An interview with Chef Larry Barrett from Simply Gourmet
Some people dine to live, while others live to dine. For the latter group, adding an entertainment or educational dimension to the dining experience is a logical progression. Two recent examples of the dining experience becoming more than just food can be seen in the Ringling Museum’s Art of Food series and the Junior League of Sarasota’s Luncheon and Lecture from the Royal Chef Darren McGrady.
So what about politics and dining? Is there room for such a concept? For some, the combination may be a recipe for indigestion. But for Chef Larry Barrett from Simply Gourmet, presidential dining takes center stage. I recently caught up with Sarasota’s own Chef Larry to learn more about him, his concepts on themed catering and, in particular, his interest in presidential dining and entertaining.
Jack Littman-Quinn: Tell me about your background and how you got interested in cooking.
Chef Larry: My interest in food started at an early age with family dinners, watching my grandmother prepare our meals from scratch. When I was 11, I really took an interest in cooking. I would watch the vintage cooking shows such as the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. I started cooking family meals using cookbooks I could find. I was naturally inquisitive and willing to try new things, so it naturally applied to cooking.
JLQ: And how did your culinary training progress?
Chef Larry: I am really self-taught through a combination of familial observations, trial and error and cumulative experience.
When I went off to college I would always prepare a Friday night Chinese meal, usually a combination of sweet and sour soup, lo mein and sweet and sour pork for 10 to 15 people. It was this regular meal preparation which allowed me to focus on my culinary techniques and understand how to prepare and serve a consistent, quality meal for a larger group. In fact, on campus I was known as “Dr. Pork;” “Such a name for a nice Jewish boy from New York.”
The progression then led to various roles over the years managing restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles.
Chef Larry: In high school I got involved in acting and directing and eventually went on to become a professional actor. In 1980, Jamie (Larry’s wife) and I were performing in Tina Howe’s The Art of Dining at the Westside Theater when I got this impression our lives were going to “imitate art.” We acted in New York for ten years and Los Angeles for four. However I never gave up my interest in food and cooking. In fact we filled in time catering and providing personal chef services to many actors over the time period. While in New York, we met Les McCurdy who encouraged us to consider Sarasota. So we decided, why not?
JLQ: So you came to Sarasota and then what?
Chef Larry: We combined our passions of cooking, acting, and entertaining and launched a local TV show, Simply Gourmet and our catering company of the same name.
JLQ: How did the idea of recreating memorable presidential dinners come about?
Chef Larry: I read a book entitled: In the Kennedy Style: Magical Evenings in the Kennedy White House and just became fascinated with the idea of recreating such an event. We researched a number of state dinners and decided to offer The John F. Kennedy and Ronald Regan Presidential Dinners. We paid particular attention to the menu, table settings and services offered and recreate the history today. It really is “food as theatre.”
JLQ: How much do these Presidential Dinners cost?
Chef Larry: All inclusive, the cost is $150 per person with a 25-person minimum, and because we make it authentic it does cost more than the average catered affair.
JLQ: Well if you think of it as dinner, perhaps an education and most definitely a show, the price seems reasonable. Are you doing any other themed dinners?
Chef Larry: Yes, we recently directed and produced Nick Danger: Third Eye and offered a Delmonico’s, America’s first fine dining restaurant, supper. We also recreated the last dinner on the Titanic, Wolfgang’s Oscar Dinner, and are currently offering Royal Teas.
JLQ: Thank you for taking the time to share some of your stories with me. It has been an entertaining experience.
Chef Larry: It was great chatting and laughing.
4783 Swift Road
Sarasota, FL 34231