The James Beard semifinalist is cooking like he wants you to fall in love with his hometown.
Ferrell Alvarez has already had coffee today, but he is not finished yet. The wiry, very tattooed, 39-year-old chef bounds around the corner of the abandoned drive-thru convenience store he has only just turned into Tampa’s coolest new hangout, cup of iced brew in hand, and he is ready to answer all of my questions, and he is ready to tell me everything I have not asked, and I am listening.
The chef and co-owner of Tampa’s best restaurant has a great deal on his mind right now, and why shouldn’t he—Alvarez not only has a lot going on, he also happens to be a leading light in a fascinating, much misunderstood, quickly evolving city that has a great deal to share with the world, if it can ever collectively agree on the right words with which to do so. Alvarez loves Tampa. Flat out loves it. I'm so glad you're here, man, because it's enough of Tampa being the redheaded stepchild of Florida, he tells me, launching into a whole list of reasons why now is the time to be here, and why this city is going places, and also, would I like something to drink?
Like so many other people in Tampa and unlike the people in so many other places in Florida, Alvarez did not just turn up yesterday to ride the gently gathering wave, he is Tampa through and through, born to a Colombian immigrant father and a Long Island Italian mother in Baltimore, then raised here from the age of one. After a detour to Cincinnati years later to finish his schooling, he has been back in town for what feels like a terribly long time now, slowly working his way through the local culinary ranks, finally opening his own restaurant, Rooster & the Till. He did this with partner Ty Rodriguez, a Tampa Cuban, of which there are many and have been seemingly forever, back in 2013, just around Christmas time.
This new project, which is called Nebraska Mini-Mart because that's what the convenience store was called, so why not, is something new and different for Tampa, just as Rooster was when it opened, and just as it remains today; there are bocce courts and there is shuffleboard, there are hangout corners, and there is lots of lush greenery on a generously-sized, nearly acre and a half property that has been converted into a sort of Austin-goes-to-the-tropics adult play space. The whole thing comes complete with an elevated menu of provisions—"fun stoner food," Alvarez tells me—of snacks, including spicy Malaysian chili chicken wings, tempura-battered oyster mushrooms with blooming onion sauce, sherry slushies and rosé in cans. All good fun, but Alvarez is thinking more broadly this morning—he is excited by the trend toward improved mental health and accountability in restaurant kitchens, about the need for balance in our lives, and also, he is very interested in talking more about how it is long past time for his city to have its moment.
Alvarez could be the mayor of Tampa, he ought to at least be on speaking tours, preaching the gospel of Tampa, Florida, established as a lonely outpost where the Hillsborough River meets Tampa Bay, back in 1824, but today it is just the two of us, riding down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in his late model Cadillac, hurrying to what will end up being the first of two lunches. He had just come from his morning ritual of performance camp workouts and eating something healthy for breakfast, something without carbs, no doubt, and here we are, me in Tampa and desirous of mass quantities of the traditional local breakfast, which is toasted and buttered Cuban bread, served with a mug of gut punch-strength café con leche you could eat with a spoon. Alvarez, already having proven himself to be the consummate host, is eager for me to be out there, seeing and eating all of it.
Driving along the strip, navigating the four lanes of impatient and distracted traffic, Alvarez is pointing out highlights along a stretch of urban boulevard that presents much like you would expect in this kind of neighborhood, in this kind of town. Everything is low-slung commercial, the kind that seems to not have been significantly updated in a generation or more, the latest Sunbelt boom passing it all by in favor of further-flung suburbs, and yet, there is greatness within, once we slow down and look for it. In one of these unremarkable buildings, next to a botanica and what was until recently a barbershop, there is Piccola Italia Bistro, where the chef hails from Abruzzo, the exterior hand-painted rather flamboyantly in the colors of the Italian flag, the sort of thing you might clock but not necessarily stop to see. "That place, they're great," says Alvarez, admitting that he and "roughly thirty other people" are probably instrumental in keeping the restaurant open.
A few more blocks west and next to the Burger King, he points out the Pupuseria Centro Americana, a snug space for Salvadoran specialties, and then, a few blocks south on Habana Avenue, we are pulling into the lot at the very old Arco-Iris Café, nearly filled with other generously sized cars, piloted by a clientele that appears to have been coming here for a very long time. We sit in a far corner of the low-ceilinged, brightly lit room, which vibes something like a church basement, and we order from the mostly unimpressed server. Swiss cheese on pressed Cuban bread, strong café con leche and a massive, $3 batida, served in Styrofoam, tasting vaguely of papaya, but mostly of milk. All simple, all delicious. The talking stops for a moment, just to take it all in, when a couple of a certain age enters the room. Alvarez jumps from his chair to greet them.
"Señor, Señora, he says, ever so politely, as if interrupting strangers to ask a favor, except that this turns out to be his partner's mother and father, Cynthia and Jose, here for their lunch. We chat briefly and warmly, mostly about the duo's latest project, and how things are going, as they are still technically in soft open. There is some minor concern about the weather from the Sra., as it is still hot out there for everyone, but Alvarez assures her that fall is on the way. "And that's Tampa," he says, smiling, as they give their goodbyes, heading over to their table. "Where to, next?"
The Birth of Something Good
There is a very good chance that you will not come to Tampa looking for a restaurant like Rooster & the Till. There is a very good chance that even if you are urged to go there, by the people who know what is going on, you will not listen to them, and then, years later, when you finally do the right thing and give the restaurant your undivided attention for an evening, when you walk through the doors of the space, currently occupying two storefronts in a busted-looking strip mall in Tampa's historic Seminole Heights neighborhood, when you sit down and you order the crispy, Gulf-caught Cobia collar, rising like some oddball Mermaid Parade float from a lake of salty, funky and refreshing nuoc cham, there is a very good chance you will be pretty well astounded, and a little sad over how long it took you to get here. And to think, this is a dish that happened pretty much by accident.
"I was down at my seafood purveyor, where they were butchering whole Cobia," Alvarez recalls, "And I saw them throwing the collars into these giant bins, and I asked, where are these going?"
To Miami, it turns out, was where they were going, the closest place with people that had any inclination to do something with them. Give some to me, he told his guy, and now the Cobia collar is one of the most talked about dishes on the Rooster menu. This is a clown car of a dish, the unwieldy tails giving up, over time, a surprising amount of delicious flesh. Talk about Rooster around town, and people will ask you, did you go yet, and did you like the Cobia collar. One local proudly told me that his daughter, not even in the first grade yet, is known to the Rooster kitchen crew as The Girl That Can Put Away Two Orders of The Cobia By Herself.
There is a kind of theme to the menu at Rooster & the Till, a gentle nudge toward something different, with a subtle nod toward sustainable, or at least more responsible eating. On my first visit to the restaurant, the night before I meet Alvarez for the first time, they were also serving lamb neck, along with dumplings made from masa and an elote salad featuring huitlacoche, which American farm kids like me grew up calling corn smut, as well as a more indulgent dish of chicken-fried grouper cheeks and throats, which come out with a braised collard mayo. Elevating these typically overlooked parts of the various animals, I thought, seemed a rather fitting tribute to the city where you are eating them; Alvarez and his team may not consciously be cooking to get people to notice Tampa, but it certainly feels as if that is what's happening.
For five years now, Rooster & the Till has been serving the city, five years during which Tampa and the region have seen tremendous growth. Five years during which American food has been moving forward at rapid speed, almost like a car on which the brake lines have been cut. The whole thing seemed almost experimental in the beginning; with just a little money and no major investors, Alvarez and Rodriguez managed to get a 37-seat restaurant up and running, without a lot of expensive (or even necessary) kitchen equipment.
From the start, their passion for regional and local ingredients shone through, though now, Alvarez refuses to make a big deal about the provenance of the food he serves, allowing it speak for itself. They were doing house-made charcuterie, which was a big deal here in 2013, there was sous vide duck breast, there were all sorts of other ambitious little quirks. Everything about the restaurant invited Tampa diners to look forward, starting with the fact that they were asking people to come all the way out to the then slowly-reviving Seminole Heights historic district, which spent much of the late 20th century being avoided by the sort of people who can afford to go out to a coursed-out dinner with generous amounts of good wine.
"I intentionally wanted to go to Seminole Heights—I knew people would come expecting no pretentiousness, something different," he recalls. "A big part of it, though, was me being naïve, and there is something great about being naïve—if you know all the risks before hand, it would scare you into submission, right?" "There’s something advantageous there, that helps you take that leap."
Naïve or no, the work that Alvarez and Rodriguez were doing was too good to be ignored, and word got around, and the people whose job it is to declare such things found the whole affair to be rather spectacular, and after working out the kinks and expanding into the shuttered art supply store next door and making the restaurant, dominated by a massive, comfortable bar that is always left open for walk-ins, it is five years later, and here we are.
Last year, Alvarez finally got the attention he deserved, snaring a nomination for the James Beard Foundation's annual awards, in the Best Chef South category. For 2018, Rooster & the Till has been dubbed the #1 restaurant in the Tampa Bay region, as decided by the area's Pulitzer Prize-finalist dining critic, Laura Reiley.
This Was Going to Be a Sandwich Shop
In other cities, cities more on the grid, cities with large publicity machines, a chef like Alvarez and a restaurant like Rooster & the Till, or a place like Nebraska Mini-Mart, would quickly become draws for outsiders, in an era where we think nothing of flying to new places to eat new food. Perhaps in another town, Alvarez might have found his star rising much faster than it did. Perhaps because of this, there is a certain grounded streak running through his personality. He may be turning 40 very soon, but Alvarez can effortlessly muster the enthusiasm and optimism of someone almost half his age; this is someone young at heart, despite having seen some things, despite having been around the block, more than once or twice.
After attending culinary school in Cincinnati, Alvarez came back to Tampa in the late 1990's, eventually landing a gig with local lion Marty Blitz, chef-owner of Mise en Place, for years and still one of Tampa's best-loved restaurants. It was there that Alvarez, then Chef de Cuisine, hired and then became friends with Edouardo Jordan, another area native. (Jordan would later decamp for Seattle, was a F&W Best New Chef in 2016, and took home two James Beard Awards this year.) It was also at Mise en Place that Alvarez met his business partner Ty Rodriguez, but it wouldn't be until years later, when forces conspired to push them into something new and exciting, as forces outside our control can sometimes do, that Rooster & the Till would happen.
"Originally, I thought we'd open a sandwich shop, and just be a really good sandwich shop, and we'd make our own charcuterie," Alvarez tells me. But the people surrounding him seemed to know that bigger, or at least more daring, would definitely be better, and with a small infusion of cash—nothing major, the whole project was pulled off for well under $100,000—they were able to go all out, or as all out as you can go in a 37-seat restaurant, and in 2013, Rooster & The Till happened, with three induction burners, one circulator, and one oven.
"It was hard to get people to come all the way up to our neighborhood," he admits. "As many people as there were that were enthusiastic, there were also plenty that couldn't understand why we didn't have a larger sign out front, they'd complain that they couldn't find us. People would come in and give us these backhanded compliments, like, the outside looks pretty bad, but it's so nice in here," he laughs.
"When we got the nod from the James Beard Foundation, that was so good for us," Alvarez says, downplaying his own role in the moment, as you very quickly learn is his style, or at least the way he prefers to speak. Time and again he refers to just how important his people are to him, and how much he has come to learn that his people are investments, and that the rising tide lifting all boats should not just be something we talk about, because it is the absolute best way to run a restaurant.
"When I speak to other chefs, I have to really check myself, because we're such a tight crew, we're not like family, we are family—there's so little turnover, I almost feel guilty," he confesses, although he clearly is not, and why should he be, embarrassed by this.
Receiving the nomination was not only validation for him, but for the team as well, clearly. On the night of my initial visit, I felt as if I were some place brand new, rather than at a restaurant already five years old. On a Monday night, at around 9 o'clock, the restaurant was essentially full. Tampa, it seems, is sold on Rooster & the Till, and on the week I visited, there was a tremendous buzz around the new project, as well. But what about the rest of us?
Slowly, word is getting out—Alvarez's inspired notion to host two rather impressive guest chef series at his restaurant has raised his profile considerably, and certainly within his peer group. The latest series has all been female chefs—he recently hosted Brittanny Anderson from Richmond, the next dinner will be with Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins from San Diego, followed by Katie Button from Asheville. Alvarez serves as a one-man welcome wagon for his guests, booking their travel, ferrying them to and from their hotels, always leaving time to tour them through Tampa, showing off the city he loves.
A Little Bit of Love and Belief
There is much to love about Tampa right now, from sumptuous, tree-lined blocks of carefully restored homes in bayfront Hyde Park, to the shiny new Heights Public Market up at the northern end of the city's underappreciated Riverwalk; inside, you can eat chicken adobo, or barbecue, or ramen; you can also drink some of the best coffee in town. The quickest way to develop a lasting connection to the city, however, is still one of the oldest, and that it is via its classic culinary traditions. Those Cuban restaurants we talk about, in Miami? Brash young upstarts, compared to their Tampa counterparts, at least according to the Cubans, and basically everyone else in Tampa. Arco-Iris, which is Spanish for rainbow, was a fine beginning, but after a time, I suggest we move on to La Teresita, another restaurant everyone has been asking me about—specifically, have you been there yet. I have not, and today we are correcting the error.
We manage to snag two seats at the triple horseshoe-shaped counter, and we order mojo roast pork and ropa vieja, both on special that day, for less than ten dollars each. The main course alone gets its own platter, with back-up dishes of rice and beans, your choice, and all of it is very good and very straightforward, and the place is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it is one of those places that you could imagine living a lot of your life, if you lived in Tampa. Deep discussions, late night fights, early morning business meetings, break-ups, make-ups, meet-cutes—this is Waffle House, except with killer yuca fries.
Not all that long ago, getting Alvarez out and about in the middle of the day like this, to sit around and chat about life over plates of roast pork and rice, might have been out of the question. But these days, as he has told me before, he's learning a lot about balance.
"When I first started cooking in 1993, if you didn’t drink, drug or stay going for what, one hundred hours a week, you were shit," he recalls. "After I got older and had my daughter, I started to realize that you don't have to be all those things to end up like the people you idolize. Finding balance became real to me, after eight months straight of working, when we opened Rooster," he says.
This passion for living better, for keeping your eye on what's important, remains a recurring theme throughout our conversation, which was cut short on the first day because it was nearly three o'clock in the afternoon, and he had to pick his up 14-year-old daughter, Eva, from school, as he does most days. The following morning, when we pick up where we left off, he asks about how the rest of my day was, and did I enjoy the things that I did, and he talks about having stayed home the night before, to cook for Eva, and his wife Nicole.
This time, Alvarez has asked his friend Joel Davis to join us; Davis, a warm, open-book kind of guy with an intriguing background in the parallel universe that is Christian music, is proprietor of Union, the aforementioned very good café inside the Heights Public Market. Davis, says Alvarez, "makes me a better man." After a memorable morning of too much coffee and a lot of very good conversation, I ask if they would like to join me for lunch at Columbia.
Think of Tampa, historic or no, and for a lot of people, Columbia is the first restaurant that will perhaps come to mind. Open for over a century, an anchor of the on-again, off-again Ybor City historic district, Tampa has a very nice history museum, but I'm telling you, Columbia is even better. Once again, we are young for the room, and we are certainly not dressed correctly, and still we are ushered into the light-filled conservatory, humming with lunch life, where a tuxedoed server appears eager to see to our every need.
Like retirees in training, everyone opts for the thrifty lunch combo specials—the restaurant's signature Spanish bean soup, and/or Cuban sandwiches, which in Tampa I am told are served with salami, paying tribute to the Italian immigrants that were equally essential to the life of Ybor, back in the day. We're all having that other signature dish, the magnificent 1905 salad, prepared with great flourish, and starring iceberg lettuce, julienned baked ham and Swiss, pimiento-studded green olives and a number of other deliciously retro things, plus a very involved dressing that includes enough Worcestershire sauce to put both Lea & Perrins' offspring through medical school.
We are spotted from across the busy room by Jeff Houck, the gregarious former food editor of the former Tampa Tribune, who comes over immediately; Alvarez introduces Houck as "One of the first people who believed in me," from back in the early days when he was at Mise en Place; Houck now works for the closest thing Tampa has to royalty, the Gonzmart family, which owns Columbia and a slew of other restaurants, both in and out of Tampa. After lots more conversation about the city, about restaurants, and about who used to sit at which table, Alvarez would like to get serious for a moment.
"Over the last few years, mental health and wellness are coming to the forefront," Alvarez says to our table, just an arm's length from where Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe famously tiffed. Now finished eating, he recalls the time at Indie Chefs Week, when one of the participants politely declined a drink, something he found terribly impressive. We don't have to be the cliché, he recalls realizing, in the moment. We don't have to wear ourselves out. Alvarez tells me he that and Rodriguez have worked hard to create a working environment that removes many of the stressors that so notoriously make kitchen life a difficult one.
"Everyone works five days a week, while the cooks work four, with enough overtime to get them up to a full week," he says. "We keep a consistent schedule—it's always the same. They know they can ask for time off, as long as they're respectful with how much they ask for. In the old days, if you asked, you'd be shamed."
Empowerment is a big deal with him. Empowerment, he says, coupled with accountability, is everything, going on to admit that while sometimes he might be "too nice," he is also "beyond picky and OCD," but on balance, "tough but fair." Whatever combination he's got going, it's working, as he alluded to earlier, telling me proudly about his low turnover rate. His Chef de Cuisine, Brian Lampe, has been with him for 13 years now, he tells me, and Lampe is not the only team member that's been around for a long time, either. Not that everybody's perfect, of course.
"One of my young cooks got arrested in Orlando for an expired tag, he was driving a car full of girls and smoking weed," Alvarez tells us, trying his best not to give into the massive dessert now sitting on the table, a white chocolate bread pudding made with giant hunks of Cuban bread, drowned in sauce and covered in chocolate shavings.
"So he called me up, crying, saying, Chef, I feel so bad that I let you down, you know I don't have a dad," Alvarez recalls. "I slid him $2,000, and he pays me $50 every paycheck, and he is so loyal. I didn’t have a father figure, growing up, and mom worked third shift, and I know what it's like."
"With a little bit of love and belief," he says, spoken like a man who has lived every bit of this himself, "It’s incredible what can happen."