Greg Baker is pretty humble about his skills in the kitchen.
“I’m just a dumb kid who cooks,” said the 43-year-old chef, who co-owns The Refinery restaurant in Seminole Heights with wife Michelle.
Clearly, however, the James Beard Foundation has a different assessment of the restaurateur. The Refinery, which opened at 5137 N. Florida Ave. just less than a year ago, has been named a semi-finalist in the 2011 awards. Winning a James Beard award is often considered the “Oscars of food.”
The Refinery is one of 33 semi-finalists from across the country in the Best New Restaurant category. Other Florida nominees for Best New Restaurant are in Miami and Pensacola.
Baker said business has been brisk since the announcement came down Thursday.
“Friday night shattered any previous sales record, and Saturday came close to tying Friday,” said Baker, who is also a Seminole Heights resident. “Thursday it was like people came to eat after work without stopping home first.”
Baker said he learned of the news when his wife called him while he was out shopping. She told him to first sit down. He said he couldn’t.
“When she told me (we were nominated), well, my response was totally unprintable,” he said with a laugh.
Next month, a panel of judges will cull down the list of semi-finalists to five in each category, followed by an awards ceremony in May. Such a nomination isn’t bad for a chef who didn’t find his love for cooking until a couple years after graduating from the Western Culinary Institute in 1988.
“It was more something I knew how to do and do well,” Baker said. But around 1990 he began working in Clearwater under a new chef from Sonoma Valley who was so driven, so passionate and so creative that it permanently altered Baker’s outlook on his profession.
“It really shattered my whole view of what cooking was,” he said, adding he began to get “giddy” over creating dishes with new ingredients. “I said ‘Wow, this is it!’ It took me from this thing that was rather boring to something that was rather exciting.”
The Bakers, who have been married for nearly 10 years, opened The Refinery in the former building where the Bungalow Bistro once operated. The vision was to create upper-echelon dishes that are made with passion but offered at an affordable price.
“There are some very good restaurants in town … but I can’t afford to go there,” he said. “I’m just a working class guy like anybody else. We don’t feel that good food should be reserved for special occasions. We wanted to take this kind of food and strip it of all pretentiousness and have this place be a laid-back environment.”
Being named a semi-finalist in the James Beard awards is something that was still sinking in for Baker Sunday. While he says The Refinery may be at the “right place at the right time” to win, his establishment is an underdog for sure.
“We’re an incredibly small restaurant with an incredibly small staff – we’re like the poor kids,” he said. “The people we are up against are multimillion-dollar restaurants, but we opened not only on a shoestring but one tied together in four places.”