People have long thought of the state of Florida as an odd bird, walking to a different Caribbean/Afro-centric beat, bedecked in bright and bold plumage, with flavors that vary as often as the degrees on the latitudinal map, ranging from the tropic-infused tastes in the south to the hearty and savory southern-inspired fare to the north. And yet, many see Florida for beaches and Disney, and little else. But in reality, that sautéed bell pepper in that fajita was most likely harvested from Florida soil.
With a name like the Sunshine State, it is no small surprise that agriculture is big business, the state’s second largest industry behind tourism. With 47,500 commercial farms, comprising a total of 9.25 million acres, Florida ranks second in the nation for the value of vegetable production (first in cash receipts for oranges, grapefruit, fresh snap beans, sweet corn, watermelons, fresh cucumbers, squash and sugarcane), accounts for 65 percent of the U.S.’s total citrus production and pulled in $3.1 billion in agricultural exports in 2010 (last year the data was available) according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services [FDACS].
Florida’s swampy, fertile soil, temperate winters and never ending supply of sunshine has made the state the ideal place to till a plot and sow some seed. And while the state’s land-based activities pull in a steady source of income, when paired with the watery bounty just off our shores, Florida is a perennial heavyweight of the nation’s food producers, with more than 91 millions pounds of fresh seafood harvested in 2010, a value of $186 million, with Collier and Lee counties accounting for more than 8 million pounds alone.
Florida’s bounty, both by land and sea, is big business, and with big business comes a marketing system like none other. Chef Justin Timineri (right) is a walking, cooking marketeer for Florida’s foodstuffs. As the official State Chef of Florida (the only state to have an official chef), Timineri is a culinary ambassador for Florida-grown and harvested food, a position that is part farm expert, part star chef, and a dash of marketing guru. As a state employee working for the FDACS, Timineri’s job takes him across the state showing people how to incorporate Florida-grown produce and seafood into unique and interesting dishes, while conveying the benefits of locally grown produce. While on the road, Timineri holds cooking demonstrations and samplings, all in order to educate people about “the diversity of products we grow in Florida and how they can be incorporated into meals served on tables around the world.”
With a penchant for fresh and healthy ingredients, Timineri and the FDACS have taken the mission to “create, encourage and foster healthy lifestyles by administering effective Child Nutrition Programs to Florida students.” As Florida’s Executive Chef, one of Timineri’s chief responsibilities is to educate the future generation on the importance of a balanced and healthy meal by visiting schools through the state, leading children’s cooking classes, Xtreme Cuisine Cooking School, and encouraging students and the school districts to use fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Of all the people Timineri prepares food for, it is with the students where he finds his toughest audience. “The students can be some of the greatest critics,” says Timineri, who counts Governor Rick Scott and visiting foreign dignitaries among his day-to-day diners, “though it’s probably more nerve-wracking to prepare meals and snacks for the students.”
The Xtreme Cuisine Cooking School aims to teach children, from 4th grade through middle school, the benefits of eating healthier meal, while encouraging them to eat locally grown produce and showing them how to prepare meals. Since 2007, Timineri and the FDACS have taught more than 18,000 students basic nutrition concepts, and recently began working with children even younger (2nd and 3rd grades) with Xtreme Cuisine Junior. But these lectures go beyond the classrooms and into the cafeterias, with Timineri working hand-in-hand with the school districts to improve students’ lunches.
“I really look forward to our involvement in schools,” says Timineri, not only in teaching students nutrition basics, but in “working with the school districts to design healthier, nutritious and affordable meals for our school cafeterias.”
A Tallahassee native, Timineri was tapped as Florida’s official chef in 2006, chosen over 60 others for what is arguably the best job in Florida's state government. Eschewing culinary school, Timineri first learned the culinary ropes from his Italian grandparents in the home kitchen. After working his way up the ranks in various kitchens, he eventually took the lead as a special event chef, leading him to his current position.
Among Timineri’s various jobs as the state’s official chef, which includes preparing meals for the Governor and visiting foreign dignitaries, Timineri also travels the world on trade missions, proselytizing the message that fresh from Florida produce and seafood is among the best on the planet.
“[In] my experience, the products sell themselves,” says Timineri, who recently returned from a trade mission to Brussels and is gearing up for a trip to Hong Kong this summer. “Florida commodities have a wonderful reputation overseas, and we gain a clear advantage in the global market by providing a chef-designed sample for buyers to taste and compare to other products they may be considering.” Which speaks volumes when paired with the state’s export numbers on agricultural exports: $3.1 billion in 2010.
When not on the road, Timineri can be found in his Tallahassee office, a test kitchen attached to the Bureau of Seafood, experimenting with fresh seafood Florida-grown fruits and vegetables, creating new recipes and discovering new ways to highlight the healthier side of dining. When describing his cooking style, Timineri dabbles with the old and new: “my cooking is all about taking a classic recipe and updating it with a twist…” a Florida twist.
Among his favorite Florida ingredients, Timineri is quick to sing the praises of Royal Red Shrimp, rabbit, passion fruit and kumquats. As for the perfect Florida-inspired meal, the advice is simple: “While it depends on season, fresh seafood, light preparations and regionally sourced ingredients will make a meal to remember,” sentiments that carry through in most of Timineri’s recipes, where dishes are light and simple, not over complicated but built with complimenting flavors. “The food should reflect one’s style and taste. Fresh ingredients do not need heavy sauces or strong flavors, which often mask their true identity. You want your guests to feel energized after being served a meal and not overwhelmed by heavy foods.”
For those looking for a taste of what’s cooking in Timineri’s kitchen, he and the FDACS will be working on a new cookbook to “showcase one of the state’s best tasting commodities, Florida seafood,” this summer. But for some instant gratification, click here.