TAMPA - It was a milestone for the Bay Area food scene, last year, when three local chefs were named semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Foundation awards. It's often called the 'Oscars of Food.'
But this week, one of them, Greg Baker of the Refinery Restaurant was named a semifinalists for a third time.
The restaurant is easily overlooked along busy Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights and the chef inside puts on no airs. But the Refinery has gotten recognition even Bern's Steakhouse would envy
"I'm just a dumb kid who cooks. I'm not supposed to be doing this, you know?" said Baker
Baker is actually a formally trained chef. He and his wife, Michele, opened up the Refinery three years ago and have been visited by the likes of Mario Batali. During the Republican National Convention in Tampa, New York Times columnist and former food critic Frank Bruni tweeted his praise saying:
"The Refinery in Tampa is a REALLY good resto. That and 'um Clint were the #RNC highlights."
Baker, who is up for best Chef in the South, prides himself on using locally sourced produce and meats whenever possible. He even credits the local farms that supply them.
"I like to call it country cooking, no matter what country it happens to come from."
Baker's menu items like Shake' n Bake Tofu or Farmer Pie with roasted beet and quinoa often elevate familiar comfort foods with sophisticated ingredients and preparation. It's still unpretentious and sometimes irreverent:
"At the time of the oil spill, we made a BP salad which was oysters poached in olive oil served with a seaweed salad."
The growing number of casual, but high quality restaurants, in Seminole Heights are no threat to Baker. In fact, during our interview, he sported a t-shirt from The Independent, a restaurant and bar across the street.
"It's community, not competition. I love this neighborhood and I want to see it come back to be something great again. If I'm going to put my money, time and hard work toward something, why not keep it in my own backyard?" said Baker.
The James Beard finalists will be announced in Charleston, South Carolina next month. Win or lose, Baker says the nominations have been very good for business.