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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Epicurean Hotel's opening is close enough to savor

TAMPA — Chef Chad Johnson’s shiny new baby sits in the middle of his new kitchen at the culinary-themed Epicurean Hotel like a silver Rock of Gibraltar.

The gaudy centerpiece is a $170,000 custom-made Viking stove that took almost two weeks to assemble. Within arm’s reach a cook can use two gas burners, two 12-inch induction surfaces and a chromium grill. In other corners there are flat-top plancha grills and pasta cookers and sous vide machines and blast freezers and just about every tool anyone could ever need to serve a food order.

An enormous stainless-steel exhaust hood hangs like a halo above the unit. A double-deck platform snakes around the room acting as a pass-through between the cooks and the front-of-house servers who will take plates to the Grand Cru ballroom, the Elevage restaurant or for room service.

“This is what happens when you don’t give a chef a budget and you let him buy a stove,” Johnson says.

One week from Wednesday, all of the hotel’s elaborately planned luxuries will go into service as the Epicurean opens for business on South Howard Avenue after more than six years of planning. The boutique hotel is a joint venture between Bern’s Steak House, Mainsail Lodging & Development and Marriott.

The resort promises an all-encompassing culinary experience for guests, including the new Elevage restaurant; a patisserie named Chocolate Pi; an instructional theater; the Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits store; the Evangeline spa, which will use wine products in treatments; and the Edge Social Drinkery rooftop bar overlooking South Tampa’s skyline.

“I joke about how we designed a kitchen and built a hotel around it,” general manager Tom Haines says. “It isn’t far from the truth.”

As part of the Marriott Autograph Collection of hotels, Haines plans to give guests an intimate lodging experience. There is no front desk, bell staff or concierge at the $33 million, 140-room resort. Instead, an Epicurean host greets guests at the car door (or arranges their transportation from the airport) and escorts them to their rooms. All room keys and transactions will be swiped with an iPad.

Once in the room, hosts will introduce guests to their own “personal artisan pantry” stocked with gourmet goodies, including chocolate and sea salt caramels, prosciutto and 12-year-old Dewar’s Scotch. A handful of wines will be available as well, with tags that help guests pair snacks with their vino.

“Ever had Cypress Grove Purple Haze Goat Cheese in your hotel room?” Johnson asks.

Haines says his goal is to avoid having guests stand in lines at the hotel, where guest rooms range from $179 to $299 and suites run $299 to $449 a night.

“The thing I’ve always hated as a consumer at hotels is that you’re supposed to be the center of the universe in terms of hospitality, yet you have to deal with four different people by the time you get to your room,” Haines says. “We’re the non-hotel.”

Johnson and Haines brainstormed with others to deliver what guests usually expect in luxury lodging while playing to the opposite of a resort experience. As sleek and modern as the iPads and the spa treatments will be, there still will be hemp chandeliers, old railroad carts and a 10-foot Christmas tree made with wine bottles in the lobby.

The quirky Bern’s decorating touch will be evident as well, with giant Shun knives as door handles at the culinary theater, knickknacks from steak house founder Bern Laxer’s own collection, and a $3,000 faux-leather end table near the zinc-rimmed bar in the shape of a 300-pound hog.

“Everything is a mix of new and shiny and old and beat-up,” Johnson says. “I’m sure there’s a more eloquent way to say that.”

“It’s been fun working with Chad because he comes from a non-hotel role,” Haines says.

“I’m the guy who raises my hand and says, ‘Too corporate!’” Johnson says.

Their personalized approach extends to the Elevage restaurant, where servers will present business cards instead of wearing name tags. Front-of-house staff also will be allowed to select their own casual attire instead of wearing one-style-fits-all uniforms.

The expensive kitchen notwithstanding, Johnson says he downsized at Elevage, choosing a menu of comfort food made with fine ingredients. He’s most excited about breakfast, which no Bern’s restaurant has served. Bern’s owner David Laxer and Mainsail’s president Joe Collier want it to become a power breakfast spot for South Tampa’s movers and shakers.

“We don’t have four different forks,” he says. “We have one fork. We all know how to use it. We’re trying to take away the things that cause anxiety for people when they get into a fancy restaurant.”

Adjacent to Elevage, 32 panels of vertically grown vegetables and herbs will greet customers through the Howard Avenue entrance. The panels, grown by Uriah’s Urban Farm of Tampa and replenished twice a week, will allow cooks to create salads using vegetation cut from the hallway display.

“If you come in from the street, you’ll walk by your house salad,” Johnson says.

A few feet away, a culinary classroom with tiered seating will showcase not only cooks from the Bern’s family of restaurants, but also wine and spirits experts from around the world and chefs from other restaurants.

With three convection ovens, six gas burners and two portable induction burners, a chef could prepare dinner for 30 in front of class attendees or for private events. Cameras will display techniques on two 70-inch flat-screen televisions as well as record demonstrations for showing on a channel in each hotel room.

Johnson says at first he was skeptical, but now he sees the classroom’s huge potential to attract local guests.

“Now it’s taken on a life of its own,” he says. “We’ll have everything from wine classes to vodka presentations, to champagne seminars.”

On the north side of the entrance driveway, Chocolate Pi will create pastries for the hotel and serve daily teas from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On the hotel’s fourth floor, Edge Social Drinkery plans a menu full of craft cocktails and late-night snacks that include a macaron of the day, chocolate bonbons and chocolate chip cookies with milk foam.

Details that most hotels overlook until after they open have been considered, including where kitchen trash cans and dish pans will go. The Italian plaster in the wine store is stained Cabernet red. Hand sinks for employees were placed for maximum efficiency.

“We tried to find an appropriate place for all those items,” Johnson says. “Usually you’re stumbling over them because they’re dropped wherever needed. This is more work area than I’ve ever been around.”

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