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One on One: Peter Boulukos
Partner and corporate chef, The Restaurant People
By Fiona Robinson
August 01, 2006
"The [vendors] really are my partners. We bring them in so they can experience the restaurant. They understand what's going on and what we're looking for, and our passion."
Tarpon Bend Raw Bar & Grill is like many Florida-based casual-dining restaurants. Its menu focuses on the state's bountiful seafood, and its interior design attracts a hip Key-West crowd.
But what sets Tarpon Bend, and parent company The Restaurant People, apart from the competition in a challenging south Florida market is a commitment to customer service, value and fun.
"Tarpon Bend has succeeded where others have failed because we constantly improve on our restaurants and consistently surpass our customers' expectations. It is something we train our staff to focus on every day," says Peter Boulukos, Restaurant People partner and corporate chef.
Boulukos is the self-proclaimed "food guy" behind The Restaurant People. He grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1983. Florida's emerging culinary scene, combined with a desire for a warmer climate, spurred his decision to head south.
Boulukos was a line cook at celebrity chef Mark Militello's Mark's Place in North Miami in 1987. That led to a position in 1994 as chef de cuisine at Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale.
It was at Militello's that Boulukos met Tim Petrillo, who at the time was a member of Militello's operations team. The duo hit it off, bonding over a shared passion for recreational fishing.
After three years with Militello, Boulukos and Petrillo left to form The Restaurant People, with Petrillo as president and Boulukos as corporate chef. Their first launch was Himmarshee Bar & Grill in the historic Himmarshee Village district of Fort Lauderdale.
Two years later the partners opened Tarpon Bend Food & Tackle two doors down from Himmarshee. Tarpon Bend, a casual American restaurant serving sandwiches, salads, fresh fish and raw bar offerings, features a fishing-themed setting.
That same year The Restaurant People acquired The River House, a historic riverfront restaurant located around the corner from Himmarshee Bar & Grill and Tarpon Bend.
Building upon the successful Tarpon Bend brand, Petrillo and Boulukos decided to turn the concept into a chain, opening a Tarpon Bend in Weston in 2002 and one on Coral Gables' Miracle Mile in 2004.
Both locations share Tarpon's signature nautical theme, while specific elements and colors are altered to fit the mood for each site.
For example, the Tarpon Bend Weston is family friendly with vibrant colors and stuffed fish and vintage boats hanging from the ceiling. Meanwhile, the design at the Coral Gables location is distinctly urban to fit the upscale surroundings.
The pair seem to have struck gold. "Good food and lively bar … it doesn't get better than this … you'll like eating here…" says a Miami Herald review.
I caught up with Boulukos in early July to get an update on Tarpon Bend and future Restaurant People concepts.
Robinson: What is your role at The Restaurant People? What's a typical day on the job for you?
Boulukos: I am the "food guy." As an owner, I'm looking at all aspects. I take care of all the development - kitchen design, everything from ordering, specs and new products.
Can you describe the Tarpon Bend concept, compared with The River House?
River House is fine-dining, whereas Tarpon Bend is more of a casual seafood concept. [Tarpon Bend is] driven by fresh product, simply prepared. We let the natural flavors come through. If we have a great piece of grouper, we'll serve it grilled with lemon and keep the sauce to a minimum.
What sets Tarpon Bend apart from similar concepts?
We do a lot of grilling and sautéing, but not a lot of frying. Proof is what's on the plate; it's high quality. We'll showcase more regional products; clams are farm raised, fish are day-boat from local purveyors and local fishermen with commercial licenses.
Does Tarpon Bend have a signature dish?
The Sizzling Seafood Kettle is one of our more popular items. It's made with local fish cooked in a cast-iron kettle with grilled veggies and potatoes and served on a sizzling platter with bread. It's a style of a bouillabaisse, sort of, but not the exact recipe. [Servers] ladle from the kettle onto a sizzling platter, which gives it animation and sizzle. People really go for that.
How do you handle seafood
I have daily conversations with my purveyors. I've been here long enough that I'm talking with the owners [of supply houses] about what's coming in, and it's constant information. Most of it is on the phone.
The [vendors] really are my partners. We bring them in so they can experience the restaurant. They understand what's going on and what we're looking for, and our passion.
And if there are commercial fishermen out fishing and they call and tell me what they've caught, I'm all over it.
Who are some of your purveyors?
Florida's Finest in Fort Lauderdale, Two Bills Seafood in Dania and Legends Seafood in Miami.
You're opening another restaurant in Delray Beach in the fall. What will that concept be?
It will be called South Coast Kitchen. It's not going to be as seafood driven [as Tarpon Bend is]; we will expand the menu more. Tarpon Bend has a lot of raw-bar items: three oysters from the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and the Gulf, and different ceviches on a daily basis. [South Coast Kitchen] will be more meats and grilling, some rotisserie.
How many other Tarpon Bend locations are planned in the near future?
We have some locations we're negotiating on now - three others in south Florida.
Will you remain in Florida?
For now, but we'd like to expand the Tarpon Bend concept. It depends on the market we go into.
What is the biggest challenge to opening a new restaurant?
Staffing. Finding great people who realize your vision. Mostly we hire from within. Being from fine dining for so many years, I know a lot of people in the area.
What do you like best about your job?
Actually being able to work in the kitchen doing the menu development. After you've mentally put it together, expanding upon that and rolling it out and then seeing the reactions. And being able to teach chefs.
Rolling [a new menu item] out company wide and having it consistently executed from store to store is quite a challenge. Watching that is quite gratifying.
What would you change if you could?
If I could spend more time in the kitchen I would, and less time on paperwork.
You and Petrillo love to go
fishing. Do you still get out on the water together?
Every once in awhile. We do have a trip planned for the end of the summer. It's mostly backwater fishing for tarpon, redfish, snook and other game fish. As [The Restaurant People] gets bigger, time gets tighter and tighter. We both have families.
Editor Fiona Robinson can be e-mailed at email@example.com