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Chef Ferrell Alvarez

An Unlikely Date with Fate

For Tampa native Chef Ferrell Alvarez, passion pays the bills. Lucky, right? Even luckier still: He discovered it by accident.

By Annalise Mabe

For Tampa native Chef Ferrell Alvarez, passion pays the bills. Lucky, right? Even luckier still: He discovered it by accident.

The award-winning Chef and restaurateur, along with his dedicated team, have nabbed a Michelin Bib Gourmand Award, a James Beard nomination, and have established six concepts and seven restaurants in the Tampa Bay area in just nine short years. Put simply, Alvarez stays moving.

It’s been a long road to reach the top of Tampa’s culinary mountain.

Alvarez got his start in the culinary world at 15 years-old, washing dishes and prepping vegetables at a catering company. A chef there spotted a drive and talent in him that he helped cultivate, seeing more in Alvarez—a self described “knucklehead doing knucklehead things” at the time—than he could see in himself.

Chef Ferrell Alvarez

“I had no idea what that meant,” Alvarez says of the significant chance encounter that would color the rest of his life. We’re in The Tampa EDITION’s inspired chartreuse and slat-wood-paneled lounge, speaking over the soft 50s doo-wop that greets all who enter. “That was the beginning of my future without me knowing it then.”

Another push came, unwittingly, from Alvarez’s high school accounting teacher, who encouraged him to try his hand at a pilot program, a school-to-work internship. Alvarez proceeded to complete the 450 hours of volunteer work at a local hotel, moving through each position: front desk, housekeeping, forecasting with the GM, kitchen work, maintenance, and everything in between.

“I think it was meant to scare me away and put me through college,” he says with a laugh. “But it totally intrigued me. I was all in.”

This was 1994, when the restaurant industry and life therein were much different than today.

“Before Food Network, before Emeril, before Bourdain,” he says.

Food service, and cooking writ large, in other words, were absent any kind of glamour back then. So maligned was the industry, in fact, Alvarez says his father, a now-retired physician, was taken aback when his son told him he’d chosen the profession.

He literally said to me: ‘You’re going to be a greasy cook? In a hot kitchen?’”

But that didn’t shake Alvarez off the scent, and neither did the grueling days and nights. Each morning, Monday through Friday, he’d wake up early, ride his bike to culinary school, put in the hours (8am to 3pm), get out, and ride right back to long shifts in hotel kitchens.

“Less than half of us who were admitted into the culinary program ended up graduating,” he says.

After graduation, he found work at Saddlebrook Resort just outside Tampa. There he quickly moved up to Sous Chef Tournant, covering the five restaurants on property, bopping around and learning how to execute new-to-him cuisines while gaining leadership experience.

After nearly five years Alvarez moved on to working under the wings of Florida legend Marty Blitz of Mise En Place, which he’d read about in the glossy pages of Gourmet. Mise, says Alvarez, was one of the only restaurants doing cool, avant-garde things in the back of house. He remembers working up the courage to cold call Blitz in between lunch and dinner service at the resort, telling him he admired the Chef and his work, and asking for the chance to learn under him. Impressed with his moxy, Blitz asked to meet.

It was another date with fate.

At Mise Alvarez found his voice. He credits Blitz, co-owner Maryann Ferenc, and Ty Rodriguez (then general manager, now business partner and best friend), with giving him the space to push the restaurant, to try new things, and ultimately hit record highs together.

“I was so hungry in the kitchen to do cool things and push the envelope,” Alvarez says. “I was relentless.”

That hunger and drive eventually led to Alvarez opening his own spot, the renowned and award-winning Rooster and the Till, which he opened in 2013 with a hope, a prayer, and some borrowed money from friends and early believers. There was no indication then that this “1200 square feet of a white box in Seminole Heights,” as he describes it, would turn into the empire Alvarez oversees today. Especially given, initially, he and his staff had “no idea what we were doing.”

Beyond that: the space had no floor drains, no grease traps, no hood system, no gas. Alvarez and Brian Lampe (a cook he met at Mise who is now exec at Rooster), built most of the restaurant with their hands and the help of one contractor. They found abandoned fencing around the neighborhood, brought it in, and sat on buckets for two weeks, pulling out nails to make a reclaimed wood wall. They found affordable chicken feeder lights on Etsy, and hung them with Edison bulbs before Edison bulbs were ubiquitous. They even found an after-hours joint on Craigslist that had just gone out of business, and carted its bar over in a rented U-Haul. They then bought some cheap used chairs and barstools, sanded them down and painted them black.

Upon opening, the hard work paid off in the form of three-hour wait times, the considerable buzz Alvarez and Lampe had created prior to opening revealing itself almost instantly. Since those early days Rooster has expanded from 37 seats to 72, and won many accolades, including the number one restaurant in the Tampa Bay Times’ Top 50 list, 2018. All that early success compounded on itself as they threw everything they had at the new endeavor.

Alvarez is cooking with gas now, both figuratively and literally.

“We’d make ten thousand and reinvest $9,999,” he says. “And quite frankly, that’s what we’re still doing. We’ve remodeled Rooster three times.”

Rooster turns nine this year (“It’s still very much my baby,” he says) and has launched Alvarez into a certain strata which has allowed his new concepts to flourish, tumbling into all parts of Tampa with a momentum which can’t be stopped.

Up next was Nebraska Mini Mart, a fast casual shuffle-board spot with fresh burgers, crispy fries, and fried chicken. Then Gallito Taqueria, a Mexican street-food joint, came to live in Lakeland before a second in Sparkman Wharf along with sisters Dang Dude (Asian-inspired street food and boba appropriately named with a phrase that could describe his career to this point) and Lunch Lady (scratch-made pressed sandwiches). Now, Alvarez and his team, Proper House Group (PHG), are introducing Ash, their highly anticipated, Italian-inspired, full-service restaurant. The restaurant will be his third in the newly developed Water Street Tampa, one of the hottest and most talked about neighborhoods in the entire country.

But lest you think this means he’s slowing down, think again. Alvarez still controls all creative within PHG and stays deeply involved in writing new tasting menus every couple months, writing four or five Guest Chef dinner menus every year, changing Rooster’s menu every quarter for peak seasonality, and writing new menus for all their other restaurants as well. “We don’t duplicate things. None of my restaurants repeat old dishes.”

“I love the grind; I love the hustle,” Alvarez says. “I do it because I want to, not because I have to.”

Dang dude, indeed.

Rooster and the Till
6500 N Florida Ave
Tampa, FL

Nebraska Mini Mart
815 N Nebraska Ave
Tampa, FL

Gallito Taqueria
640 East Main Street
Lakeland, FL

Dang Dude, Lunch Lady, Gallito Tacqueria
Sparkman Wharf