It’s been four years since Greg Baker, chef and owner of The Refinery restaurant, began shaking up Tampa Bay’s dining scene while successfully making a point that featuring locally produced, fresh food could be both praise-worthy and profitable.
Within the compact, open kitchen of the two-story bungalow located in the Seminole Heights historic district, Greg and his team show seemingly inexhaustible inspiration for using ingredients delivered from Central Florida fields in deliciously different ways. Daily offerings are posted to a wall-mounted, chalkboard menu.
“We are just back to doing things the way they’re supposed to be done,” Greg insists.
“We constantly reinvent the menu. No dish is on there for more than two weeks. Our motivation is to make sure everything served is good and to do even better the next time.”
His talent and tenacity have earned him multiple nominations from the James Beard Foundation – including a nod this year – and national recognition for the restaurant.
Greg and his wife and restaurant partner Michelle were not alone in the pursuit of cultivating community resources for the meats, produce and seafood served in the restaurant. But their commitment to using solely seasonal foods from Florida farms, ranches and groves, along with regularly morphing menus, certainly made the restaurant inspirational in persuading others to follow suit.
“We planted the seeds for others and managed to effect some change in the area while making a living,” Greg says. “We proved this is a viable economic model.”
Greg’s entire career has been marked by fresh starts. For more than three decades, the graduate of Portland’s Western Culinary Institute worked in restaurants throughout the country, in addition to running a catering business and working as a personal chef.
It was a chance encounter with a local farmer that marked a turning point in Baker’s thinking. During a work-related trip to Asheville, the Bakers dropped into a local grocery and ended up in the check-out line behind a farmer stocking up on chewing tobacco.
The farmer paid in cash and waved off the plastic shopping bag offered by the clerk, instead handing over a cloth, re-usable sack to bag the purchase.
“It was a light-bulb moment. I thought the old farmer in front of me was typically not the type to embrace change. I realized that if the collective mentally of Asheville had permeated that far, then it could happen in Tampa, too,” he says.
As residents of Seminole Heights, the Bakers recognized how the area keeps growing, diversifying and emerging into a community that embraces creativity.
“We lived here so why not work here? Why not plant the seeds within my own community?”
“If the grass is always greener on the other side, why not plant our own green grass?”
With zero interest in making what he labels “country club” cuisine, Greg took a big risk opening The Refinery in 2010. Seminole Heights was not regarded as the dining destination it is today and independent restaurants were struggling to stay open. Nationwide, the restaurant industry was battered by a faltering economy that saw people dining out less frequently or spending less than usual when they did. Compound those issues with the labor intensive effort required to find sustainable sources of quality ingredients from local producers and anyone could legitimately question Greg’s sanity.
“It was rocky in the beginning. But we managed to meet some great people who were already doing great things and it got easier as we went along,” he recalls. “Other established places have now moved in this direction and there have been real and palpable changes.”
The same commitment, vision and food philosophy that has built The Refinery’s reputation for excellence now will carry over to the Bakers’ next venture, another Seminole Heights establishment called Fodder & Shine. It will bear the standard of great food that is locally sourced, but, rather than a traditional restaurant setting, it will be served in a more relaxed atmosphere that will invite people to linger longer rather than dine and depart.
“We will never clone The Refinery. With Fodder & Shine we will be moving in a different direction but still working with the same principles,” he says. “We want to feature the heritage foods of Florida. I’ve been doing a lot of research about heirloom crops.
“To make authentic food, you need authentic ingredients.”