Spend any time with Chef Zack Gross and you will not be wondering what he thinks about the St. Pete restaurant scene, his own food, his own restaurant and people that irritate him. He will be happy to share and that is part of his charm.
He has always marched to the beat of his own drum. When it came time for him to apply for his first job, he tried to get a job at a local restaurant. “My hair was long and they would not hire me for anything. They wouldn’t let me wash dishes,” he says. He eventually obtained odd jobs in different restaurants and began working his way up. Somewhere along the way he went to California Culinary School, where he finished in a record six months. He mainly grew up in Southern California and his mother was from Mexico.
Finally his menu at his restaurant, Z Grille, made some sense to me. I always thought it was very fresh and creative. but if I had to put a label on it, I would say it is California – inspired food. Everything I have eaten there has been outstanding and perfectly executed. From the Dr. Pepper Ribs to the different types of Deviled Eggs, to just a simple glass of wine and his Chicken Taco during happy hour; it is all tasty, all the time. And for those who think the menu is a bit on the high-priced side, my glass of wine and Chicken Taco cost a total of $6 and was a satisfying bit of food for me.
This photo above, with the normally packed restaurant empty gives you a sense of style in this elegant space. The walls are made of curved, giant sheets of bamboo. The bar area is a marriage of steel and the open glass panes that surround the whole interior. It is truly one of the most thoughtful, well-designed restaurants in our area.
Some of Chef Zack’s other experiences leading up to Z Grille include working at the Croce family restaurant in California (a la Jim Croce), another restaurant called Hash in California and some time with the Outback restaurant group. “I worked for Outback back when they really cared about the food,” he says. His impression these days is they are a little more concerned about food cost than quality.
One thing (besides his beautiful wife and daughter) Chef Zack is very proud of is the fact that he owns his restaurant. “You see a lot of chefs in this area that are working for other people. They do their jobs and go home. This is my restaurant. No one is going to tell me what to cook.” In his menu, one can see after talking to him, his dishes are a true reflection of his experiences in life.
Avocado Deviled Eggs with Jalapeno (He also serves a Roasted Red Pepper with Goat Cheese version, and others.)
What does he think about detractors? Frankly, I don’t think he really cares. Not long ago, he was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef in the South. That pretty much speaks for itself. He has also been known to ask people with complaints he deems silly and irrelevant to leave his restaurant, without ceremony. “There was a guy at our previous location on Central that came in. He owned a burger place and was complaining about the quality of the silverware. I took his silverware away and told him to get out of my restaurant.”
Don’t think that Zack’s occasional impatience with situations like that is any indication he is not loved by his patrons. He has an extremely loyal following of people coming from far and wide to dine at Z Grille. In addition to the locals eating there frequently, he has a very high number of out-of-town guests familiar with his reputation. “We get people visiting Tampa and other nearby cities who drive here just to eat at Z Grille,” he says.
Chef Zack at work in the kitchen
Spending some time talking with Zack was very refreshing. He does not stand on ceremony and he is not a snob about his food. He simply makes the best food he can every day and he does it for the pure love of creating a quality experience. It is reflected in the design of the space, the menu and the level of service his staff provides. However, if I were you, I would not complain about the silverware.