It was a who’s who of the culinary community, and a first for St. Johns County.
Billed as a “Chefs Round Table,” a gathering of what organizer Tyrone Bennett called the “heavyweights” of the St. Augustine dining scene got together to talk shop, break bread and share a few laughs.
The event took place Monday afternoon (an off-night for many in the restaurant industry) at Amici Italian Restaurant, where owners Freddy and Jenn Underhill offered up the banquet hall for the occasion.
The grouping represented decades of experience from some of the biggest local names — from the executive chefs for Cap’s On the Water and Collage restaurant — to food truck operators and private caterers.
But culinary pedigree aside, there was more sharing than boasting, more collaboration than competition among this family-like clan who dished on topics such as the industry’s challenges during the pandemic and what they really think of restaurant reviews on social media.
Bennett, an executive chef and founder of We Feed Inc., is also host of “The Hot Plate” a podcast that profiles area chefs and provided a livestream of the event.
With the round table discussion, Bennett said, “I wanted to bring all these people together, where usually you can’t see them all together in one room, just to talk about some of the things we have in common.”
Bennett kicked off the forum by asking the group what had first brought each of them into the food business. Some chefs said good food had always been a part of their family’s heritage and holidays; others said it was a way to nurture and comfort others.
Private chef Dagan Alexander said his knowing way around the kitchen was prompted by “hardship hunger,” also known as growing up with a single mother and having to learn to fend for himself.
“It’s not what’s on your resume; for a chef, it’s what’s on the cutting board,” Alexander said.
Bennett, who served as moderator, moved on to the question of whether the title of chef is earned or received, which led several participants to talk about what makes serving as top chef at an upscale restaurant both different and the same as running a food truck attracting a long line of loyal patrons at a festival.
Matt Brown, who had been the executive chef at illustrious establishments like Blackfly and Collage, is now bringing those skills to a side gig as pit master for Urban Asado, a food concept which uses specialized grills, rotisseries and spits to bring out the natural flavors of ingredients over an open flame.
One of the topics that seemed to create the most response in the crowd was restaurant reviews on social media sites, with some chefs saying they didn’t account for the subjectivity of what is considered “good” by one person and not the next and that bad reviews can be especially damning because they continue to live on the internet.
Richard Ramos, owner of Bantam Chef, however, said: “If you aren’t getting bad reviews, you’re not serving very many people.”
Another issue that many on the round table could identify with was a lack of professional development skills and work ethic among younger line cooks and trying to develop a team of talent, from servers to dishwashers, at restaurants these days.
That led to a side discussion about how, with few affordable housing options, many employees in food service and hospitality have to commute to St. Augustine from outside the county.
Several chefs mentioned the workforce development program at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine as successful in providing a pipeline of talent to restaurants in need of good hires.
Bennett said he plans to organize another “Chefs Round Table” for March or April.