No longer do Sarasota diners have to travel to New York, San Francisco or Paris to be tempted, teased and deliciously pleased. For the serious gourmand, options are plentiful at home, thanks in part to a crop of fresh young chefs who, drawn by the city’s prosperity, lifestyle and growing reputation for fine restaurants, are creating sensational dining experiences.
We asked serious diners and restaurant insiders about the top young talents in town, and 10 names kept coming up. They’re all under 40, and they’re all executive or full-time chefs in Sarasota restaurant kitchens. They come from New York, Miami and Las Vegas, and their culinary styles reflect backgrounds that range from Peruvian jungle country to colonial Africa. Whether they earned their credentials at prestigious culinary schools or by toiling in family-owned restaurants, all share a passion for food and the willingness to work incredible hours honing their craft.
Yes, they admit, chefs in Sarasota face some challenges: older palates set in their ways; a tourist-based economy that makes off-seasons a fiscal challenge; the constant battle to stand out in a small city full of restaurants. But Sarasota has its attractions, too. Galileo Ristorante’s Tom Harvey basks in more sunshine than he ever did stuck in Washington, D.C., traffic, and former New Yorker (and marathon runner) Judy Limekiller never enjoyed jogging as much as she does on Sarasota’s bayfront. Besides, they point out, sophisticated diners from all around the world come to Sarasota, and even long-time residents are becoming experimental.
"Sarasota is changing and people are willing to take chances and change things," says Selva Grill’s Darwin Santa Maria. "The best time is when they come into the kitchen and tell you what a wonderful dinner they just had." He grins and adds, "It happens a lot."
THOMAS HARVEY, 33, chef-owner, Galileo Ristorante.
A Culinary Institute of America graduate and former executive chef at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., Harvey puts his impressive culinary skills to work at Galileo Ristorante. Don’t expect fancy fusion here; Harvey is a purist who allows the ingredients in his classical Italian fare to speak for themselves. Favorite ingredient: Truffles. Recipe tip: Always use kosher salt, never the iodine salt in containers. And grind your pepper fresh. Comfort food: Gnocchi. My mother used to make them for my birthday and I would sit across the counter and watch her cook. Junk food craving: Taco Bell and wasabi-coated green beans. Would never eat: Huitlacoche, or corn smut, a fungus that grows on corn stalks. It’s a Mexican delicacy. Annoying customer request: One gentleman tried to talk us down on a $90 bottle of wine. He wanted to pay $75 for it; and asked three times! Required reading: Il Fornaio Pasta Book by Maurizio Mazzon. Culinary Goal: To eat my way through Europe.
STEPHANE CHERAMY, 25, pastry chef, the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
The adorably personable Cheramy has wowed Ritz patrons with exquisite desserts such as the "Vernona," his take on the key lime pie, since he came here from The Bellagio in Las Vegas. A native of the South of France, Cheramy will compete in July’s Pastry World Cup in Las Vegas. If he wins, he’ll represent the United States in 2004. Signature style: I like my pastries to be feminine. Not too much makeup, fresh and elegant, very colorful-and I love perfume. Favorite ingredient: Ginger. Must-have gadget: A scale. In pastry, being consistent is the most important thing. Always in his fridge at home: Milk! My son asks me for hot chocolate every five minutes. Comfort food: Haagen-Dazs rum and raisin ice cream. Junk food craving: Chicken fingers. Required reading: Dessert Cuisine of Oriol Balageur. Favorite Sarasota grazing ground: Silver Cricket and Fred’s. They care about food. And for lunch, Epicure. Culinary goal: To win the pastry world cup in July. If he weren’t a chef, he’d be: A veterinarian.
RYAN BOEVE, 34, chef co-owner, Zoria.
Boeve started his career as a dishwasher at 14, and is now co-owner of chic gathering place Zoria, which recently moved to a larger location in Main Street and grew a catering arm. Though Boeve works so hard that he has dreams about the ticket machine running amok, he can’t think of a single thing he’d rather do than cook for a living. Culinary hero: Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s French Laundry. Must-have gadget: I’m basic: My two knives. Comfort food: Short ribs. Always in his fridge at home: Frozen pizza, frozen burritos. Most memorable dining experience: When I worked at Charles Nob Hill, in San Francisco. At the end of the night, the chef told me to sit at the bar, and proceeded to send me a nine-course tasting menu-scallops, skate, caviar, squab. He had worked all day and wanted to make me happy. It’s tough being a Sarasota restaurateur because: Everybody in this town wants to eat at 7 p.m. Culinary goal: I really want to do good Mexican food. I traveled around Mexico with some of the guys who work for me, and ate at their houses, and their neighbors’ houses. I want to bring that food here, develop a Mexican restaurant with food like that: spicy, with tortillas made from real corn.
MAX LAZZARI, 30, chef-owner, Maximo Restaurant & Wine Bar.
Lazzari’s cuisine is much like the chef himself: a gregarious mixture of the European and African influences that shaped a childhood spent traveling with his Italian father, who built ports and dams all around Africa and Asia. Lazzari made his way up to chef through stints at numerous Sarasota and Miami restaurants before opening up his own place in a tiny bungalow on Siesta Key. Favorite ingredient: Berbere, an ancient red Ethiopian spice paste. Always in his fridge at home: White wine, water, fruits and eggs. Kitchen horror story: A prep cook left the stove on and activated the fire suppression system. I had sand in my nose for a week. Most memorable dining experience: In Corfu in 1994, on a restaurant on the water. They were doing the Zorba and breaking plates as we were eating. It was beautiful. Pet peeve: Cell phones ringing while people are eating. Required reading: Il Cucchiaio D’Argento. Favorite Sarasota grazing ground: Fred’s. They know how to pamper, and I like being pampered. Recipe tip: When in doubt, throw out.
LEE GUIDRY, 29, chef, 15 South Ristorante Enoteca.
The polite, very Southern Guidry is not a big talker, but he has discerning diners chattering about the eclectic Italian entrees he dishes up at 15 South Ristorante Enoteca on St. Armands Circle. Guidry’s cooking style is primarily influenced by his Louisiana background, with Italian and Asian influences he imbibed through his mentors. Favorite ingredient: Chilies: habañeros and jalapeños. Recipe tip: Blanch potatoes in salted water before cooking. It salts the potatoes and gives them a crunchier texture. Comfort food: Crawfish. Most memorable dining experience: Soft-shell crab stuffed with andouille at the Mad Batter in Cape May, N.J. Had the best meal of my life there. Kitchen horror story: When a group of 12 diners came in, ordered the seven-course chef’s table and later announced they were vegans. Pet peeve: People calling things Creole just because they’re spicy. Food philosophy: Presentation should catch the eye and the taste exceed what the plate looks like. Culinary goal: Bring real Creole food to Sarasota.
KEITH DOHERTY, 33, chef-owner, Going Bistro.
Lanky and friendly, Doherty has been washing, chopping and inventing since childhood summers working at his father’s bars and restaurants in Staten Island. After graduating from the California Culinary Academy, Doherty worked in New York and Seattle before opening charming Going Bistro nearly three years ago. Cooking style: American-French country. Must-have tools: a blender and fine mesh strainer for sauces. Comfort food: Big sausage sandwiches. Would never eat: Haggis. Worst kitchen disaster: Bringing in the San Francisco fire department by forgetting about the pot of sugar I was heating for caramel. Pet peeve: The well-done pork thing drives me crazy. I just wish people would get over their fear of trichinosis that is not even around anymore. Overrated cooking trend: Fusion, people trying too hard to be creative when they should be looking at what’s good for the product. Required reading: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller.
CHRISTIAN HERSHMAN, 30, chef, Maison Blanche
He got his first chef job at 21 at the Alley Cat, and owned his own restaurant, Noah’s, at 25 (now sold). When he’s not reading (about everything from current events to feudal Japan) or practicing martial arts, Hershman is testing his mettle at one of the area’s finest restaurants, Maison Blanche. Signature style: Modern American. Culinary hero: Being from the Chicago area, Charlie Trotter. Must-have gadgets: Cast-iron pans. Always in his fridge: Avocado, tomatoes, bacon and fresh herbs. Recipe tip: To be able to get depth out of food, take your time. Simmer, don’t boil. Kitchen horror story: When I was working at Alley Cat, I went to San Francisco for a couple of weeks and had a farmer drop off three or four pigs for me. Unfortunately, the coolers died. It was pretty raunchy in there when I got back. Overrated cooking trend: Tuna with wasabi is so played out. Required reading: James Peterson’s Fish & Shellfish. Food philosophy: Maintain intimacy from the very beginning, from the time the purveyor drops off the product.
DARWIN SANTA MARIA, 26, chef-owner, Selva’s Peruvian Grill
Santa Maria grew up in the jungle region of Peru, and he’s helping Sarasotans discover the spicy delicacies he loves at his funky Merchants Plaza restaurant. With wife, Lellys, presiding at the front of the house, the young chef has developed an admiring clientele clamoring for his ceviches and plantains. Style: South American jungle fusion. Signature dish: Juane de pollo, rice cooked with chicken and cilantro and wrapped in plantain leaves. Favorite ingredient: Cilantro and culantro. Must-have gadget: A plantain masher my uncle made for me. In his fridge at home: Fresh limes and aji amarillos (yellow peppers). Junk food craving: strawberry ice cream, plantain chips and chocolate. Kitchen horror story: When I was working in Miami, my whole kitchen staff got arrested, and it was just me and my dishwasher, on a Friday night. Food philosophy: Be original and true to yourself. Don’t change things because one customer does not like it. If he weren’t a chef, he’d be: An architect. I try out designs on my dishes.
ROLF ZAHND, 36, chef-owner, Saltwater Café
Swiss-trained master chef Zahnd has been in love with cooking since he started working in a kitchen at age 14, looking to finance his skiing hobby. Now, the chef-owner of Saltwater Café prides himself on a menu as extensive (you can order six different kinds of fish cooked in 19 different ways) and creative as his loyal clientele. The likeable Zahnd also has a local following with his television cooking show, SNN appearances and a line of spices. Style: New Florida kitchen. It’s Florida grouper cooked French-style with Chinese-influenced sauce. Must-have gadget: My knives. They are like a racecar for a race car driver. In his fridge at home: Heavy cream and butter. Junk food craving: I like a good prime rib sandwich. Favorite Sarasota grazing ground: Silver Cricket. They’re really creative, and that’s what we need here. It’s tough being a Sarasota restaurateur because: I have to bring the customers here to south county. Food philosophy: To stay true to my creativity. Culinary Goal: I’d like to serve 500 people a day and see 500 people smiling when they leave. When I come out and they say-‘great food, thank you,’-that’s what makes me get up in the morning and do it all over again.
JUDY LIMEKILLER, 38, co-owner, Ganache Chocolates.
Limekiller enrolled in cooking school because she had too much energy to sit behind a desk. Wise move. Vivacious, friendly and a poet when it comes to chocolate, Limekiller and her partner, Norman Love, are poised to explode on the market with Ganache Chocolates, their Fort Myers-based chocolaterie that offers a product as beautiful as it is fresh and delicious. Signature offering: Cinnamon chocolate. In her fridge at home: Coffee and half-and-half. Comfort food: Macaroni and Velveeta cheese. Most memorable dining experience: In Barcelona, a friend and I wandered into this little café. All the waiters were brothers, and their mother was the cook. They took me into the kitchen and I ended up cooking with her. She made seven different kinds of seafood. At the end of the night, we sat around the table, drinking wine and eating. Overrated trend: The whole fusion thing. Recommended reading: The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer; Au Coeur des Saveurs by Frederic Beu. It is the most beautiful pastry book ever made. Food philosophy: Don’t take a shortcut. Care every step of the way, use wholesome flavors, the absolute freshest ingredients, and you can’t go wrong.