OK, I don’t want anyone to start talking about a curse. It’s much too soon for that. But the restaurants set to open on Park Avenue in the space that has been occupied by oh so many restaurants over the years is experiencing some chef issues. Dominic Rice, who had been hired to be the chef at Boca, one of three venues planned for that corner on Canton Avenue, has left the organization. Rice had been working as a chef in New York when he was tapped to lead the kitchen at the new restaurant. What happened?
“I wish I knew,” said Michael Blesser, a partner with SoHo Hospitality Management, the Tampa restaurant group that is developing the new restaurants. According to Blesser, the chef’s leaving was abrupt. “[Rice] called me from the airport.”
“Airport?” Rice said when I reached him by phone. “I’m sitting in my house in College Park.” So, again I asked, What happened?
Rice initially said that he thought the restaurant, which has not yet opened, was strong enough that he could step away. But chefs rarely step away from a kitchen without having another one to step into immediately, which is not the case with Rice. There’s obviously more to it than that.
According to others close to the project, the partners wanted Rice to follow the menu that is in place, and apparently popular, at their Tampa Bay Boca. Rice, however, felt that he would have more freedom to be creative and put his imprint on the menu.
But his leaving doesn’t put SoHo back at square one. Rocky Tarantello, the chef who originally designed the Boca menu and was the company’s corporate chef when it opened in Tampa’s Hyde Park, is being brought on to open the Winter Park restaurant. And he doesn’t have far to go: Tarantello has been serving as a consultant through his company, ROC Inc., just down the street at Park Plaza Gardens. Tarantello told me that he will serve once again as the corporate chef to get Boca open. According to Blesser, that could be in approximately 10 days. He said he also hopes to open the venue upstairs, a bar with food to be known as Park Social, at the same time.
The third part of the project, Atlantic Beer & Oyster, off the Avenue in the Hidden Gardens plaza, opened over the weekend and was busy with crowds attending the art festival in Central Park.
As for Rice, there was some speculation that he had been planning to return to New York for some time, but he insists that isn’t true. “I’m fully vested in Central Florida,” he told me. “I just got my Florida driver’s licence today.”