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Behind the Scenes of Bern's

10:39 AM, May 20, 2011   |    comments
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Tampa -  He was a special guest of the world famous eatery.  The Bishop of Bimini finished his dinner.  The restaurant was closed.  The Bishop asked if he could talk to the owner to thank him.  The steakhouse server Captain directed the Bishop to the kitchen.  He found no one but a man washing dishes.   15 minutes later the Bishop returned and seated himself.  The Captain asked how the conversation went. The Bishop replied, "well i couldn't find the owner, but I had a lovely conversation with the dishwasher".  Laughter.  That dishwasher was the owner, Bern Laxer.

That's just one of the many stories that has played out of the years at Bern's Steakhouse in South Tampa.  The Bay Area is spoiled by this world famous restaurant best known for it's vast wine collection.  Most think the magic that spills onto the plates at Bern's Steakhouse begins in the kitchen.  It doesn't.  It starts about 10 miles away.

On a 40-acre tract of land just of the Suncoast Parkway and Waters, sits Bern's Farm.  As you drive in, you pass huge, 20-feet high mounds compost.  A beat up looking barn sits close to Waters Avenue.  It houses a vintage tractor, huge walk in cooler, and other farming materials.

A lot of people don't know that Bern was into "green", sustainable, and recycling.    That's why Bern Laxer started this little farm that grows most of the produce served at Bern's.  Every day produce is picked from these rich grounds.  Hours later it's served to the customer at the steakhouse on Howard Avenue.  It's the epitome of fresh.

Executive Chef Habteab Hamde, or Hab as he's known visits the farm.  He says he likes the ambiance, but most of his time is spent directing the expansive kitchen at Bern's. 

The kitchen runs like a fine oiled machine.  With so many employees, the whir of activity looks like an eclectic ballet.  Everyone from the produce handlers, to cooks, to the serving staff, and the laundry room attendants has a job and does it well.  

In the middle of it all.  The piece de resistance, the in house wine cellar.  Bern became quite the connoisseur simply by trying to figure out the difference between a $20 bottle of wine from a $200 bottle.  His quest took him all over the world and so his collection began. 

On site, Bern's houses thousands of bottles.  Sommelier,  Eric Renaud.

"This is the largest working wine cellar in the world. We offer close to 7000 different table wines, 1000 different dessert wines, 240 different scotches, 270 cognacs and omgnacs".

Within the wine cellar is a section that resembles more of a dungeon.  It's caged off complete with padlock.  In this area, the rare wines are held.  They range in price from $200 to $30,000... yes $30,000.    Bottles date back to 1790.  Many of the bottles are covered in plastic to protect the labels.

Above the restaurant is the dessert room.  Everything up there is made from a wine cask or barrel.  The man who runs this sweet tooth haven is Nate Wilson, a man of imposing stature.   His favorite is the macadamia nut ice cream which is made in the confectionary at the restaurant.  It's decadence is the most recommended.

Wilson has only been at Bern's 6-plus years.  That may seem like a long stay, but server Captain Jamal Husammy has been there 38 years.  As we shot this piece, it became clear, most of Bern's employees have no plans to leave. 

"They'll have to drag me out kicking and screaming", says Wilson.

What Bern created, other than just a fine dining experience, is a place these employees say feels like home.  And it's all open for a tour.  A tour of the kitchen.  A tour of the wine cellar.  Nothing seems off limits. 

Current owner, Bern's son David Laxer says, "I want to continue the legacy my parents began.  I want to give our customers a reason to come back".


Keith Jones, WTSP

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