Meet Lakeland’s Food Influencers

MEET THE TASTEMAKERS BEHIND THE FLAVORS THAT HAVE CAPTURED THE HEART OF OUR CITY

Photography by Jason Stephens

No doubt food has always had a deep influence throughout the South, particularly through this central part of Florida we call home. It’s the reason many of us have grown up recalling stories of the remnants of local ice cream spots, barbeque joints, or freshly baked pie at a local diner interwoven into the stories of how our parents once fell in love. Food marks moments. It recalls to us the nostalgic ties to taste and the irrevocable prompting of the senses that in seconds can rush upon us with a memory and invoke floods of emotion like few other experiences in life can.

The influx of new tastemakers and restaurants in recent years has made way for the many influential individuals responsible for a city’s new matured taste buds, suddenly awoken.

Many of these places, still staples to our city today, have remained at the central hub of the local food scene longer than many of us have been alive. And yet many have been birthed within the year.

Few could ever have anticipated the shift that would be in the cards for Lakeland for a food culture. Few could have expected over a decade ago the term food culture being relevant, let alone a common term used among city goers and visitors. The influx of new tastemakers and restaurants in recent years has made way for the many influential individuals responsible for a city’s new matured taste buds, suddenly awoken. None could have predicted the feast that would soon be served before us.

For some it began with a simple, puffed New Orlean’s-styled donut that freshly revived reasons to wake up early for a Saturday morning market. For others, it was the first encounter of the endless refined yet relaxed possibilities of a concept called brunch. And for some it was the cruffin, a blossom of buttered dough which served as a vehicle to the marriage of savory flavors that they otherwise may have never experienced.

They are the reason rural parts of Lakeland, once deemed vacant, are flourishing with new life, surely a new aroma. They are the reason visitors from Orlando drive to Lakeland’s Downtown Farmers Market before the crack of dawn. They are the reason the city is once again flourishing with new job opportunities. They are the reason inspired gathering spaces are warmly met, as if for some a home away from home. And, in recent months, they are the reason our city is finding itself correlated with the likes of the culturally perceptive and visionary cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

They are the reason rural parts of Lakeland, once deemed vacant, are flourishing with new life, surely a new aroma.

There are few tastes, which illuminate memories in our brain, that don’t have a creator behind it. A creator of tastes and a maker of moments.

They are the genius behind the foods that we crave, the experiences we seek out, and the wistful encounters for the senses that keep us coming back again.

These are our Food Influencers who, we dare say, create a great deal more for our culture than mere morsels of food.

CHEF MARCOS FERNANDEZ / Nineteen61

What first got you started in cooking?

I worked for a woodworker back in highschool.He was a retired chef and talked about his experiences, and gave me ideas and recipes. So I’d run home and practice them with my friends and family and watch their reactions. And that’s what sparked it.

What’s your favorite tool to use in the kitchen?

Most would say my knife, my blender … but I think the most useful tool I have is my creativity and my resourcefulness. When we can come up with what we’re trying to achieve without using the traditional tools, it’s an accomplishment.

What three things are always in your fridge?

Cooked rice, ketchup, and Peruvian sauces. But then … there’s milk, mayo, mustard, and garlic. We have many always in the fridge items.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

I would have to say chocolate cake.

ROBYN WILSON / 801 E. Main

What first got  you  interested in cooking?

I think at first it was a necessity. I like to make the things that I wish existed. And simply I just wanted a good donut to begin with, a really good beignet. And the rest is history.

What’s your favorite kitchen tool?

My China cap, my fine, fine strainer. It kind of looks like a China cap, but you can basically take any sort of fresh fruit and push it on through and it becomes this beautiful, smooth coulis. It is the most wonderful tool. I make all of our sauces, juices. It’s like the ghetto juicer basically.

What  three things are always in your fridge?

Labne (a Greek strained yogurt), good butter (Plugrá is my favorite – not too fancy, just fancy enough), and bacon. I always have bacon.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

Ooo, I love mango with chili. Simple, just peel that skin off, slice it up, a little bit of chili, lime, some salt.

CHEF JASON BONIFACE / Red Door

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What first got  you started in the restaurant business?

I grew up in the industry; my parents and grandparents both owned and operated resteraunts. Pretty much my whole childhood into my adulthood, I started bussing tables at eight years old, prepping at 12, so I was kind of forced into it [laughs.]

What’s your inspiration for creating new dishes?

I have a creative mindset, but I can’t draw, can’t sing, and can’t dance. But with my background growing up in kitchens, it kind of pushed me in that direction

What three things are always in your fridge?

Bottle of sriracha, beer, and large ice cubes in my freezer for whiskey. I don’t really eat much at home.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

Probably cheap pizza. But if Palace is still open, it’s my go-to.

BERNA NAR / Café Zuppina

What led you to open Café Zuppina?

I didn’t see a lot of healthy cooking, but I wanted to make a healthy meal that adults and children would like.

What’s your favorite tool to use in the kitchen?

My knife, to do all my prepping in the morning.

What inspires you to continue to cook every day?

My mom inspired me to cook. She cooked when I was a kid, and we always did big parties. When I arrived in Lakeland, too, I realized home cooking was one thing missing, so I thought, “Let me bring home cooking here.”

What three things are always in your fridge?

Veggies (of course, Brussels sprouts – in every fridge), lemons, and my herbs

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

Watermelon. It’s refreshing when you are always working in the heat. Especially in the summer.

GLENN SCARPA / Scarpa's

What initially drew you into cooking, and launching a business as a career?

I grew up around the business, so it just kind of happened.

What’s your favorite kitchen tool?

Pasta-making equipment.

What three things are always in your fridge?

Beer, wine, and cheese.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

A nice IPA, stout, lager, or pilsner.

CHEF MICHEL REVY / Posto 9

What first got you into cooking?

It was basically by accident. I was serving tables while going to college. They were about to open Outbacks in Brazil, and they needed a kitchen manager who spoke Portugese and English. So I took the job. It was supposed to last a year and then I’d go back to college, but I just didn’t stop.

What inspires you to cook?

Mainly fresh ingredients.

What three things are always in your fridge?

Right now it’s just water and whatever is left over from Posto 9’s kitchen that I bring home. I always force myself to bring something home, but I haven’t grocery shopped in four months.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?

I try to keep it healthy, not too many carbs. Basically just steak, eggs, and avocado.

CHEF TINA CALHOON / Frescos

What first got you into cooking?

I’d have to say my mom. I opened my first restaurant at 21, and I think having the stability of a mom that cooked all the time was my foundation for the love of food.

What inspires you to continue to cook?

Probably the love for food. I don’t drink or smoke; I always have a clear palate. And I can pretty much  disassemble a recipe really easily so that the flavor profiles and the spices and the seasonings are really enlightening.

What three things are always in your fridge?

Well, thanks to my husband … beer and wine, usually a lot of to-go boxes. I always tell everybody we have a very bachelor-style kitchen.

What’s your go-to midnight snack?

I hate to say, fast food, Taco Bell. Because it’s the quickest thing to grab on your way home, so we can just eat and go to bed.

JENN SMURR / Born & Bread Bakehouse

What first got you interested in baking?

I think it was a journey for about five years to find what I would be passionate about. I went on my honeymoon to Europe, and everywhere we went there was fresh bread, and every time we sat down to breakfast, we’d ask “Where did you get this bread?” And they’d look at you dumbfounded and say, “What are you talking about? I made it.” I think in order to recreate these experiences we had, I came right back to the States and started baking. The quality of it kind of changed my life. And I’ve been on this quest to do that for someone else.

What is your favorite kitchen tool?

Well, I kind of have a love-hate relationship with a rolling pin. But probably my  dough sheeter.

What’s your favorite midnight snack? 

Lately it’s been Cheetos. The organic kind, so you feel good about it. And I love late-night cereal – Frosted Mini Wheats, Honey Bunches of Oats, and Fruity Pebbles.