By pretty much anyone's standards, the first Enjoy Arts & Tastes St. Pete has the potential to put the Tampa Bay area on the national culinary map. With more than a dozen celebrity chefs, notable regional artists and some of Tampa Bay's own gastronomic stars, the three-day food and arts festival may give Food Network's South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen a run for their money. ? "It's good for our market to see that kind of celebrity chef," says Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Mise en Place in Tampa. "If you're a foodie, there are some serious names there. It changes how people perceive us. It makes food culture here a bigger deal." ? From four-time James Beard Award winner Todd English to bestselling author and Top Chef Masters host Curtis Stone and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, the celebs will hobnob with more than 5,000 people at cooking demos, tastings, dinners and late-night parties. The question then becomes, of course, which event should get top billing at the fest? It depends on who is asking.
For the art enthusiast
The Sense Immersion Dinner hosted by Todd English and Duncan McClellan at the Museum of Fine Arts is where visual art mostly closely informs what is on the plate.
Chris Ponte, chef owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, was paired with St. Pete-based artist Bask, a.k.a. Ales Hostomsky, a mixed-media urban visual artist who often works with wood.
"Because he works with wood, I thought it would be cool to do something really earthy. He has a lot of color, so I thought of a rainbow of beets. He had a drawing that he did of the face of a woman with a head shawl, and he modified it because of the dish I wanted to do."
For 250 guests, Ponte will offer a first course salad with roasted candy cane beets, goat cheese mousse, pistachio, cress, citron coulis and beet dust inspired by Bask's work. This is followed by a red snapper and Florida stone crab second course from chef Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill, then Todd English's main course of hoisin-braised short rib with a Chinese five-spice rubbed tenderloin.
To finish, Mise en Place chef Marty Blitz, collaborating with artist Dominique Labauvie of Bleu Acier, will offer dessert.
Ferenc said the collaboration was serendipitous.
"Marty and I went down to his studio and spent time. He is an artist who works mostly with metal sculpture. We sat around and had Kahwa coffee and talked about food and art. Marty ended up doing an espresso dessert with Kahwa as a result of that, and Dominique did a miniature sculpture based on one of his large sculptures, and we did a mold of it in chocolate to top the desserts."
For the big appetite
If more is more, the event for you is the Grand Tasting on Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater at the Duke Energy Center for the Arts Plaza and Albert Whitted Park. More than 50 bay area restaurants will offer samples from tangerine-smoked Florida grouper, Jamaican jerk chicken and soy-ginger glazed pork belly to portobello goat cheese pizza. The walk-around event from noon to 5 p.m. sponsored by the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino takes advantage of the bayside setting, with wine, spirits and Florida craft beer to round things out.
Suzanne Perry, co-owner of Datz, sister bakery Dough and catering company Dazzle, all in Tampa, is surprised by the scope of the event.
"We signed up for this months ago, but we looked at it as a St. Petersburg event, so we were just sticking our toe in the water. We underestimated how big it was going to get."
She thinks of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival as a huge annual draw in Florida and hopes that Enjoy Arts & Tastes St. Pete, what she says is "a huge undertaking and a very complicated event," will be a similar affair. And what is Datz serving at the Grand Tasting?
"When you have the best chefs in the world there, what are you going to do? Out-chef them? We're doing what we do best: a big bacon bar, with an array of griddles we will fire up. We'll have curry bacon, pepper bacon and so forth."
For the celebrity chaser
HSN, Bill Edwards and the event's other organizers have been fairly mum about just where all these celebrity chefs will be staying and, more important, hanging out. For our money, we're heading up to the Canopy Bar at the Birchwood Inn, strolling past the patio tables at Cassis, or slipping into the bar at the new Rococo Steak in search of culinary superstars.
But the event with the greatest density of big names is a Saturday morning panel discussion with journalist Allen Salkin in conversation with chefs Donatella Arpaia (head judge on both Iron Chef America and Next Iron Chef), Scott Conant (chef-owner of New York's Scarpetta) and Morimoto. Salkin, author of From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, will lead a discussion of just what life is like in one of these red-hot kitchens in front of the cameras.
In fact, the Mahaffey Theater Ballroom and the lobby outside might be just the places to skulk around paparazzi-like. In eight sessions back to back, the ballroom will host stars from Food Network's Ingrid Hoffmann to Iron Chef Ming Tsai, each conducting 45-minute culinary demos, then hopefully wandering out to the lobby to meet their Tampa Bay area fans.
"We'd love to have the opportunity to rub elbows," says Ferenc. "Now that culinary travel is such a huge thing, events like this go a long way to establishing us as a destination."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.