola is self-taught and has not gone away to apprentice or test her chops on a bigger stage.

She opened her first restaurant when she was 25. Tia Lena's in Bradenton featured traditional Spanish dishes (but no chorizo powders or saffron foams).

In 1992, she worked briefly at Bern's Steak House under the guidance of mentor Bern Laxer ("He used to tell me stories about James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne"). A year later she opened Cool Beans Café on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Hyde Park Place (Floribbean/Cuban), and in 1996 she opened Boca in Ybor City (hip nuevo Latino).

Then she got a call from Bern Laxer's son, David, who had taken over the business. He hired Pierola to transform SideBern's and make major menu changes at Bern's. That collaboration worked for several years. And then it didn't. She departed, did some consulting, and then hosted a series of pop-ups called KitchenBar, roving soirees that caused friction with host restaurants but drew younger audiences by the droves.

Ideas she played with at KitchenBar formed the basis for Edison, which opened in 2012. It has made the top of locals' lists of restaurants since it debuted, but hasn't made the leap to national attention.

Other Tampa Bay chefs have aimed at the big leagues with mixed success. Greg Baker, at the Refinery and Fodder & Shine, has chosen to participate in national draws like the Kentucky Derby and the Charleston Food and Wine Festival — events that he has prepared food for at his own expense. And he and wife-partner Michelle have invested in heavy-hitting public relations representation to get the restaurants' names in front of the right media and Beard judges.

For Chad Johnson, Pierola's successor at SideBern's (now Haven) and executive chef for the Epicurean Hotel, a multi-pronged approach has netted him two Beard semifinalist nominations. In the past few years he has put together three all-star Friends of James Beard Benefit dinners benefiting the Bern Laxer Memorial Scholarship Fund, this year drawing together 31 Tampa Bay chefs for an evening.

Notably absent: Jeannie Pierola. Her exit from Bern's and SideBern's resulted in bad blood between her and owner David Laxer; since then she has often been excluded from high-profile charity events and fancy dinners.

So, is this Beard House dinner Pierola's attempt to go it alone, to hit the big time on her own terms?

"If you'd asked me that five years ago I might have answered differently. Now I just say that this is a bucket list thing, a rite of passage. To be invited is the most thrilling thing in my life."

• • •

One of the guests for Pierola's dinner says there's more at stake here than a local chef testing her mettle. Ana Cruz, who works in Tampa for Floridian Partners, is flying to New York to attend the dinner.

"We weren't a foodie town and now we are. Where we were was incredibly limited — to the Cuban sandwich. Where we are today is evident in Jeannie's cooking, in her varied flavor profiles. We're an incredibly diverse city and not many people know that about us."

In other words, in seven courses, Pierola will be telling our story, where we've come from and where we have emerged.

"Years ago, people at the House thought that no one but those in New York, New Jersey and maybe Connecticut knew about food," said Morris, who was president of the James Beard Foundation in 2005 and 2006. "But dinners there put places like Charleston on the map. It shows you have a relevant food scene. This will further establish Tampa as a place that foodies love."

Morris, who is attending the dinner, says fellow diners will be from all over the country and that the power of social media cannot be overestimated.

There better be stone crabs.

• • •

Sunday morning at 10 a.m. the airport porter hauls in a flatbed of ten repurposed dry goods boxes, each carefully labeled with the address of the Beard House. Pierola, in black T-shirt and jeans, a tousled yet hip haircut and suspiciously long eyelashes, is missing two boarding passes.

Her team, a striking crew, from wine director Tyler Wesslund (flip-flops showing off his Manchester United red-white-and-black toenail polish) to determined-looking chef de cuisine Allison Beasman, are gumming up the works at the JetBlue counter. Two boxes, loaded with delicacies like bottarga and lots of ice packs, are dramatically overweight.

A third box, Pierola realizes, is just a few pounds over. She squats and begins ripping off the packing tape, rooting around to determine what to jettison. Over her shoulder, into the crowd at Tampa International Airport, she yells, "I need two people. Tyler, I need the tape!"

From behind her comes a chorus of, "Yes, Chef!"

Two words she's accustomed to. Everything sealed and boarding passes found, they make their way to security.

And in one of the 10 boxes to board the flight? One hundred beautiful jumbo Florida stone crab claws on ice.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.