Editor’s note: We’re just now starting to feel the tremors, but the Florida food scene is set for a seismic disruption: Chris Sherman is stepping down from his role producing the state’s Golden Spoon Awards for Florida Trend magazine. The oldest and most coveted dining awards in the state have been under his direction for the past 14 years, and as we go to press, Florida Trend Executive Editor Mark R. Howard says the future of the Golden Spoons is undecided.
Before helming the Golden Spoons, Sherman was for 30 years arguably the state’s most important food critic, first at the Orlando Sentinel and then the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), earning a James Beard Foundation finalist award in 2002.
As he shifts into semi-retirement , this giant in the Florida food scene sits down with colleague and friend Jeff Houck.
It feels too quiet when Chris Sherman ambles through the front door just before lunch at Taqueria Gonzalez on North Howard Avenue in Tampa.
Sure, you can hear the sizzle of the flattop grill as it transforms onions into vegetable candy and fills fresh flour tortillas with warm, Sleep Number-quality goodness. You can hear workers in the kitchen speaking Spanish as orders roll in. Cellphones ping, Mexican music plays in the background and customers chat as the aroma of chorizo and beef and charring jalapeños fills the tiny dining room.
But there should be more commotion when he walks in. Like mariachi trumpets and thundering cannons and some sort of standing ovation as he walks slowly to my table.
“If they only knew who was walking in,” I say to myself. He’s seen a million taquerias — and other restaurants — and he’s rocked them all.
He takes a seat next to me unnoticed by anyone at the restaurant, removes his mask at the table and reveals the fantastic trademark powder-white handlebar mustache under his tortoise-shell glasses, which ride above his lengthy white sideburns. His scalp, tanned and freckled from too much sun in convertible cars and ringed with wispy white hair, gives him a look of Ben Franklin-at-the-beach.
For 30 years, he was arguably the state’s most important food critic, first at the Orlando Sentinel and then the St. Petersburg Times. (It changed names to the Tampa Bay Times after he left.) It earned him a James Beard Foundation finalist award in 2002.
He left for Florida Trend magazine to cover the multifaceted business of the state’s food and hospitality industries, helming the publication’s prestigious annual Golden Spoon Awards that recognize restaurant excellence statewide.
Earlier this year, he left Florida Trend to spend more time with grandchildren, while still working in semi-retirement on cookbook projects for Story Farm, a publishing house in Orlando. Florida Trend Executive Editor Mark R. Howard says the future of the Golden Spoons is undecided.
Chris, 74, has chosen this taqueria at the suggestion of friend and fellow “taco freak” Tom Scherberger to talk about his three decades spent as a food critic and five decades as a journalist and writer. While devouring birria and campechano tacos and washing them down with cucumber agua frescas, we discuss the unlikely journey.
I grew up as a journalist reading Chris’s reviews. I later worked for the competition at the Tampa Tribune as a food editor and writer. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years, vaguely at first and then more closely as our professional friendship aged into something warm like bourbon.
I wanted to write about Chris using a technique not unlike food criticism, which combines reporting with fact-based, first-person opinion and context. He is among the last remaining bridges between Tampa Bay’s concept-driven food world of the 1980s, which birthed take-the-world-by-storm chains like Hooters and Outback Steakhouse, and the exploding hatchery during the past 15 years that has produced more locally driven places like Rooster & the Till and Edison: Food + Drink Lab.
He was reviewing restaurants and writing about trends before the Internet turned everyone with a smartypants phone into a Yelp reviewer. Mention Chris’s name and restaurateurs, chefs, winemakers and other food writers instantly summon respect for what the best restaurant criticism during the heyday of newspapers could be.
“You should be prepared,” Chris tells me between dips of fresh-made tortilla chips into salsa. During one trip to his mouth, one drips onto his blue dress shirt. A stray chip fragment that catches on his pocket is plucked into his mouth.
“It’s a long and twisted road.”
When he speaks in his throaty growl, it’s the audio version of watching cold butterscotch pour from a jar, with long gaps between words and phrases as they connect with precision. When he eats while talking, sentences seemingly stretch into decades.
He tells his life story through the prism of food, of course.
One of four children, he grew up in Cincinnati, “the home of five-star restaurants and five-way chili” and German staples like goetta and sausage fried with apples. His mother ran for the school board and cooked with inspiration from Gourmet magazine and department store cooking classes. His father died when Chris was 6 months old; his mother married a doctor two years later.
After high school, he studied history at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In his off-hours, he edited the college newspaper. “They were not big food times,” Chris says, “except I discovered you could perk up Campbell’s soup by not adding water and pouring in Worcestershire sauce.”
He had visions of a world-saving career, applying to seminary and to journalism school. He spent a year in the journalism program at Stanford University in California, interned at the San Francisco Examiner and covered campus riots for United Press International. Eventually, he made his way back east, first working for a journalism review in Washington D.C. and New York City, then settling into daily journalism at the Raleigh Times, covering county government, law enforcement and courts.
“Those were the best years of my journalism career,” he says. “What I really liked about cops and robbers was there was a lot of it, and you met people at very important incidents in their lives, whether they were arrested or they were victims.”
A brief stint working at a paper in Binghamton, N.Y., reminded him how little he cared for shoveling snow, so he pooled his money and spent six months in Peru. “It’s where I could make my money last the longest,” he said.
With his career ladder broken in pieces, he came back to do some technical writing, then worked at a couple of pizza joints before landing at the paper in Shreveport as the front-page editor. In his off-time he started anonymously reviewing restaurants as “The Well-Fed Reporter,” to match the competing newspaper’s “The Hungry Reporter” column. (His go-getter editor even sent him to El Salvador to cover the war for a few weeks, during which time he scooped the New York Times.)
In 1986, he moved to the Orlando Sentinel to be the restaurant critic, food editor and, for the first time, a wine columnist. Orlando’s restaurant culture and food life had spent 15 years being transformed by the magnetism and money of Disney World, attracting new chefs and rapidly spinning them out to create new concepts. He didn’t know anything about writing on wine at that point.
“It was sort of ‘Learn along with Sherm,’ but I had my first trip to France and Spain and went back to California to wine country once or twice,” he says. “If I could have done things differently I would have gone into the wine business. I just really enjoyed the chemistry, the business, the people and the geography.”
Heather McPherson, a well-known Florida publicist, cookbook author and food writer, was an assistant copy desk chief at the Sentinel who followed Sherman as food critic and features writer. She said Sherman excelled because he was fair. “Not soft, not a pushover, but one of the best constructive critics I’ve ever read,” she says. “He has a talent of explaining why things weren’t the way they were supposed to be without taking them to the guillotine.”
Unlike the stereotype of the haughty, pointy-nosed reviewer who hates everything, the food critic’s role is not to be a snob, she says. The ones who have done it best in recent decades — including Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times, Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle and Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post — treated with equal respect the mom-and-pop restaurants, the Michelin-star chefs and the fish fry and low-country boil cooks.
“He knew how to be that person in the moment,” McPherson says. “I marveled at his ability to choose exactly the right words.”
So when he moved in 1989 to the St. Petersburg Times to be the food critic and food section editor, it was a shock when he realized that St. Pete and Tampa and other cities and towns in the newspaper’s circulation area were drastically behind the national trends in dining.
“I wanted to be here because I wanted to be in Florida and near the ocean, but I made the mistake a lot of people do in thinking that Tampa Bay would be as advanced as Orlando,” he says. “No, it wasn’t.”
There was a core group of restaurateurs and chefs with high standards, but the depth of talent was as shallow as a sauté pan. He made it his goal to go to the better restaurants to see what the existing standards were and say how they did some things right but how he would like to see them improve. He also made it a point to go to the everyday places, the popular mom-and-pops, to celebrate what they were able to achieve.
“There were a couple Energizer bunnies like Richard Gonzmart [of the Columbia Restaurant] and Frank Chivas [of Island Way Grill] but the good places stood out and they weren’t expensive,” he says. “The Red Mesa gang, they started out with the first seafood restaurant on Fourth Street [in St. Petersburg]. They had good, fresh fish at a reasonable price.”
Chefs like Marty Blitz of Mise en Place and Jeannie Pierola, then of Bern’s Steak House and later SideBern’s, set the culinary table in the 1990s for what eventually emerged in the mid-2000s into the broader range of locally crafted restaurants throughout both St. Pete, Tampa and their suburbs.
“We’ve been slowly catching up and most of that credit goes to people who came here and asked, ‘Why don’t we have this?’ ‘Why don’t we have that?’” he says. “It really took some effort, but in most cases what was encouraging were the individual people who led the way.”
As the scene improved and competition became more fierce to open new and better places, he categorized four types of restaurants: Restaurants that are good and expensive; restaurants that are good and not expensive; restaurants that are bad and expensive; restaurants that are bad and Inexpensive.
“Two of those you don’t have to pay attention to,” he says. “What people want to know is what’s good and not expensive, and what’s expensive and not good.”
Next in the hierarchy: restaurants that are good and expensive. “Those but are basically going to be fantasy reading for most people.”
There seemed to be no limit to what you could learn from Chris, says Janet Keeler, his former editor at the Times (and current Edible Tampa Bay contributor).
“It seemed like he knew everything,” she says. “But not in a preachy way. The origins of food, where dishes came from, and what needed to be reviewed. He really had his feelers out.”
He was strategic about how he reviewed places, visiting twice on the newspaper’s dime, and bringing three people so that there was a variety of food from the menu to discuss.
Often, he took photographers with him so he could get better photos. He’d sneak a menu into someone’s purse or visit the restroom to scribble in a notepad while the memory was fresh.
Disguises to maintain anonymity were rare, despite his rather notable physical appearances. (Chefs and friends lovingly described him to me invariably with words like “walrus,” “Burl Ives” and “Wilford Brimley.”)
McPherson says that another of his talents was his ability to champion a chef or restaurant without losing his objectivity or compromising his ethics.
Pierola, who opened Edison: Food + Drink Lab nine years ago in Tampa in addition to other restaurants since, says she always thought of him as the consummate professional. As a young chef growing up on Anna Maria Island, she remembers reading his reviews with awe.
“I thought he set an extremely professional tone,” she says. “But the part that is almost infectious is that he’s as excited about the food as we are.
“To be able to convey in a written piece the kind of enthusiasm that Chris always would speak about … How many critics grip you and grab you and make you want to go there? He wove it in such a way that you could visualize it.”
She’ll always remember his review of SideBern’s when she was the executive chef.
“I was sobbing,” she says. “Feeling his excitement was life-affirming. That this man I had watched write for so many years could have been so excited … It was absolutely thrilling.”
Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till, which Sherman inducted into the Golden Spoon Hall of Fame with such Tampa legends as the Columbia Restaurant, Mise en Place and Bern’s Steak House, says Chris used his role as critic to bring light to what they were doing.
“For Marty and Jeannie to get national attention at that time was really big,” he says. “Tampa still struggles to get positive national attention from a culinary perspective.”
Sherman taught him as a young chef and now as a business owner that it’s not about the frills. “It’s more about the story and the connection to the heart and soul of things. You can taste love, you know?”
Bottom line, Chris tells me, is that you can’t go into a review looking to put a target on the place.
“I think you have to go into every restaurant hoping to have a great time,” Chris says. “You don’t go in planning to screw someone. The hard thing is to go a second time to a bad restaurant and still try to be upbeat going in, thinking maybe it will be better this time. It’s a little harder to convince friends to tag along for a second visit to a restaurant I didn’t like the first time.”
If they only knew who was walking in
Chris Sherman kicked my ass on a story. It was March 7, 2007. It was a Wednesday.
I remember the date because he published a story in the Taste section of the Times that blew my mind.
It started like a travel story: “Only a half-mile off U.S. 41, on any Sunday, the average local may feel disoriented and inclined to ask, ‘Where am I?’
“The palm trees, old ranch houses, picnic tables and parking lot full of MacDill Air Force Base decals are familiar,” Sherman wrote. “But there’s a large, peaked temple with red eaves and gold dragon prows. Beside the Stars and Stripes, there are red, white and blue in stripes of a different order. On special days there are saffron banners decked with red wheels. And sheriff’s deputies to direct traffic.
“This is Hillsborough County, and thousands of Thais, Buddhists of all nations, Asian-Americans and anyone who loves Thai food know it as Wat Mongkolratanaram. More simply, it is Wat Tampa, a very special, small patch of country that could be mistaken for a village in southern Thailand.”
He went on to describe a weekly Sunday morning wonderland of exotic flavors, a Wonkaland of coconut rice cakes, lush milky teas, sizzling chicken satay, boxes of cold yum noodles and salads of fresh green papaya.
He explained that the gatherings on the shaded southern bank of the Tampa Bypass Canal off Palm River Road attracted perhaps 1,000 congregants, Thai men and women, some U.S. military veterans, who met their brides overseas years ago, and a new generation that assimilated and married. The weekly outdoor fair (a decade before it was trendy to call them food halls) packed visiting cars in grass lots as hundreds dined on picnic tables beneath oaks dripping with Spanish moss that waved in the humid breeze. It was more than a food-lover’s paradise. It was a pilgrimage.
And I had no idea it existed. Not a clue. I had been a food editor and writer at the Tampa Tribune for five years by that point. You’d think I would have heard about such a rich, robust, unique food gathering.
I had lived in the Tampa Bay area since I was 3-years-old and did my best to swallow the place whole. Chris’s story made me feel like I just flew into Tampa for the first time from Paducah.
Only two years earlier, in 2005, cook and author Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show on the Travel Channel began changing the appetite for Americans who weren’t able to travel to distant lands themselves but wanted to participate in the experience. The show, and later Bourdain’s series “Parts Unknown” on CNN, would open eyes about all sorts of food customs.
Chris did it without leaving Tampa Bay.
It was a lesson I’d never forget: Everything you want to write about the world and what it eats and why it eats what it does can be found right here at home.
All you have to do is open your mind, open your mouth and take a bite.