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Florida cuisine featured in the final Olympic feast

After the grand ceremonies to close the 2012 Olympic Games, one thousand US athletes coaches and families celebrated with a grand banquet of Gulf seafood, including Florida grouper prepared by Golden Spoon chef Paul Stellato. 

He was one of a team of star chefs from Florida to Louisiana sent to London, along with vacuum packed fresh catch, as a goodwill effort by British Petroleum. The "Spirit of the Gulf's''  mission was to promote the good name of Gulf seafood and Florida tourism -- and BP as well -- all of which suffered from major bad publicity during  2010's oil spill. They cooked  at various public events during te London stay. 

At the farewell dinner, House Chef Paul offered a taste of Gulf cooking close to what he serves at Firefly on Panama City Beach. The grouper came with lobster crab sauce that was a close kin to his restaurant's signature she-crab soup, where he makes 15 gallons a day. Garnished with, of course, English peas. 

The Gulf chefs were headed by Louisiana's John Folse and include Justin Timineri, chef for the Florida agriculture department. Timineri cooked swordfish for the athletes and their families. 

Paul said they were undaunted by the Olympian challenge of cooking for a huge crowd frar from their home kitchens. "I'm a very competitive guy myself'' he said in an interview before the London trip. 

He noted that chefs had professional competitions including a Culinary Olympics long before cooking became big sport on reality TV. And most nights in a busy kitchen are wind sprints that last as long as a marathon.

"What we do nightly, putting out 300, 400 covers and those people need their food in 15 minutes.'' And busy chefs like Stellato sometimes have double headers of special events where he may juggle 400 meals for one group, and as many for another. 

He's also happy to be a partner with BP. "I've become a big fan, the way they've handled everything.'' The oil spill did not hamper any of his fish supply most of which comes from east of the spill site. The harm to the public image covered a wider range, so he and many others in the hospitality and tourism industry in Panama City and elsewere got compensation checks from BP. "It  was biggest economic boost I've seen in the Panhandle."

Stellato keeps a close eye on the status of Florida fish and believes strong regulation is needed from time to time to offset overfishing. "'Nobody was happy when they closed red snapper for awile, but  now red snapper's exploding.''