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Kitchen is the mission for Florida's top chef

From promoting Florida’s bounty abroad to teaching kids about healthy eating, state chef Justin Timineri has a full plate.

Growing up in Tallahassee, Justin Timineri was always poking around the kitchen as his parents and grandmother simmered sauces, baked ziti and prepared other Italian-American comfort foods. “I was always wanting to taste and see how things are done and was interested in the science behind cooking and the taste and flavors and all that kind of stuff.” From an early age, he says, “I knew I wanted to be a chef.”

Today, as Florida’s official state chef, Timineri, 38, tries to educate diners across the state and the globe about Florida’s flavors. “I’m the only state agriculture culinary ambassador in the entire country, so it’s very unique,” says Timineri, who has traveled to South Africa, Egypt, Hong Kong, South Korea, London, Germany and France promoting Florida produce, seafood and livestock.

Click to get chef Timineri's recipe for: Citrus Glazed Gator Ribs

When he’s not displaying Florida foods to buyers at international food shows or speaking at farm and food association events, Timineri is hunkered down in his research and development kitchen in downtown Tallahassee, creating recipes for Sunshine State dishes such as Honey Orange Glazed Florida Grouper and Citrus Glazed Gator Ribs. He also spends a lot of time working on his website, creating new materials to educate Florida consumers and answering questions emailed to him. “I make sure people understand season of availability, so they know when to buy fresh Florida goods. I like to teach people how to shop. That money then stays in the state and helps our farmers,” he says.

Timineri worked his way up from a dishwasher in a local Tallahassee eatery to the kitchen ranks in several local restaurants, eventually serving as an assistant chef at the governor’s mansion. He landed his current job in 2006, beating out 60 other applicants. Department supervisors interviewing him “really liked me because they wanted somebody kind of young and energetic who would bring more of a modern voice to food preparation. We wanted to get out of this Betty Crocker age and really get into this age of utilizing fresh, healthy and locally grown ingredients,” says Timineri, who earns $47,982 annually.

Next page: The chef answers questions about working under four governors, and more.

» You’ve worked for four governors. What were your impressions?
Some of my favorites to cook for were the Bushes. They were great eaters. They really loved to try different things and really loved lots of fresh seafood. Cooking for Gov. Crist was fun as well. Gov. Scott and Mrs. Scott definitely have great tastes as well. Their chef prepares them amazing dinners. Their taste is more high-styled plating, restaurant-styled plating, rather than family style.

» Reflections on the chef’s life:
It’s hard work. It’s hot. The hours are awful. You’re working weekends and holidays. It’s really a tough job. As long as you have a passion for it, you’re going to be good and going to be successful, but you really need to really be into it.

» Where do you get your inspiration for a new dish?
I get that inspiration from my travels and all my food education that I’ve received — and it’s constantly evolving. From reading all types of food blogs, following all types of chefs on Twitter and making sure I’m staying up. Most of my inspiration comes fresh from the farms.

» What simple changes can Floridians make to their diets to eat healthier?
The first thing is understand the seasons of availability, so they know when Florida agricultural products are in their peak availability. I believe certain things are grown naturally a certain time of year because that’s when our bodies need it. Say for instance, citrus grows and is available in the winter months, and that’s when we need vitamin C to help keep us healthy.

» What are the flavors, methods and techniques that define Florida cuisine?
Florida flavor is kind of a mash-up of several different things. We have such a diverse culture here in Florida. Of course, there would be some very Southern style flood influence in that. I would also say a lot of Latin influences as well and then Caribbean kind of influences on top of that. Add all of those together and you have a good representation of what Florida food style is. With so many amazing tropical fruits coming out of here in Florida, that adds lightness to the food.

Cooking up a marketing campaign

The state chef position was officially created in 1980 by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a way to help market Florida’s agricultural commodities. A key part of Justin Timineri’s mission today is educating Florida school kids about healthy eating habits. Timineri says one of his favorite student outreach programs is Xtreme Cuisine. “We have a whole lesson book, a cookbook, and we actually go into schools around the state, and I work with children and help them prepare healthy snacks,” Timineri says.

» Who are your culinary inspirations? Any chefs you admire?
Alice Waters has always been a huge inspiration for me. I would say John Folse out of New Orleans is also one of the chefs I really look up to and then here in Florida, obviously Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken and Michelle Bernstein. There really are some very talented Florida chefs. Even Emeril (Lagasse) lives in Florida now. I’m on his new show called Emeril’s Florida, which is a lot of fun.

» Is there anything surprising we might find in your fridge?
I certainly have lots of condiments that I like to keep. I definitely like spices. I like siracha – I put that on my eggs – but I also like to seek out hot sauces and condiments that were made here in Florida.

» If you could improve Tallahassee’s restaurant scene, what changes would you make?
What I’d really like to see is some of the quick casual restaurants adding a little healthier things to the menu, as well as I’d like to see more restaurants around the state in general use and highlight goods that are actually grown here in Florida. I think definitely the Tallahassee food scene is getting better. A few of my favorite places here in town: Sage, Cyprus, and Root Cellar is pretty new, our first farm-to-table restaurant in Tallahassee.

» Your ultimate meal?
I would say my ultimate meal would consist of certainly a lot of seafood. In my house, I do seafood for Thanksgiving and Christmas — all my major holidays. I stay away from turkey and ham. I would say a nice seafood dish with some beautiful fruits and vegetables.