Interview With Baba's Shrimp Shack Owner Chef Andy Bennardo

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Courtesy of Baba's Shrimp Shack
Owner/Chef Andy Bennardo and co.
Chef Andrew Bennardo is the owner of Boca Raton's Talia's Tuscan Table, a Bronx-style  restaurant popular for its homemade mozzarella, giant deli sandwiches and server-free dining room (complete with an on-the-honor system pay-as-you-go beer tap). A New York native and graduate of the renowned Culinary Institute of America, Chef Andy eventually moved to Florida where he's been in the dining circuit for more than 20 years. His focus for a chunk of that time was fine dining, culminating in Bennardo's, the bygone four-star Delray Beach restaurant. Chef Andy opened Talia's in 2001 after a year spent in Italy contemplating his next culinary move.

In the fall of 2010, Chef Andy expanded his space, opening Baba's Shrimp Shack in a room adjacent to Talia's. The two restaurants share the same staff, kitchen and approach to dining. There is no table service at Baba's or Talia's - a fact that has proven immensely popular for the Italian restaurant, but has given pause to a handful of visitors to the New England-esque Baba's.
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Courtesy of Baba's Shrimp Shack
Chef Andy - who since childhood has gone by the nickname "Baba" - took a few moments between taking orders, preparing for the dinner rush and tending bar to talk to Clean Plate Charlie about his new venture and why he likes to take a no-frills approach to South Florida dining. Below are a few snippets about Chef Andy and why Baba's is the way it is.

Chef Andy on the cost of dining out for seafood in South Florida and
why he chose to do seafood instead of simply expanding Talia's:

"I grew up on City Island (part of the Bronx) off of New York," he says, explaining his longtime love for seafood and New England-style seafood joints in particular. "I worked at every seafood restaurant in town." Chef Andy says that with Baba's he "wanted to do something different (instead of more Italian)." 

"Why is there such a high premium for seafood in Florida? For a place that's surrounded by water..." Chef Andy said, explaining that he'd recently paid $28 for a piece of sea bass; a premium fish, he'll concede, but a price that still strikes him as outrageous given our proximity to the bounty of the sea. "Nothing at Baba's is above $11."

On why there's no table service at Talia's or Baba's:

Chef Andy gives a number of reasons for the lack of full service; less overhead costs, lower prices for customers, more control of the dishes and dining experience, among them. Most of all, it's about putting the emphasis on the food. "I've done the fine dining thing. The linen tablecloths..." he says. With Baba's, like Talia's, there's no "wait(staff), no headaches. Just good food, good prices."

Chef Andy likes that he can act as host, chef, manager and interact with his customers throughout their visit. "I'm behind the counter every day for lunch and almost every night for dinner." 

On whether his no-frills approach is understood and embraced:

Apart from a few lukewarm reviews - almost exclusively relating to the lack of full service - on the crowd-sourced dining site Chowhound.com the response in the community and online has been positive, Chef Andy says. "I'm still standing and expanding. I think either you get it or you don't."


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