Florida has a state flower (the orange blossom) and a state bird (the mockingbird—not the earlybird, as you may imagine). It’s also the only state to have an official chef.
Justin Timineri was chosen to be Florida’s official chef in 2006. It’s a position that actually dates back to the mid-1990s, and was originally created to bolster the state’s second-largest industry—agriculture. Unlike tourism, Florida’s primary source of income, our agricultural bounty is full time and year-round.
Timineri grew up in Tallahassee, and learned to cook early on from his Italian grandparents. Rather than attending culinary school, he got a job in a restaurant and worked his way up the ladder. When the position opened up, he was chosen above 60 others for one of the most desirable jobs in the state government. Among his other duties, he travels the country and the world, promoting Florida’s seafood, fruits and vegetables. When not on the road, he spends his time at the Governor’s mansion, cooking for Rick Scott and his family.
As Florida state chef, Timineri has taken on the mission of encouraging schoolchildren to eat better—a tough task in a landscape filled with glorious produce but overwhelmed with fast food outlets. He conducts a series of in-school cooking demos entitled “Xtreme Cuisine,” in which he works hands-on with elementary school kids in support of the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to promote locally grown produce.
While he admits to being intimidated the first time he faced an audience of middle-schoolers, Timineri has developed a battery of recipes that highlights the advantages of hand-crafted food over processed ingredients. His presentation stresses the dangers caused by excessive amounts of sugar, salt and fats, and demonstrates how and why a diet of high-fiber food is superior to the high-calorie junk food that surrounds students all the time. More than 2800 kids in Lee County took part in the Xtreme Cuisine Cooking School during the 2010-11 school year, and in Santa Rosa County the number topped 4000. It’s a start.