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Interview: Executive Chef Lee Aquino of Birch & Vine at The Birchwood St. Pete

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Executive Chef Lee Aquino of Birch & Vine at The Birchwood in Downtown St. Pete recently for an interview. Aquino is originally from Amelia Island. The restaurant and hotel owner, Chuck Prather, is also making moves to soon expand into the new St. Pete Pier that is opening in 2020.

Photo via Birchwood

Here is the interview:

Q: What’s new on the menu at Birch & Vine?

A: Birch & Vine is updating all facets of our menu. We’re updating the face of the building and our scratch kitchen with fun, awesome, but also approachable food. Our style is French rustic with an American twist.

Our diners are a variety of people: hotel guests, passerby customers, and people who see our menu in the front of the building on the first floor.

On our top floor at The Canopy, it’s a little different. We have retired folks and a variety of young people as well. Our menu is mainly bar food and we are looking to update the flatware and menu items. Lighter and fresh vibes. Food that is easy to eat.

No caviar here.

Q: What trends do you see coming in 2020?

A: Towers. I’m sure you’ve seen them in old school tea parties.

Smaller portions with more variety and more choices. Multiple appetizers and hors d’oeuvres with in-between price points.

Q: Do you think plant-based meat will join the menu in 2020?

A: We are not using plant-based meat at Birch & Vine. My main concern is cross-contamination issues, which has been a concern as some of the big concepts and chains that have deployed it.

We try to be as conscious as possible about our imprint at Birch & Vine.

Seasonality is a thing in Florida, even though there’s one season things don’t grow the whole year. If a party orders a fig salad – it can be a tough thing to find when a farm runs out of it. Sourcing can be difficult and we try our best to get ahead of it.

We never want to mislead the clients. Be honest.

Q: What’s your history and background?

A: I have been at Birch & Vine for 2 years as Executive Chef. I started at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club as an Executive Sous Chef for 6 years in the past. I bought a house in Downtown St. Pete and made it my home and that led me here.

Q: Where do you like to eat on your day off?

A: Somewhere I haven’t been. I like to be provoked and taste the town. I have no favorites though (laughs).


The Birchwood is located at 340 Beach Drive Northeast in Downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. The hotel features Birch & Vine restaurant, an 18-room boutique hotel on the second and third floor, conference, event, and entertainment space in The Grand Ballroom on the fourth floor and a rooftop lounge, The Canopy.

It is a Spanish Mission-style building originally built in 1922 and underwent historically correct renovations in 2013. It is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. 

Visit them online at thebirchwood.com.

Birch & Vine. 340 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. (727) 896-1080.

Categories
Food Holidays Interviews

GrillSmith Chef Joe Guli Interview & Chef Guli’s Top 10 Fourth of July Grilling Tips

I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Joe Guli, GrillSmith‘s Chef Tech of Operations in this area, today at the Brandon location located inside the Westfield Brandon Town Center (located outside near the food court). GrillSmith was established in 2004 and is an affiliate of Front Burner Brands, a restaurant management company headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Joe has been a chef for 10 years and studied at the Florida Culinary Academy prior to becoming a chef. Prior to the interview I was served some bruschetta with smoked salmon that tasted great. We talked about Guli’s history and food interests in a brief interview before he gave me 10 grilling tips for families to use this 4th of July when having barbeques and getting together for the Independence Day holiday.

Q & A with Joe Guli

Carlos Eats (CE): How did you get started as a chef? How did you get into your current position with GrillSmith?

Joe Guli (JG): My grandfather inspired me to become a chef and I was also influenced by a family-owned establishment growing up. I worked for the Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas and then moved to Florida, landing a position at GrillSmith through a contact from my former employer.

CE: What is your favorite entree at GrillSmith? What’s your favorite sauce?

JG: Chicken Milanese is my favorite entree (sautéed, herb-crusted chicken finished with a lemon-butter white wine reduction, sun-dried tomatoes, golden raisins and capers, dressed with arugula and pine nuts in GrillSmith’s lemon-feta vinaigrette, served over seasoned rice). I love breaded chicken. My favorite sauce would have to be our port wine sauce.

CE: Social Media Day is coming up on June 30th. What do you think about the relationship that Social Media and Food have found today?

JG: I think it’s great. It allows people to get recommendations to restaurant and interact with food.

CE: Here’s a fun question. What is your favorite food network show and why?

JG: Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible. I personally enjoy going into a restaurant and making it a success the way Robert Irvine does on his show.

CE: What toppings do you like on your burger?

JG: It might sound weird, but my favorite burger toppings are fried pork belly with egg (laughs).

CE: What is a 4th of July tradition for you and your family?

JG: Grilling with the family is definitely a 4th of July tradition for my family. We’re Italian and French so there has to be pasta at our 4th of July family gatherings as well.

CE: Thanks for your time, it was great talking with you.

Joe Guli’s Top 10 Fourth of July Grilling Tips

1.    Go with gas. Use a gas grill to help control cooking temperature. Most gas grills have a number of heat settings and many include built-in temperature gauges to determine the correct cooking temperature required for a certain food.

2.    Use multiple burners for multiple food items. When grilling several different foods that require different cooking temperatures, it’s helpful to use a gas grill that features multiple burners to better control the temperature for each food.

3.    Add wood-grilled flavor. Add grilled flavor to food by using wooden grilling planks that are designed to provide added flavor to food during the grilling process.

4.    Know the difference between direct and indirect heat grilling methods.

    • Use direct heat for thinner meats. Direct heat grilling is the best approach for grilling foods such as hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, brats, pork chops, chicken breast and fish. To grill with direct heat, place food on the grilling grate in the area directly over the heat source.
    • Use indirect heat for thicker meats. Thick meats are best cooked with a heat source that is not directly under the food. This allows them to cook slowly to ensure that the food does not burn on the outside before the inside reaches the necessary level of doneness. Whole chickens, whole turkeys, beef roasts and pork roasts are good choices for grilling with indirect heat.
    • Alternate direct and indirect heat grilling for large meat cuts. It’s a good idea to sear large meat cuts directly over high heat to help seal in the juices and maintain tenderness. Then, place them in an area of the grilling grate that is away from the heat source to allow the indirect heat to cook the meat slowly until it’s done.

5.    Choose the right lean-to-fat ratio for burgers. Use ground beef that contains 77 perfect lean and 23 percent fat. This will result in juicy, flavorful burgers that won’t flare up on the grill due to too much fat content.

6.    Don’t overwork burger meat. When making burger patties, touch the patties lightly and be careful not to overwork the meat. Overworked meat will become tough, dried out and could fall apart on the grill.

7.    Cut and coat your vegetables. Cut vegetables into uniform-sized pieces to help them cook evenly. Rub vegetables with vegetable oil or toss them with a clear or light marinade prior to grilling over indirect heat.

8.    A digital meat thermometer can be your best friend. Use this tool to help you avoid overcooking. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, hamburgers and medium steaks to an internal temp of 160 degrees and pork to 150 degrees.

9.    Add some flavor the easy way. Pre-mixed seasonings, marinades, rubs and sauces can be a big help! Poultry such as chicken breasts should be marinated for 30 minutes to one hour. Marinate tender steaks like sirloin for 15 minutes to two hours. Less tender steaks like flank should be marinated for six to 24 hours.

10. Give it a rest. Let meat rest after removing it from the grill for at least three minutes, 10 minutes for larger cuts, before slicing it so that the juices redistribute evenly and the flavor stays in the meat rather than leaking out onto your cutting board. Place the meat on a hot serving plate and cover it loosely with foil while resting to keep it from getting cold.