The chef and owner behind Hemingway’s at Armature Works got her industry start at the iconic Bern’s Steak House when she was just 17 (and it’s a place she now brings her own children — keep reading). Previously the executive chef at SoHo’s Samba Room, Lacalle brings her elite culinary experience to the Cuban soul food she grew up eating in her mom and abuela’s kitchens, making everything from the mojo to the mayo from scratch.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I always wanted to be a chef. I always wanted to be in the kitchen. My mom taught me how to cook, so being the oldest of three, she taught me to cook from a very young age. By the time I was 11, I was already in the kitchen. It was awesome. She taught me how to do rice and beans, and I just got to watch her. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. Fast forward to when I was 17, and I started my first job at Bern’s when I was in high school. It was exciting. It was super eye-opening. Here I am, 17 years old, innocent. It was an eye-opener for me [laughs]. But it was awesome. I had a great experience. I was supposed to go to medical school, but last minute I was like, Mom, this is not for me. I know this is what you want me to do, but what I want to do is become a chef. She was [unsure] but she supported me. I graduated from Johnson and Wales — I went to Miami — and then I came back and started working at Roy’s. While I was in college I was working as a pastry chef at a hotel down there. Then I came home and worked at Roy’s for more than 10 years. Most of my career right out of college was at Roy’s, which was a blessing. It was working with a lot of different cultural ingredients, and it was really defining me as a chef along the way. It was lovely — the best experience I’ve ever had. I left because it was a little bit of a man’s world. It was very corporate. At the time they were owned by Bloomin’ Brands. I was the only female chef. I wanted to be an executive chef. I was very capable of the position, but they never gave it to me.
I was like, you know what, it’s time for me to go, let me spread my wings and see what I can do. I stopped working for the corporate world and did smaller things around Tampa. I was executive chef at the Samba Room. That was my first position as executive chef. We hit it off. It was great. I made the front page of the Tampa Bay Times. I think I was the first female chef [to do that], if I’m not mistaken. It was awesome. We had a great year. Then it closed, unfortunately, and I went off and did a few things — Daily Eats, Malio’s. Then I opened up two companies that didn’t go too well because they were meal prep. Then I met my business partners and I got the opportunity to open up Hemingway’s. The owner of Armature Works was one of the silent partners at my first executive chef position, so he knew my food and loves my food. He asked me if I could put something in here, so I said absolutely, I’ll do Cuban food. It hit off really well.
Tell me a little bit about the idea behind Hemingway’s and how you settled on Cuban food.
The idea behind Hemingway’s was to bring Cuban food back to life in Tampa. I feel like it’s something that’s dwindled down a little bit. Back in the day, what used to be Boliche Boulevard was Columbus Drive. I grew up in that area, I’m from West Tampa. I’ve seen the Cuban food, I’ve eaten it. As the years have progressed, I’d rather eat Cuban food at home than at a restaurant. It’s just different. It’s not the same sazón that they used to do, or they’re cutting corners. There are a lot of things that are new. They’re mom and pop places. They’re trying to make money, so I get it. But you can’t compromise with soul food. So behind that was us opening something that’s a little bit more modern, giving people options — like building your own Cuban bowl — and keeping some things classic, like our Cuban sandwich. Doing a unique twist on the steak sandwich, we call it our Último. We do slightly subtle, modern changes, but you still have the foundational soul food flavor you can get at mom and dad’s house or at abuela’s. We do everything fresh. We don’t cut corners. We make our own mojo. We make our own mayonnaise. We make our own aioli everyday. It’s amazing. And everything is from scratch. They start prepping at midnight. This is a 24-hour operation. They come in at night when there’s nobody here, and they finish up during the morning and have the rest of the day to cook. We put out a lot of food. We do 600 or 700 covers on a Saturday out of 535 square feet. It’s no joke. But it’s a blessing. Tampa has really received us very well. It was very scary for me being in Tampa opening up a Cuban restaurant and being a Latina woman who’s not even Cuban. My grandmother was Cuban, but my mom was Mexican and she was adopted. But we hit. We’ve had such great support from the community and from everybody here at Armature Works.
What’s something everyone should try at Hemingway’s?
For breakfast, the breakfast Cuban. Something off the beaten path would be the West Tampa. It’s something you used to eat when you had leftover rice and your mom didn’t want to cook. You ate rice, fried egg, plantains and avocado. That’s what we used to eat sometimes. It just brings you home. It hits the heart. For lunch or dinner, definitely the Cuban sandwich. We’re known for that. Then I would do the ropa vieja bowl and the chicharrones. Our ropa vieja is to die for, and our chicharrones are amazing. People come here from everywhere to get them. I’ve had people come in from St. Pete, Clearwater, Sarasota. I have a couple who drives here twice a month from Sarasota just to come and eat here.
What’s your favorite small plate at another Bay-area restaurant?
I love the truffle beef tartare from Bern’s Steak House because it’s tender, it’s perfectly seasoned, the creaminess of the quail egg yolk on top… It’s a perfect portion. It’s the perfect amount of garlic. It’s something so simple, but it’s done right. That’s what I like about it. We go out to eat all the time, and I love complicated, deconstructed dishes, but what really puts a stamp on my palate is something that is classic or simple done so well. I hadn’t been to Bern’s in years, and we took my kids a couple months ago. I was like, oh my God, I forgot about this. It’s so delicious.
What would you like to see come out of Tampa’s food scene in the next few years?
I would love to see Tampa’s food scene a little more elevated. We’re heading in that direction. It would be great to see more chefs come out of the woodwork. There are so many chefs that I think don’t get recognized, or they don’t have the opportunity to open up a restaurant. They’re so talented but don’t have the money. That, I would love to see. I think there is great talent here, and we’re booming. We’re getting up there to become a New York or Miami or even Colorado and be put on that map.
1910 N. Ola Ave.
Bern’s Steak House
1208 S. Howard Ave.