Imagine if you will, a weekend-long celebration of Tampa’s flourishing culinary scene, featuring the region’s renowned chefs, restaurants and caterers–all showcasing their craft at Tampa’s most iconic venues.
This dream became a reality thanks to the inaugural Tampa Bay Wine and Food Festival.
Partnering with Tampa Bay’s most highly sought-after restaurants and chefs, the public got to taste and savor the best of Tampa and St. Petersburg, including the region’s renowned and award-winning destinations, the season’s notable new openings and eagerly-awaited restaurants not yet open to the public.
A four-day smorgasbord of gastronomic pleasure culminated in a weekend takeover of Curtis Hixon Park, and festival-goers were treated to two days of epic, large-scale events.
The pièce de résistance was undoubtedly Friday evening’s chef showdown, an evening of competitive television-style culinary cook-offs where local chefs brought the flavor—and the flair. Attendees and a panel of judges watched 14 chefs battle in seven head-to-head showdowns in these categories: burger, seafood, fried chicken, tacos, truffle, sushi and pasta. Guests visited battle pavilions to sample each sumptuous dish and then vote. To say the battles were heated, and the decisions difficult, is a massive understatement.
Luckily, guests got to wash down the meal with wines and cocktails from beverage partners including Milagro, Stoli, 19 Crimes and Rabble Wine Company. With such an impressive lineup, many eaters were wishing for a second stomach.
Tampa Magazine’s very own Group Publisher, Shawna Wiggs, was amongst the panel of judges who enjoyed a close-up to all the action.
“I was honored to judge the event with some of the best chefs in Tampa, including Ferrell Alvarez from Rooster & the Till, Jeannie Pierola from Edison: Food + Drink Lab, and Sean Brasel from Meat Market. It was fun to hear their takes on the best dishes,” she says. “There were chefs spraying the crowd with champagne, live music and art on stage. It was the most fun event of the festival.”
When it came to judging, she had as much trouble as all of the attendees.
“The Nashville Hot Chicken from Joe Dodd of King of The Coop was one of my last bites of the evening and one of the best. His presentation was not overly complicated, and the dish felt like home. The pickleback shots he added were the perfect touch,” she recalls. “Both chefs competing in the taco competition, Chef Chris Fernandez of Red Mesa Cantina and Chef Christopher Yadid Garcia of Tacos Las Californias, brought so much passion to their presentations–you couldn’t help but love the dishes even more.”
Standouts for the event’s honorary chef host, Sean Brasel, Meat Market’s Executive Chef and partner, were the intense truffle flavor in the creation by Chef Josh Werksman of The Tampa Edition, and the sushi presentation from Chef David Reyes of Haiku.
“The biggest highlight was seeing how many people came for our first year. It was mind-blowing and inspirational,” he reflects. “With the chefs not knowing what to expect, they really brought it. I’m still a competitor at heart, and I also learned a few secrets watching.”
At the end of the sold-out event, Dodd, Yadid Garcia, Reyes and four other local chefs were declared winners in their respective categories. Next year, they’ll take the stage against 2024 challengers. “I can’t wait to see what next year brings,” Wiggs says. “I think you’ll see more chefs amp up the entertainment value of their presentations, so I expect Year 2 to be even more fun.”
The final sendoff was a grand tasting day, with 35 Tampa eateries led by the region’s top culinary talents presenting their selections of dishes.
Included was Azure at The Tampa Edition, helmed by Michelin-starred John Fraser, the highly-anticipated new dining concept from Oxford Commons, Predalina and Allelo, winner of our 2023 Best Restaurants contest in the best new restaurant category.
It was impressive and inspiring to see so many local eateries come together to make the event a success. Local favorites like 4 Rivers Smokehouse served up cult-favorite comfort foods such as bacon-wrapped smoked jalapenos and barbeque.
“Our company is built on the importance of supporting the communities that we are a part of,” says John Rivers, CEO. “Our Tampa smokehouses were thrilled to participate and bring some barbecue flair to the festival.”
Forbici treated guests to house-made meatballs and a focaccia appetizer with aged prosciutto.
“The festival team was great to work with. From prepping logistics before the festival to day-of setup, they were so supportive and grateful the restaurants were there,” reflects Forbici’s executive chef, Fernando Sanchez. “Our crew is already planning what we’d like to do next year.”
This year’s “Best of the Fest” bite-winner was JW Marriott Tampa Water Street’s Driftlight Steakhouse, crowned for dishes festival-goers could not stop raving about.
For 2024, the event organizers are already planning ahead.
“It is with much excitement that we announce April 9-13, 2024 as the official dates for next year! In fact, we are looking to start on Tuesday night with 10-20 unique celebrity and brand-driven off-the-menu dinners taking place Tuesday through Thursday before the weekend events,” says Valerie Roy, festival co-founder and producer. “We couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural year.”
The inaugural Tampa Bay Wine & Food Festival set out to celebrate the region’s culinary scene. It was a feat of greatness and a remarkable success. Sold-out events brought locals and visitors from near and far for a showcase of the area’s gastronomic prowess, solidifying Tampa Bay’s place as a must-visit culinary destination that’s only getting bigger and better.
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