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One on One: Justin Timineri

Executive Chef, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, Fla.

By Steven Hedlund
February 01, 2007

"Seafood is a really big part of what we have here in Florida. There are so many [miles of] coastline and species of seafood to work with, and we're very blessed to have those commodities."

 

As Florida's "culinary ambassador," Justin Timineri wears multiple hats, in addition to a toque. He's a marketer, an event organizer, a writer and a teacher. And if you tune into the Food Network on March 4 at 10 p.m., you'll see him in his new role as king.

Timineri was crowned king of the third annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off at the Louisiana Foodservice Expo in New Orleans last August. His winning dish, Crispy Pan-Seared Snapper with Passion Fruit and Coconut Cream and Citrus Fennel Salad with Jumbo Shrimp and Spicy Green Mango Jam, beat out 19 other appetizing entries.

For Timineri, the road to the Great American Seafood Cook-Off started at age 18 at Anthony's Italian Restaurant in Tallahassee, Fla., where he bused tables and washed dishes. He eventually worked his way into the kitchen, handling food preparation. Timineri, 31, is a Rochester, N.Y., native, but grew up in Tallahassee.

Timineri also attended community college in Tallahassee, but dropped out to pursue a hands-on foodservice education instead of a degree. He climbed the culinary ladder swiftly, working various jobs at restaurants and a catering company in Tallahassee. First, Timineri was appointed head line cook at Kool Beanz Café, where he learned about food presentation and menu development. Next, he was named sous chef of Albert's Provence, where Albert Ughetto, formerly Jacques Cousteau's personal chef, taught him the intricacies of classic French cuisine. Then in 2000, he toured the country as an event chef for various sporting events, including NASCAR, the PGA and the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

After traveling for four years, Timineri returned to Tallahassee in 2004 to take his first job as an executive chef at Mozaik, which specializes in modern American cuisine. In April 2006, the position of executive chef at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened - Florida is the first and only state with an executive chef in its agriculture department - and Timineri jumped at the opportunity.

In his current role, Timineri juggles numerous tasks. He conducts cooking demos and promotes the state's foods at two foreign supermarket chains - Sobeys in Eastern Canada and Waitrose in Great Britain - as part of the Florida Agricultural Promotional Campaign. Over the holidays, he set the menu for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson's inaugural reception. He develops recipes, writes articles and organizes photo shoots for Florida Monthly magazine. He even teaches a cooking and nutrition class called "Extreme Cuisine" to Florida middle-school kids.

I caught up with Timineri in early January to talk about his role with the state of Florida and love of seafood.

 

HEDLUND : What prompted you to pursue a cooking career?

TIMINERI : My entire family [has] 
excellent cooks on both my mother's and father's side. I have many fond memories of family get-togethers with excellent food. I enjoyed being in the kitchen and trying to help where I could, and I was intrigued by food and how it brought people together.

 

Who's your mentor?

Chef Albert is one of my main influences. It's funny because I really am not into classic French food at all. I've pretty much run away from that in my cooking style. But I felt it was very important for me to learn and understand his types of preparations and presentations. [That helped] me develop my own cooking style.

 

What are your job responsibilities?

My job is to promote Florida commodities and come up with new, creative, modern recipes that represent Florida commodities and the people who live in Florida. We're in the process of redoing some of our [promotional] brochures. I do a lot of in-state, national and international trade missions, which are geared toward making people aware of the wonderful [foods] we have here in Florida.

 

What motivated you to apply for this job?

The main thing initially was the chance to learn about research and marketing because that's a lot of what we do here. As a chef, this is another way for me to expand my horizons. Not only can I run a successful restaurant and cook excellent meals, but now I'm learning to market our commodities.

 

Why do you like working with seafood?

Seafood is a really big part of what we have here in Florida. There are so many [miles of] coastline and species of seafood to work with, and we're very blessed to have those commodities. We have such incredible resources. It's a pleasure to work with all this fresh seafood. [I enjoy] creating new dishes with the different species.

 

What was it like winning the Great American Seafood Cook-Off?

We were excited and a little surprised. We knew going in that we had a really strong recipe that represented Florida through and through, and we had practiced it. We knew that if we did everything right we'd win. We were pretty confident that our dish would stack up against any other [entry]. (At the competition, Timineri was assisted by Joshua Butler, Gov. Jeb Bush's personal chef.)

[By winning], we're able to show [the public] all the wonderful [foods] we have in Florida, not only fresh snapper but mangos, passion fruit and all kinds of foods. We were really excited to be a part of it and to help promote seafood in general.

 

What's your motto when it comes to cooking?

Fresh, flavorful and fun, and prepared in a responsible manner. There's no need to use all the unhealthy [ingredients] that are out there.

I want people to get back together with food. I think it's important for families to come together in the evening and prepare their meals, talk about their problems and triumphs of the day and really enjoy food.

 

Do you have a favorite species you like to work with?

I love fresh snapper, blue crab, oysters; I really love it all.

 

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

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