Chef John Fraser pulled off a rare culinary feat this year; his restaurant Lilac was one of three establishments to receive Tampa’s first Michelin stars – in its first year.
In addition, the esteemed recognition followed pandemic-induced challenges that continue to rock the industry. Fraser now hopes to reconnect and reward hospitality workers through his “Industry Table” initiative.
The program enables hospitality workers to dine at exclusive restaurants at cost, a 60 to 70 percent discount on menu prices. The Industry Table launched in Lilac at the Tampa Edition June 20. The New York-based executive chef explained its primary goals.
“One part is trying to get a group of people together and recognize that we’re in this and we’re going to come out of this,” Fraser said. “The other part of this is sort of healing. Who is taking care of us? It should be us.”
He said the idea for the Industry Table arose after the Northeast experienced a drastic talent loss. Fraser and his partners questioned how many skilled hospitality workers remained after pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.
“Clearly, some of them are in Tampa – we found them,” he added. The initiative launched throughout his extensive New York portfolio in March and promptly received over 300 reservations.
Lilac, a Mediterranean-influenced fine dining restaurant, and Ardor at the West Hollywood Edition hotel followed last week. Fraser will incorporate the Industry Table when he expands to Boston this fall.
He noted that inflation and supply chain disruptions caused costs to soar, and workers could no longer afford the meals they prepared and served. However, tables often remain empty during opening and closing hours.
“We’ve got people that want to do the job, and the seat is not full, so let’s fill it,” Fraser said. “So, who do we fill it with? Why not our people? And once we have them in the building … they become part of our tribe.”
The program includes dinner for two at Lilac, and one guest must currently work in the restaurant industry. The contemporary four-course fixed-price menu is $150 per person, and Fraser said participants would save about $190.
He explained that kitchen chefs earning $25 to $30 an hour would have to spend a full day’s pay day to dine at their workplace. Similarly, Fraser said that “Before I worked in a fine dining restaurant, I had never been to a fine dining restaurant.”
In addition, he said the experience serves as an educational tool for hospitality workers. It also provides invaluable feedback for restaurant owners and managers.
“Rather than reading that on a Google review, a nameless, faceless person, it’s a person that we care about,” Fraser said. “We know their name; they know who we are, and we can actually internalize that feedback differently.
“This is not just an at-cost meal – we’re receiving something as well.”
Implementing the program at one of the region’s first Michelin-star restaurants has proved challenging. Lilac is extremely popular and features just 50 seats.
Fraser has hired someone solely to manage Industry Table applications, and his team continues tweaking the web portal. Interested hospitality workers provide personal information and preferred dates and receive reservations around opening and closing times according to availability.
Fraser stressed that it is still “very early days” for what he plans to become a nationwide initiative featuring restaurants outside his portfolio.
“I didn’t expect it to catch fire like this,” he admitted. “Once we automate the outreach and interaction, then I think we can go out to other folks and say, ‘Listen, this is working. Here is our proof-of-concept; here is the data. I know you have 5:30 (p.m.) available.’”
Fraser said he entered the Tampa Bay market in 2022 intending to provide one of the region’s best meals. When he partnered with Tampa Edition officials, the Michelin Guide was not yet operating in Florida.
The international organization awarded four new stars in the state this year; three went to Tampa restaurants. While Lilac earned Fraser his third star, he noted the rarity of receiving the recognition after less than a year of operation.
He credited an “incredible” team for their daily execution and said the award mitigates some of the growing pains. Fraser added that they “came out swinging” from the start, “and frankly, we missed a few.”
He said the city should also take pride in the accomplishment in its second year of eligibility. Fraser explained that the area’s sophistication, culinary knowledge and lack of options drew him to Tampa Bay.
“It’s cool to see a city rise as well and sort of say, ‘we’ve known this for a while, and you guys are just finding out,'” Fraser said.
He also noted that his former director of operations recently opened Allelo on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg, “and he’s having a great time, killing it. So yeah, St. Pete is on our radar, for sure.”