Tony Ridgeway is a mentor, an artist and a Culinary Wizard

Jeff Lytle

The self-taught chef opened the first haute cuisine restaurant – beyond steaks, chops and seafood — in 1972 and still runs three successful dining spots off Third Street South and The Village on Venetian Bay.

At age 75, Ridgway says “I am the best cook I have ever been,’’ and proves it by publishing a premium cookbook/ memoir with forthright, highly personal, beautifully crafted chapters. “It’s my story,” he says, “and it’s a real cookbook.”

The title, “Kitchen Privileges,’’ was his father’s term for giving Ridgway the first taste of food that he helped make, starting as a child when he asked his mother for a pie – a natural question for a kid living amid 250 acres of apples and peaches in Northbrook, Pennsylvania. “Why not make one yourself?” she replied.

The book entices readers into every facet of food, unlike chefs who he says believe “keeping you out allows them to maintain their all knowing status.’’ He worked on it more than four years, writing and testing every one of the 100 -plus old, new, long and short recipes that he had cooked only on the fly.

Ridgway is eager to apply some of the newfound precision in his working kitchens, which he considers magic for their craftsmanship, passion and drive to do better. ‘‘I think Tony’s impact was his willingness to let young culinarians
develop our craft and find our individual styles of cooking,’’ says Greg Fatigati, now head of culinary innovation for employees at Google, based in California. “I can easily say my six years with him were the most memorable of
my career.”

Seafood recipes include
pan-roasted shrimp
with sweet corn grits cake and tasso ham gravy.

The photos are mouthwatering, and all of the photo subjects were eaten – true to his “taste as much as you can” theme for life as well as food. It was a family affair, with his wife, Wynne, organizing and coaching more than 500 pages of content, and daughter Caroline, a marketing professional, serving as editor.

Though he is excited about the coffee table-sized volume coming out in November, he is anxious about its reception. “It is as important and meaningful as anything I have ever done,’’ he confides. Which is saying a lot for Ridgway, who has been involved with brands such as Truffles, Chef ’s Garden, Terra, Plum’s Café, Villa Pescatore and the current Tony’s Off Third, Ridgway Bar & Grill, Bayside and Suki’s Wine Shop. All four, plus, will have books for sale for $55.

Steve Corio, another Ridgway alumnus, calls him a pioneer who championed “creative cuisine” that rejects ordinary and combines influences rather than a single specialty. Corio, now executive chef at Bear’s Paw Country Club, says Ridgway’s emphasis on recruiting and teaching helped make Naples “a mecca for chefs.’’

In the book Ridgway’s successes and failures along the way have their own sharply candid chapter. So do breads,
cookies, pasta, pies, meats, seafood, emulsions, stock and much more. He tutors on the importance of smell – “the purest of our senses” – and the basic elements of taste – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Umami?

“Tony is indeed a culinary wizard,” says Naples Mayor Bill Barnett, longtime customer and foodie. “He hasn’t lost his desire or his touch to make sure each dish that leaves the kitchen is cooked to perfection. His cookbook should be a No. 1 seller!” It is the chronicle of how Ridgway visited his parents in Naples while in boarding school, college and avionics duty in the Air Force.

In 1971, with no business or professional cooking experience, he bought The Wurst Place, featuring bratwurst, liverwurst and the like. Adding carrot cake, let alone marinated shrimp with avocado mousse, was daring. So was opening Chef’s Garden a year later, with fine dining he calls “transformational.”

Skip Quillen, owner of five local restaurants, says: “I thank Tony Ridgway every day for giving me my first job in Naples. I don’t think Tony gets the credit he rightfully deserves as perhaps the only person who truly cared about food in Naples in those early days — and he was willing to risk it all to not only follow and accomplish his dreams,
but to also set the stage for others to follow, including myself.’’

The subject was cake in 1981 in the kitchen at Truffles for Ridgway and daughter Caroline, who edited the new book.

The entrepreneurial spirit runs in the family. His aunt, Rosemary Robinson, founded the iconic namesake interior design firm on Third Street, and his mother left the longtime family home in Pennsylvania to join her in 1961. The rest is history, lovingly told and graced with great food in a book not destined for a dusty shelf. It beckons to be savored often. It is ironic that for all the work Ridgway has dedicated to his craft and his book, he offers this insight: “I believe simple is usually best.’’

Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News. Jeff can be reached by email at

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