It’s the end of a very long day as I jump in my car, drive from the CL office in Ybor City to the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach to meet executive chef Kenny Hunsberger.
Inside the lobby, underneath the high ceilings, a pink and purple sunset pours through the windows. Karen Benjey’s tearful voice and twinkling keys whisper through the space, layered with bright saxophone licks and big upright bass thumps. The Pink Palace is our town’s very own heartlight.
A well-crafted cocktail in hand, it’s very easy to imagine why icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald flocked here after its opening in 1928. How many local buildings, especially beachfront, have survived 85 years? Through ups and downs, the Don CeSar remains, and today it’s better than ever.
Hunsberger, 49, grew up in Tampa, graduating from Chamberlain High School. After a little over two years in the Don CeSar kitchen, Hunsberger was recently named executive chef for the whole hotel. That means he’s in charge of three bars and three restaurants, including Maritana Grille (which gets a rare 4.5-star review from CL’s restaurant critic in this week’s issue).
“It’s the biggest little hotel there is,” says Hunsberger. “Despite the huge challenge of managing everything, this place is small enough that I get to see and touch everything.”
It’s obvious from the staffers who drop by for a cocktail during our visit that this is a tight-knit team, and that they take pride in their hotel.
“This is the go-to place for weddings and vacations,” says the chef. “But it’s the locals that really support us.”
From revamped menu out at the pool, to the remodeled Seaport restaurant, to catered events; he’s added his flavor to every facet.
It started with two pages of ingredients. “Then I started the creative process,” he says.
Luckily for Hunsberger, the Don has allowed him to essentially “do his thing.” That means no cutting corners. He buys local whenever possible. St. Pete’s Savory Spice Shop delivers fresh spices to the chef every week. You’ll find their chardonnay smoked salt atop Maritana’s Roasted Venison Loin with butternut squash puree, mushrooms, pancetta, and Brussels sprout and haricot vert salad.
“We get our spinach from Ruskin,” he says. “Our sturgeon caviar comes from Sarasota. I am very spoiled.”
Sarasota’s sturgeon caviar appears chilled atop an eight-layer crepe napoleon amuse-bouche on the tasting menu. Hunsberger says he grew up on Southern foods.
“I love grits and greens,” he says. “I make this tomato jam inspired by my grandmother’s collard greens with stewed tomatoes.”
He incorporates the homemade jam into several of Maritana’s recipes.
“I don’t want to scare anyone away with these flavors,” he says. “But I do want people to experience something in the subtle touches.”
A perfect example is the lemon blueberry reveal. Steamy hot homemade blueberry syrup pours from a tiny pitcher over a large white egg-shaped shell made from white chocolate and vanilla. As the shell melts, a tower of lemon curd, vanilla mousse, blueberries, honey lavender ice cream, and almond cake appears. I see a Cheshire cat grin spread across Hunsberger’s face as he observes my reaction.
I’ve lost my sense of place. Surely I can’t be in St. Petersburg anymore. Am I in New York City? London? I walk out to the lobby, see the final dip of sun into the horizon and remember I’m home in our city by the sea. Tampa’s own Kenny Hunsberger could easily find work anywhere in the world, but he’s here making every plate he puts out better than the one before.
Agree, Saigon Deli, the real one, not the other one across the street.
We ate there and the food was excellent. You need to go back and have…
lets not forget the old elephant foot IPA in the 16 oz cans from Tampa…