Savor what Chef Baker does with local ingredients.
Tampa Bay has been a melting pot of cultures since Spanish explorers first arrived in the 16th century—as a result, cuisine in the state is a unique mix of Cuban, Italian, Scots-Irish and Spanish influences. And farm-to-table? It’s not just a trend here.
Meals have a history here. They pay homage to Tampa Bay’s background and culture by incorporating flavors and ingredients that are native to the area. These days, that method has expanded—traditional recipes are getting a taste of the unexpected.
Leading the charge is Chef Greg Baker, who’s been carving out his piece of the culinary landscape in Tampa Bay for more than five years, first via his work with The Refinery (which earned him four James Beard Award nominations) and more recently through his Cracker cuisine-themed restaurant, Fodder & Shine.
Enjoy fresh, locally caught seafood in Tampa Bay
"It's about the quality and authenticity of ingredients"
Local beef is also found on Tampa Bay menus
Cracker cuisine sprang from the American pioneers and cowboys who settled in Florida between the Civil War and World War II. They lived off what could be grown or hunted in Florida’s then-rural terrain and fished from the surrounding waters. Chef Baker has simultaneously revived, reimagined, and in some cases reintroduced authentic Cracker cuisine with Fodder & Shine.
“It’s a really exciting time for cuisine in Tampa Bay,” says Arielle Stevenson, freelance foodie and former food editor at local alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. “Especially when you taste something you’ve never tried before, and you learn there’s so much history behind it.”
Baker says the restaurant exists “to preserve Southern culture through food, before all these ‘old food’ ways disappear.”
It’s not merely about the history, however. It’s also about the quality and authenticity of ingredients, the care with which each dish is prepared and the attention to detail that goes into everything, from the F&S house jam—which changes seasonally and is prepared on site—to condiments, salsas, sauces and dressings that are all made using locally sourced, native ingredients. Baker was lucky to meet a seventh-generation Floridian farmer in the vicinity who was willing to grow the heirloom crops he needed.
“It was a perfect match,” Baker says. “Being able to find these old varieties of vegetables was crucial to preparing these dishes.”
F&S beef is descended from Florida’s early Cracker cows, which can be traced to breeds originally brought to the southern United States by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. According to Baker, beef has a flavor profile like intensified grass fed beef. The flavors are showcased most deliciously in the hand-pounded Country Fried Steak and Beef Pot Roast, which is slow-braised in rye whiskey. F&S’s Hardwood Smoked Mullet is a menu favorite. Baker also touts Florida as having the best smoked mullet around. “It’s Florida’s de-facto barbecue culture; native cultures had been drying and smoking fish here for centuries before Florida was ever settled.”
True Cracker dishes include sofkee, a native porridge made of fermented rice grits (think rice pudding meets risotto, but savory and soaked in cheese, cream and butter). Baker interprets this with the popular menu item Pilau, a rice cake served with tomato gravy, sautéed shrimp, Minorcan house sausage, diced onions and peppers, all topped with a fried egg. It’s akin to shrimp and grits. There’s a surprising abundance of gluten-free options that—while uncharacteristic of Deep South fare—were typical of Cracker cuisine. “They didn’t grow wheat and lacked a reliable transportation infrastructure to move goods from the North,” Baker said. “So much of what they made was corn (and cornmeal) based.” Taste why that’s a great thing in the crispy, golden made-to-order Cornmeal Fried Chicken.
Ulele embraces local ingredients and Florida's Southern roots
"Chef Baker has plans to loosen the Cracker constraints at Fodder & Shine in the near future to offer more Southern favorites and straightforward comfort fare."
The trend of using the Tampa Bay’s culture, history and native flavors is also the focus at Ulele. Here, though, it’s less about the dishes and more about showcasing foods that native Floridians and early Spanish settlers relied on—fish and shellfish caught in the rivers, Tampa Bay and Gulf of Mexico (oysters, scallops, snapper, redfish, hogfish, pompano, grouper), or animals raised or hunted in the fields, forests and swamplands (beef, boar, duck, alligator, frog). “People don’t think about it much, but frog legs are a very Southern thing,” Chef Eric Lackey explains.
Ulele’s “Florida Jumpers”—crispy, fried frog legs doused in sherry garlic aioli—hail from Okeechobee and Orlando.
Fruits and veggies are important components at Ulele, too. All are sourced from nearby farms. Ice cream and desserts are overhauled often—select menu items change seasonally. A big Valentine’s-themed “strawberry blast” is slated for February. “I’m literally going to the farm and picking with the growers we work with in Plant City,” Lackey says. Though the focus is desserts, last year, Lackey made a strawberry and jalapeño salsa that diners seemed to love.
Chef Baker has plans to loosen the Cracker constraints at Fodder & Shine in the near future to offer more Southern favorites and straightforward comfort fare. But Tampa Bay’s unique flavors will continue to be represented. “I’m excited about providing a new experience that’s not as rustic as the Cracker food, but still contains a certain amount of history behind it,” he says. “We’re embracing the full South, rather than being so Cracker specific. There’s a whole slew of things I want to put on the menu that are deeply rooted Southern dishes people just aren’t familiar with. But they’ll be crowd pleasers.”