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Chef Ted Dorsey makes Sonata sing

Bill DeYoung

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Ted Dorsey is executive chef at Sonata, which opened in early December inside St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Everything in Ted Dorsey’s life, it seems, has been leading up to this moment. One of the most successful high-end chefs in the bay area – he’s opened 10 popular restaurants – Dorsey is now the executive chef at Sonata, the new destination dining experience inside St. Petersburg’s ornate Mahaffey Theater.

Brainstormed and bankrolled by businessman Bill Edwards, whose company operates the city-owned performing arts center, Sonata takes advantage of the stunning views of Tampa Bay afforded by the glass-walled, two-level atrium on the eastern side of the theater’s massive lobby.

It was Edwards’ vision to bring performing art, culinary art and visual art under one roof. He has an agreement with the Imagine Museum for rotating exhibits of fine art glass.

To create the restaurant, he turned to Ted Dorsey.

“This has never been done before,” says the 41-year-old Dorsey. “I like that. I like challenges, and I like doing something new and different.”

Moonlight Sonata: The view from the bay, looking in. The illuminated moon was provided by the Imagine Museum. Photo provided.

After nearly a decade as co-owner and executive chef at the Mill, he and his business partner closed the place in January. And they became ex-partners.

Dorsey then spent six months running the kitchen at the Edwards-owned Club on Treasure Island. When the mercurial Edwards suddenly decided to sell that property, the path was cleared for Sonata.

“We had already been working on putting a restaurant in the Mahaffey,” Dorsey explains. “It’s such a wonderful space, and a good portion of the building doesn’t get utilized – at least properly, in my opinion. The kitchen was only used for banquets.”

Built in 2015, the kitchen is a classic “galley” – long and narrow. Although it had many of the high-tech equipment needed for a fully professional kitchen (“all the bones were there”), Dorsey demanded – and got – serious upgrades and additions. The cooking surfaces, for example, were switched from electric to gas.

The new restaurant’s tagline is “Coastal Cuisine Rooted in Southern Hospitality.” The menu features sea-food (almost exclusively locally sourced) and designer steaks, among other delicacies.

“What excites me about restaurants these days is the concept, the branding, the development,” Dorsey explains. “I love openings. I never really set out to be a concept and development chef, it’s just kind of how my career went.”

Dorsey’s father spent his life in the hospitality industry, opening and running restaurants and nightclubs. Although Ted was born in Atlanta, he grew up in Clearwater and Tampa.

“Once this is in your blood, it’s hard to get out,” he laughs. “My dad always got sucked back into the business, in one form or another.

“I was front of the house my whole life, so I didn’t really have any desire or passion to be a chef. I thought, go to culinary school, have a better understanding of the back of the house and how it functions, and costs, how it works and how to make money … but not to be a chef. At that point, I guess I wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps and be an entrepreneur. I figured I needed to know all aspects of the business.”

He didn’t go to just any culinary school. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which had a campus in Tampa.

“It wasn’t until after culinary school that I actually fell in love with cooking,” Dorsey recalls. “I spent those next few years learning, being a sponge, reading everything I could. Tasting everything I could.”

His first job was at Mise en Place, then (as sous chef) at Chez Bryce. Partnering with Hillsborough restauranteur Gordon Davis, Dorsey opened Ciro’s Speakeasy & Supper Club, Boca Kitchen Bar & Market and Copperfish, all in Tampa.

He spent a year and a half as executive chef at Castile, the restaurant inside St. Pete Beach’s Hotel Zamora. And then came the Mill.

Somewhere along the journey, he realized he was pretty good at his job. “I think the lightbulb moment is when you have the first taste of success in any business,” Dorsey says. “Obviously that’s different for everybody – Derek Jeter’s lightbulb moment was when he was 12! Mine just came much later in life.

“When I had my first successes, not so much as a cook but as a chef, when the restaurant opened and it took off … that, I think was the lightbulb moment. You grow, and you figure out over time what your strengths are, and your weaknesses, and you work on them.”

Although most of his early successes were on the other side of the bay, Dorsey fell hard for St. Petersburg more than a dozen years ago. “Now I’m like all the other people who were here before me, worrying about what the future looks like for this city,” he says, marveling: “It’s wild to see the change.”

He is quick to praise other St. Pete locations. “The chains are trying to get in,” he points out. “But you got all these great people who run great businesses. That’s what I hope is the future of this city as it continues to evolve culinary-wise.

“I hope the trajectory that it’s been on continues: A lot of great mom and pops, and chef-driven places.”

He tore into creation of the Sonata menu like a hungry man with a hearty meal in front of him. The emphasis, he says, was always to be on fresh seafood. “Local fish. Things that come from right here.” He works with a local fishmonger, whose fleet delivers fresh-caught grouper and snapper – the essentials. “They’re bringing in THE best.”

The secret, as with any chef worth his basting spoons, is how the meal is prepared.

“What I was most interested in with him was his by-products,” Dorsey explains. “Give me the wreckfish. Give me the golden tile. Give me corvina. Give me all those species that are less known but amazing, and let me highlight them for people.”

Dorsey also imports Key West pink shrimp (“the best shrimp you’ll ever see”).

Sonata serves Wagyu beef, imported fresh from Australia. “I went through 20, 30-some-odd steaks, all these tastings, and had my steak line picked out,” says Dorsey,  “‘this is what we want to serve, this is it, this is good.’ Then my broker calls me and says ‘Listen, I got a brand-new product that’s about to hit market; nobody else has it. Nobody’s seen it. You’ll be the first person in the country to see it.’”

He drove to Orlando – not his favorite place in Florida, by the way – just to sample Australian wagyu. “I wanted to be able to put an amazing steak on the menu that’s not going to just break your wallet. And it will make you regret eating other steaks.

“Before I went to that tasting, no steak had ever done that for me. And everything I’ve had since just pales in comparison – the flavor, the marbling, the fat content, it’s just hands-down amazing.”

Menus, he believes, “need to change quarterly. You’ve got to change. You’ve got to keep the menu fresh and exciting for the guests, if you want to keep your core repeat customers.

“We’re not going to be able to appeal to everybody. As a chef, you learn that. We read the reviews, we see everything. But we have to hold fast to what we believe in, too.”

The atrium coffee bars, on both levels of the Mahaffey lobby, have been fully converted to craft cocktail bars. The dining area is on the top level; early in the new year, according to Dorsey, seating will move to the lower level, with the upstairs converted into a lounge area.

“We have one of the best views in all of St. Pete right here,” he declares. “And in my opinion it’s better than The Pier, because we have A/C!” There will also be outdoor patio seating.

“It doesn’t matter how fast we get there. We’ll get there. It’s about building that foundation – great food and great service – and putting those systems in place so that people, when they come, have a great experience from the time they enter to the time they leave.”

Visit the Sonata Restaurant and Lounge website here.

In the kitchen with Dorsey and Operations Manager Anthony Baldizzi. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Tom O'Keefe

    December 18, 2023at5:04 pm

    Great new restaurant. Ate there Saturday evening. Presentation was wonderful until I tasted my entree. Over salted and so was my partners dish. Heard the same from others. Hope you do better.

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