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Three Tampa chefs nominated for James Beard Award

BY NEVA WARREN

Three chefs in the Tampa Bay area are nominated for a nationally competitive award in the restaurant industry: the James Beard Award. Richard Gonzmart, Ferrell Alvarez, and Christopher Ponte have all been nominated for the award that is often called “The Oscars of Food”.

The three chefs nominated are Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia restaurant group, Ferrell Alvarez of the Rooster and The Till restaurant and Chris Ponte of Ponte Cafe.

Gonzmart was nominated this year for the “Outstanding Restaurateur” category; he owns and operates several restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, including the Columbia restaurant, Ulele and Goody Goody Burger.

Alvarez and Ponte were both nominated for the award category “Best Chef: South.” Alvarez opened the restaurant Rooster & The Till with chef Ty Rodriguez in 2013. Their menu is constantly changing with wild and varying dishes that are hard to fit into one category.

Ponte founded his namesake restaurant Ponte Cafe in 2002, and recently opened a new restaurant called On Swann with his wife, Michelle Ponte. Cafe Ponte is fine dining on Ulmerton Avenue, but prices don’t exceed fifty dollars a plate.

The James Beard Awards, established in 1990 and distributed by the James Beard Foundation, are voted on by more than 600 culinary professionals each year. Nominees are selected from distinguished chefs and restaurants from across the United States. The winners will be released on May 1st.

All of the chefs are happy that so many restaurants from the bay area getting recognized.

“Chris Ponte is a legend, if you will, in terms of being a chef in our area,” Alvarez said. “Richard is a legend in Tampa for what he does for the city as well as the restaurants he’s operated, so to be mentioned in his company is a true honor for somebody that’s in my shoes.”

Their reactions to being nominated ranged from surprise to pride for their team.

Alvarez said that he was initially surprised by the news that he had been nominated, but was very happy and excited by the opportunity to win.

This is the second time Gonzmart has been nominated for the Outstanding Restaurateur category, his first time being in 2012. Still, he is grateful for the nomination.

“Truly humbled,” Gonzmart said. “The efforts of our entire team were recognized, as a restauranteur that doesn’t happen by itself.”

Ponte could not be reached for comment.

Gonzmart told a story of how when he was a young child, he walked into the freezer at the Columbia Restaurant and saw a frozen fish and was scared by it. That was what prompted his grandfather teach him how to cook, to recognize fresh fish and how to cook them. This led to his passion for cooking.

“My earliest memories were on friday evenings when we went to the Columbia,” Gonzmart said.

Alvarez wasn’t in the restaurant family business, but was working for one when he realized he wanted to become a chef.

“I come from a family that always cooks,” Alvarez said. “Half colombian, half Italian, food has always been a prominent thing for our family, to come around and sit around the table when I was a kid.”

He was discovered by a restaurant owner washing dishes as a teen, and “never looked back”.

Three nominees from Tampa is extraordinary, and each chef has an idea of why the Bay area is getting so much recognition. Alvarez said that Tampa is in a growth spurt right now, and that’s supported by economic data. Leisure and hospitality employment is up 1.7 percent in December of 2016.

“Whatever you think that you’d dislike the most is what I want you to order,” Alvarez said. “Because we like to push people outside of their box and expose people to new things, we change the menu very often.”

The restaurants range greatly in style and theme. While Gonzmart likes to keep the family tradition, Alvarez is all about experimentation, and Cafe Ponte serves up cuisine with French, Asian, and Italian influences.

“We don’t do safety dishes, you’re never going to find a steak or a chicken breast in my restaurant,” Alvarez said. “We push the envelope more than that.”

On the other hand, Gonzmart said he likes simple and classic food.

Ponte just likes playing around with contemporary American cuisine.

All of them are grateful and happy just to be nominated. They all reflected on why they believe their restaurant was selected.

“I think it’s my time, I’ve been working for 23 years full time plus plus,” Alvarez said.  “I cut no corners, I give 120 percent 100 percent of the time. I wouldn’t say it’s luck because I don’t believe in luck; it’s based on skill and your output.”

Alvarez was humble in the face of nomination, and appreciated the fact that 19 other restaurants had been nominated for his same category. In a dog-eat-dog world like hospitality, Alavarez’s modesty was refreshing. “I’d be honored to move on to the next round if that’s possible,” Alvarez said.“But the probabilities aren’t in our favor.”

Gonzmart said that the most meaningful tables he gets are ones of families coming to the Columbia to celebrate the loss of a loved one. “When they come to celebrate the life of somebody that’s passed,” Gonzmart said. “It’s a responsibility I have, I realize.”

Winners of the award will be announced online at https://www.jamesbeard.org/awards/winners, but in the meantime you can judge for yourself who should win by visiting the restaurants in question! Cafe Ponte, from nominee Chris Ponte, is on Icot Boulevard in Clearwater. The Columbia, Richard Gonzmart’s prized restaurant, is on East 7th Street in Tampa. The Rooster and The Till is on North Florida Avenue in Tampa.

Neva Warren can be reached neva.warren@spartans.ut.edu

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