Interview: Greg Baker, One of Tampa’s Finest Chefs

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The chef behind The Refinery hasn’t repeated a dish in more than six years

Baker is a five-time James Beard Award semi-finalist. 

Chef Greg Baker and his Tampa restaurant The Refinery have been mentioned in Bon Appetit , Southern Living, Conde Nast Traveler, Forbes, Esquire Magazine, New York Magazine, The Local Palate, USA Today, The Washington Post, Edible Tampa Bay, and Garden & Gun Magazine as well as countless local and national online and weekly publications. Celebrity Chef Mario Batali included Greg in his most recent cookbook; America: Farm to Table. Zagat rated The Refinery ‘Best Restaurant’ 2012 - 2015. The James Beard Foundation named The Refinery as a semi-finalist Best New Restaurant in 2011 and named Baker a semi-finalist for Best Chef South in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. 

The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?  What were your early influences?
Greg Baker:  I started cooking by accident. I was washing dishes as a high school job in 1983 when the cooks all walked out. I was instantly promoted. A few years later, after dropping out of college for the third time, I decided to go to culinary school. Master Chef Roland Henin was the chairman of the board of directors at the time, so with enough savvy to always have a spare cigarette when he was around, I got a pretty good education.

At the time that I started cooking as a career, 1987, there weren't really any celebrity chefs in the US. I was aware of a few chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck and Norman Van Aken via magazines. My earliest passion was the food of central Italy. Far from the weirdness of 90's American cuisine - lacking in flavor but tortured into ring molds for gravity defying architecture and held together with sprigs of herb that had no relation to the dish - The foods of Tuscany and Lazio were honest and pure. That spoke volumes to me and are the basis of my approach to food today.

How do you select and work with suppliers?
I have very little need for traditional suppliers. For the most part, I work with local farms, designing my menus around their availability rather than designing a menu and then seeing what I can shoehorn in. I look for farmers who use sustainable methods, whether that's conventional, certified organic, or organic practices. I expect each farm to utilize fair labor practices with their agricultural workers - as this is an industry prone to abusive working conditions and wage theft. In short, I partner with people who do no harm.

Do you have a specialty, a special dish?
In over six and a half years of The Refinery's existence, with the menu changing almost weekly, I have not repeated a dish. In that, there's really no special dish - I love all my kids equally.

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What are your hopes and plans for the future?
My wife and I have plans for a fast casual concept that we hope to open in multiple locations. I'm not at liberty to discuss the exact concept at this point, but it will be a spinoff of one of our most popular items. I hope to one day be able to spend more time with my animals and family.