ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The air in the parking lot of Orlando's Citrus Bowl smells like fresh cut oranges, shrimp and barbecue. A crowd has gathered before the game around a guy in a black chef's coat. A camera crew orbits as he sets some shrimp and star melon kebabs on the grill with a flourish.
"Florida seafood — ya gotta love it!" the guy says, grinning. The crowd cheers. The cameraman is happy.
A man walks up and inquires about the hoopla. Someone in the crowd tells him the man in black is Justin Timineri, the state chef of Florida who's filming a spot for ABC.
"Never heard of him," said Paul Pedersen, of Orlando. "He's like the governor's mansion kinda deal? I had no idea we had a state chef."
Move over, Mario Batali. Step aside, Gordon Ramsay. There's a new chef on the cusp of celebrity in the U.S., and he's from Florida.
Timineri is part culinary ambassador, part farm expert and part cheerleader for Florida-grown food. Technically, he's a state employee working for the Florida Department of Agriculture — and he's the only full-time state chef in the nation.
Timineri — tall, bald and known for wearing colorful sneakers — travels the Sunshine State showing people how to use the state's produce and seafood in recipes. He creates healthy menus for people on food stamps and limited incomes and promotes the state's food during trade missions around the world and in TV spots. Next month, he's headed to Brussels to talk up Florida grouper at the world's largest seafood expo.
It makes sense for the state to market its bounty: Agriculture is Florida's No. 2 industry, and unlike tourism, the No. 1 business, farming didn't suffer much in the recession. Florida is the nation's top producer of oranges, grapefruit and sugarcane. It's also No. 1 with a range of vegetables, from snap peas to squash and sweet corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"He is such a fantastic ambassador not only for promoting products grown in Florida," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "But he's also a terrific ambassador with kids."
Timineri has a new mission this year: teaching schoolchildren to eat healthier. As part of the Department of Agriculture's effort to get kids to eat locally grown produce, Timineri does in-school cooking demos he's dubbed "Extreme Cuisine." A recent personal victory came when he got a class of sixth-graders to try guacamole; the children were skeptical of whole avocados but loved the finished product.
"I have the best job in all of state government," Timineri said.
The 37-year-old grew up in Tallahassee with Italian grandparents and good food.
"I knew ever since I could remember that I wanted to be a chef," he said. "When I was little, I was always peeking around in the kitchen."
Timineri didn't go to culinary school. Instead, he got a job in a Tallahassee restaurant and then worked his way up in various kitchens. Eventually, he took a job as an event chef for the professional stock car and golf tours.
In 2006, he heard the state chef's job created in the mid-1990s was open. He was hired over 60 others and makes $43,000 a year as part of the ag agency's marketing department. His office includes a small test kitchen attached to the Bureau of Seafood.
Since becoming Florida's state chef, Timineri won a Food Network Challenge with a recipe for crispy, pan-seared Florida snapper with passion fruit cream.
When he's not traveling, he helps with events at the governor's mansion. He especially likes cooking for Gov. Rick Scott and his family.
"They are very health conscious," Timineri said. "Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood."
Timineri has one tip for home cooks: Buy produce in-season, and buy local.
"People should first go to grocery store or the farmers market and find out what's fresh and in season," he said. "Then go home to find a recipe to match it."