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Culinary career built on resolve

With no formal training, a woman becomes executive chef at two of Tampa's top restaurants.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2002


HYDE PARK -- Jeannie Pierola learned about determination at age 9 from a horse named Curious George.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Chef Jeannie Pierola, cradling some of her favorite ingredients, rules the kitchens of Sidebern's and Bern's Steak House.
Whenever she went riding at her family's place in Brandon, the horse bucked and threw her to the ground like a sack of flour. Each time, she dusted herself off and climbed back on.

Curious George died one day.

Her determination didn't.

Years later, Pierola equates the equine experience to her career as a chef: In both cases, she's had her share of spills -- and successes.

"I'm constantly learning," says Pierola, a fast-talker with a deep voice and an easy grin.

Today, Pierola, 40, rules the kitchens of SideBern's and Bern's Steak house. She plans the menus, directs the cooking staff and experiments with dishes.

And she does all that without a lick of formal training.

Colleagues call it a gift.

"I can honestly tell you that she's the most creative chef in town," says Laura Schmalhorst, a longtime local caterer and owner of A La Carte Event Pavilion.

"She's good at finding obscure products and making them very palatable," says Jon Eric Kern, chef at Le Bordeaux, who has worked with Pierola.

Pierola was born in Ybor City. At age 10, she moved with her family to Anna Maria Island, where her parents ran a beach resort. She graduated from Bradenton's Bayshore High School in 1980.

Growing up, she always had a passion for good food. Food was the focus of family events, and she learned to cook from her Spanish-Cuban grandmothers, Lena Mendez and Onelia Pierola.

Cooking called her like a half-eaten chocolate cake.

By age 12, she was reading cookbooks from the table of contents to the index. She considered becoming a stand-up comedienne or a lawyer, but she couldn't take the rejection and lacked the patience to attend college.

Instead, she fashioned her own education. She jokes about spending her tuition eating out.

"I didn't go to culinary school. I went to obsessive school," she says.

Pierola opened her first restaurant when she was 25. Tia Lena's in Bradenton featured traditional Spanish dishes prepared with Caribbean, French and Spanish spices.

After five years in business, Pierola returned to Tampa in 1992 to work at Bern's Steak House under the guidance of owner Bern Laxer, her mentor.

"My father had an expense account at Bern's," she says. "I've been fascinated by it my whole life."

A year later, Pierola opened Cool Beans Cafe on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Hyde Park Place. The menu included a mix of Floridian, Cuban and Caribbean foods.

Although the restaurant built a loyal following, the business aspect of it quickly soured.

"It was two years of hard work," she says. "I thought the concept was amazing, but I inherited a lot of debt."

Undeterred, Pierola set her sights on a new culinary experience, this one on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. Opened in May 1996, Boca featured a unique mix of New World cuisine, ranging from snapper with plantain crepes to sweet potatoes with vanilla beans. A St. Petersburg Times restaurant reviewer described the dishes as "stunners."

"Cancel those flights to Miami and New York. You don't need to leave home to taste the hippest nuevo Latino flavor."

Pierola left Boca, the Spanish word for mouth, in November 1997. Her explanation, simply stated: Partnerships are like marriages. They almost never work out.

Still, she has no regrets.

"It was a great run. I had tons of fun with the food," she says.

Ready for something different, Pierola decided to leave Florida and start fresh in New York City, the food capital of the world.

Then she got a call from Bern Laxer's son, David, who had taken over the business. He wanted Pierola to transform SideBern's, making it a worthy little sister of Bern's.

After pondering the possibilities, Pierola accepted his offer. It was too good to pass up. Besides, she worried her dogs, Zoe and Daphne, might not adjust to big city living.

In the past 3-1/2 years, Pierola has overhauled SideBern's menu and decor, built a new kitchen, created a "chef's suite" for private parties and opened a Dim Sum lounge. All of the dishes, from the Szechuan-glazed Florida grouper to the chorizo-scaled sea bass, center on a common theme: "One World Under Food."

Pierola's touch also has extended to the steak house, a Tampa institution founded in 1956 as a sandwich shop. She introduced new menu items and is working on an updated menu of old favorites and new specialties.

"It's a lot of deliciousness going on," she says, with a wide smile.

Pierola hopes to debut the menu in the next two to three months, after every item is tested, refined and rewritten. It's a tedious process that takes a lot of time -- and, like riding horses, a lot of determination.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

JEANNIE PIEROLA

  • AGE: 40
  • OCCUPATION: Executive chef/partner at SideBern's and executive chef/culinary director at Bern's Steak house.
  • ROOTS: Born in Ybor City, grew up on Anna Maria Island.
  • WORK SCHEDULE: 70 hours a week.
  • FAVORITE FOOD: Doesn't have one. "It's like picking a favorite child."
  • CULINARY DISLIKES: Calf's liver and pizza. "It bores me. Why do I want a pie with just one flavor?"
  • INSPIRATIONS: Cookbooks, other chefs.
  • MENTOR: Bern Laxer, founder of Bern's.
  • PASTIMES: Watching movies and dining out. "I'm often seen eating out at restaurants."
  • FAVORITE EATING SPOTS: Spartaco for pasta, Sunee's for Thai.
  • ROOMMATES: Australian shepherds, Zoe and Daphne

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