Phill Rivenbark, head chef at Isabelle’s restaurant at The Historic Peninsula Inn in Gulfport, is having a busy week. Not only did he create food samplings for Creative Loafing’s Best of the Bay Awards Party, he is also gearing up for Gulfport’s gastronomic event of the year – the Gulfport Chef’s Table on Monday, October 3. Isabelle’s is one of nine Gulfport restaurants participating in the fine-dining experience along Beach Boulevard to benefit Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA).
Rivenbark and his sous chef, Juanito Calderon, have been busy for months preparing for the event.
“The Chef’s Table is going to be a cool event. Gulfport is a fun community. We’ve had a lot of brainstorming sessions, working together to plan a great menu,” says Rivenbark. “It’s important to me that the ingredients we use are of the highest quality as all menu items are made from scratch.”
Rivenbark uses the freshest ingredients he can find for his creations and buys local. He buys fish at Gulf Coast Seafood, where he hand-selects his purchases for the restaurant. His major source of vegetables is Gulfport Produce, and all herbs used in his dishes are grown out back behind the Peninsula Inn.
For the Chef’s Table four-course menu, Rivenbark and Calderon used two popular offerings from Isabelle’s menu for the first two courses, adding a fine-dining twist.
“We wanted to feature a couple of items that our patrons enjoy and amp it up,” he says.
The first course will be shrimp and grits, a Southern classic using Key West pinks incorporated into a grit cake. Course two will put a different spin on fried green tomatoes, presenting the dish as a salad with goat cheese and pistachios. The third course is a choice of pork chops with apple-bourbon glaze or black grouper over angel hair pasta with fresh heirloom tomatoes. Like the rest of the dishes, the desserts are all made in-house.
On Thursday, the countdown to the Chef’s Table begins. The pork will be cut and all sauces will be prepared on Sunday. The grouper will come in the day of the event. Everything will be in place three hours before diners arrive. In addition to two servers, Rivenbark will be at the table to check in with guests and give them some background on each course.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Tampa’s culinary school, Rivenbark has worked at some of the area’s most popular restaurants including BellaBrava, Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach before landing at Isabelle’s in 2015. He is also no stranger to fine dining, as Isabelle’s hosts occasional private parties with five- or six-course dinners upon request.
Veronica Champion, owner of The Historic Peninsula Inn, was impressed with what Rivenbark was doing in the kitchen when she recently bought the property, and says she is excited about the first Gulfport Chef’s Table.
“It’s great working as a team, planning in advance and having the opportunity to showcase Gulfport as a culinary destination,” she says. “Someone could come to Gulfport seven days a week and not have the same experience because there is such a variety of wonderful restaurants.”
As Rivenbark heads back to the kitchen, he says, “I love the whole ambiance of preparing and serving food. Whether at home with family or at a restaurant, food has always brought people together.”