Over the past decade the pop culture prestige of chefs has risen dramatically, evolving them into the rock stars that have foodies buzzing. They celebrate the indulgence in, and accessibility of, delicious and inventive dishes. Along the way some have built vast empires that include hit TV shows and far-flung restaurants. Dining out has grown akin to theatre, with chefs as the headliners drawing huge crowds.
That brings us to the latest cutting-edge addition to the culinary world, the Epicurean Hotel launched in Tampa last December. It has serious ambition-- to lure foodies on deluxe culinary-centered vacations at its sunny environs in Tampa’s hip SoHo neighborhood.
The hotel’s goal is to be a national culinary destination on the strength of its exhibitions, festivals and visiting celebrity chefs. They’ve also zeroed in on the locals, offering cooking classes from novice to advanced in a custom theatre that looks like it belongs on the Food Network. Patrons will be learning in a culinary playground equipped with professional Viking stoves, ovens and refrigerators, All-Clad cookware, and plenty of other top-of-the-line features.
The 137 room boutique hotel boasts the 80-seat signature restaurant Elevage, a wine and spirits shop, a full-service spa, a gorgeous rooftop bar, and Chocolate Pi, a patisserie and sweet shop. Hotel guests have personal pantries in their rooms stocked with wine glasses and gourmet goodies, including chocolate and sea salt caramels, prosciutto, goat cheese, crisps, champagne and four types of wine splits -- in¬cluding suggestions to pair the varietals best suited to each snack.
The $35 million hotel is a partnership of Bern's Steak House, a Tampa landmark since 1956, and Mainsail Lodging & Development Group also based in Tampa. Located across Howard Avenue from the hotel, Bern’s is annually recognized as one of the great steakhouses in America. The dry-age meats are sublime, waiters train for more than a year learning all stations of the kitchen, while sommeliers chat up well-heeled regulars, extolling the stunning vintages that lurk in Bern’s 500,000 bottle collection.
The key players in the venture are Bern's owner David Laxer, Epicurean general manager Tom Haines, Epicurean executive chef Chad Johnson, and spirits director Dean Hurst.
Food themes abound. Epicurean photos and paintings by local artists grace the walls throughout the hotel's halls and lounges, cookbooks line bookshelves in the lobby, and room signage depicts bottles and utensils in etched glass. An eight-foot-high handcrafted tensile steel knife and fork rest in a corner near the theatre. An oversized replica of a meat tenderizer serves as the theatre's door handle. At the entrance to Elevage two vertical, living¬ herb gardens growing sorrel, cilantro, and lettuces are a lush and unexpected addition. The food and wine theme extends to the reception area in the lobby with wine crates crafted into desks and a wall made of wooden wine crate lids with winery logos from all over the world.
The hotel is the first newly constructed property in the United States to join the Autograph Collection of Marriott International. But you won't see a Marriott logo anywhere. Most items were custom designed for the Epicurean, from the wine cork wreath at the front desk to decorative bed pillows depicting a spoon, fork and knife.
Wood abounds. Butcher block counters, wooden luggage carts, massive wooden doors to the Epicurean kitchen which are mirrored in the guest rooms with a smaller version in the bathroom's sliding door. Reclaimed wood, found wood, carved and tactile, smooth and knobby, is everywhere - forming the backdrops for enlarged photos and paintings, creating the frames for displays of growing herbs.
The hotel’s showstopper is the Epicurean Theatre, a 40-seat culinary classroom with amphitheater-style seating and a kitchen for food presentations, cooking classes and iron chef competitions. Recent classes covered everything from the History of the Cocktail to Sustainable Winemaking and Seafood. Events are open to the community as well as hotel guests.
A 2012 James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef South, Johnson oversees the hotel's food operations as well those up the street of SideBern's, a sister restaurant to the legendary Bern’s. Johnson is putting a modern twist on “old-school, classic Southern dishes” in the menu at Elevage.
“We're taking some of these dishes that have fallen out of favor or lost their cachet and making them sexy again,” Johnson said.
In the north end of the building, Bern's pastry chef Kim Yelvington operates the French-style patisserie Chocolate Pi, also the name of her former South Tampa bakery. Her patisserie and sweet shop plays with childhood desserts in addition to serving afternoon tea, handmade sodas and an extended line of house-made chocolates and fanciful macarons.
Adjacent to Chocolate Pi is Evangeline, a full-service spa that uses food ingredients-- such as Caudalie’s wine-themed line from Bordeaux, France, or FarmHouse Fresh’s Texas-made moisturizers and scrubs culled from fruits and vegetables— in many of its treatments. The name comes from a character in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a favorite of Bern Laxer. A bust of Evangeline can be seen in the atrium of Bern's Steak House as well as in the spa’s logo.
During our stay my wife and I attended the Florida Beer Company beer dinner that demonstrated how craft beer is starting to be taken more seriously in the fine dining world. The Cape Canaveral, Fla. brewery showcased its beer styles served with a six-course food pairing from Chef Johnson in the Epicurean theater.
Florida Beer Company’s Southernmost Wheat Brew was teamed with peeky toe crab crusted flounder; Florida Lager joined pork belly ‘encroute’ wrapped in rye bread, and tinged with violet mustard and sorghum. Dinner was capped off with the delectable dessert pairing of Gaspar’s Porter with espresso brioche FrenchToast and nutella ice cream.
Pay a visit upstairs to Edge Social Drinkery rooftop bar. Set in an elegant open-air space, it’s a perfect spot to watch the sun go down and has quickly become one of the city’s most popular nightlife hotspots for happy hour and after-dinner drinks. Don’t miss the Gateway created with Germain-Robin brandy, Italian and Austrian liqueurs, Rangpur lime juice and a splash of sparkling rose’.
In many ways the Epicurean is a tribute to Bern Laxer, the mastermind behind Bern’s, who died in 2002. You have to believe he surely would have loved a hotel devoted to the pursuit of culinary excellence.