Part 1: The Early Years with Chef Ted Dorsey
We sat down with Chef Ted Dorsey of the award winning The Mill Restaurant to ask him some standard interview questions. What we got was so much more and it is all so interesting that I am going to divide this into two sections: The early years and Up to now. The first thing he said to us was, "You know, I never really wanted to be a chef." This piece will explain what lead him to where he is today and what continues to drive him to greater and greater heights in his career.
Anyone who has ever met Chef Ted, knows what a genuinely humble and kind person lies behind that Executive Chef's coat. Eating his food is like eating his heart (not literally) on a plate. He and his kitchen staff, which he refers to as his second family, put their heart and soul into every item that comes out of that kitchen. Does that mean it's always perfect? Of course not. But they certainly strive for that.
Growing up, Chef Ted's dad always owned restaurants, bars and nightclubs. He was born in Atlanta but his family moved to Clearwater in 1982 when he was six months old to open a second nightclub on Gandy Blvd. They fell in love with the area and his father stayed in the hospitality business opening and redoing many, many restaurants, mostly in Tampa. He was always working the front of the house with his dad.
His mother has owned a preschool in Carrollwood for about 26 years, his sister is a teacher in Hillsborough County and his brother a real estate agent. So Chef Ted is the only one who really followed in his father's "hospitality" footsteps.
Growing up, Chef Ted said, "I learned the cooking stuff from my grandmother. My mom’s family is from Springville, Alabama." He and his brother would go up to visit every summer.
"I mean she would do home cooked meals three times a day. They had a farm right there. My grandfather would work the farm and, and bring in all the stuff. In the morning I’d wake up and she’d be down there making fresh biscuits and sausage and gravy, dinners would be served with sliced fresh tomato from the garden. So, I think that’s where I, at a young age, first started to understand the cooking side," he said.
After High School
After high school, Chef Ted did not even think about going to culinary school. He said, "I just never knew. I never thought about it. I went to college and through the process when I was in my early 20s and it was then that I realized that I didn’t want to go down the roads that I had previously thought I was going to. I figured some kind of banking or money management. It was then that I realized that it just didn’t really excite me."
He goes on, "And I always knew I wanted to be in this business and I was always front of the house. So I was always in it. I was managing and I thought, you know, if I want to own my own place I guess the best way to do it is to have an understanding of the whole operation so I’ll go to culinary school and learn. And even in culinary school I was an awful student because I didn’t know anything! I remember watching other kids who obviously worked in kitchens before and go that’s something you did? Oh, crap. I’ll just try that. And it was, it was really…. It didn’t click until working at Mise en Place for Marty" (Chef Marty Blitz - owner of Mise en Place). "That was when the light bulb went off."
His First Start in the Kitchen
Chef Ted got his start at Mise en Place in Tampa. He graduated from culinary school at Le Cordon Blue in Tampa. He said, "There are very limited, really cool restaurants that you want to work at in order to learn from an amazing chef and Marty’s got an amazing reputation. I was there for three and a half years and while I was there Ferrell (Chef Ferrell Alvarez of The Rooster and the Till) was there too. So not only was I learning from Marty but I was learning from Ferrell as well. And I didn’t know anything. I never wanted to be a chef. So I never really paid much attention how to do things. I remember coming out of culinary school and I didn’t even know to cut an avocado because I was front of the house my whole life."
Chef Ted started as an unpaid intern and the lunch grill was the first position that came open on the line at Mise en Place. Marty asked Ted if he wanted the shot and he said, "I’ll take it and don’t care what it pays. Just get me on that line. And then over three and a half years I just worked my way up and up and up. And at the time I didn’t know that Ferrell was considering leaving. Otherwise, maybe I would have stayed a little longer and try to get a shot at that position."
First Start as Head Chef
An opportunity came along for a position as sous-chef of a restaurant that had just opened on Davis Island called Chez Bryce. He got the interview, did a tasting for the executive chef/owner and he was hired right on the spot. He said, "It was the first time I’d ever worked for an executive chef owner who wanted to be the owner but didn’t want to do the chef duties." After about a year the business was struggling due to unfortunate health issues of the owner's wife and Chef Ted knew that he needed to find something new.
Being fairly new as a chef it is not easy to find good opportunities. "So I started talking to all my food reps because without having a big name for yourself in town it’s not easy. Quality restaurant positions aren’t just posted on Craig’s List. Not for chef positions. Usually for those you go through a headhunter or other services. However, reps know everybody because they probably have 20 accounts down here," said Chef Ted.
Collaborations On New Concepts in Tampa
He goes on, "One of them called me like two or three days after I left Chez Bryce. I was planning to take a couple of weeks off just to mellow out. You come off working 90 plus hours a week, like we all do, and you need some time off. However just a couple of days went by and my phone rang and it was Gordon Davis. He said, "Ted." I said, "yes, sir." He said, "you know, I’m Gordon Davis. Do you know who I am?" I said, "I know a little bit about you, sir." He said, "well, listen I’d like to have a meeting with you." I said, "okay." So we went and met and he showed me the original Ceviche's space in the base of the Bayshore Royale."
At the meeting, Davis pitched Ted on the Ciro's Speakeasy & Supper Club concept. Then Ted did a tasting for Davis and blew him away. Ted said, "Ciro's just took off like wildfire. I mean it was one of the greatest experiences because never having been an executive chef but now having an owner who just lets you do whatever you want to...well it really allowed me to teach myself and try new amazing things."
In any business it almost always come down to cost margins, percentages and profits. But, as Ted said, "when we opened Ciro's, Gordon said, I don’t care. I don’t care about food cost. I don’t care about any of that. I want to win awards. And he knew what he was doing. He wanted to use this as a catalyst to get additional investor financing to open more restaurants. So he let me do whatever I wanted to do. (He) stayed out of my way and I came up with some amazing creations that are still featured on the menu."
So with Gordon Davis as his mentor, and with his unwavering trust in Chef Ted's creations, they went onto open several more restaurants in Tampa together:
Ciro's Speakeasy & Supper Club - May 2010
Samba Room - February 2012
Boca Kitchen Bar & Market - February 2012
Copperfish - May 2013
Of these restaurants, all are still open except the Samba Room which which was only open for six months and became Copperfish. Copperfish did actually close, as well, earlier this year.
Onto a New Venture
After so many years, Chef Ted decided that it was time to move on. When he started looking, one of his dear friends who was a small investor got him an interview with the Hotel Zamora to be the Executive Chef at Castile Restaurant. His interview went well and when he did the tasting he hit it out of the ball park. He said, "So I got the job. That was a long, slow process getting the hotel open. I mean I was working on that project for 10 months before the hotel was opened. Opening a hotel is a very unique experience."
To be continued...next up Chef Ted talks about his staff that is like his family, his family and the formation of The Mill.
(Chef Ted Photo at top and bottom by Barry Lively)
The Mill Restaurant in Downtown St. Pete - Rustic American with a Southern touch and a French Creole twist.