For racetrack people, the backside kitchen is an oasis amid the daily grind of not-so-fast horses, missed wagering opportunities and deals gone sour.
During the 2012-13 Thoroughbred meeting, Tampa Bay Downs experimented with mobile food trucks in the barn area to meet the needs of trainers, exercise riders, grooms and hot walkers.
You could still buy a snack or a drink from a vending machine in the old kitchen, but those lovingly prepared hot meals that stuck to your ribs on a chilly morning were a thing of the past.
Credit long-time restaurant owner and former horse trainer Jim Tsirigotis for taking Tampa Bay Downs back to the future. Tsirigotis, his wife of 47 years, Terry, and their staff are operating Papa Jim’s Kitchen at the south end of the barn area, next to the racing office – fulfilling their desires to help horsemen and enjoy their company.
“Our passion is horses. And people,” Terry said.
“We love Tampa Bay Downs. This is our home,” Jim said. “I love cooking, and I like being around people. We want to create a family atmosphere here. People tell me I have a nice kitchen, and I tell them ‘It’s not my kitchen, it’s your kitchen. It belongs to the horsemen.’ ”
Current hours are from 6 a.m.-2 p.m., seven days a week. Beginning Nov. 20, the kitchen will be open from 5 a.m.-2 p.m., and from 5 a.m.-6 p.m. on racing days after the 2013-14 meeting resumes Dec. 4.
Tsirigotis trained Thoroughbreds from 1989-97 out of his Suncoast Farms training center in Brooksville before shattering his kneecap in a roofing accident. In addition to Tampa Bay Downs, he has raced horses in south Florida, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware. He and Terry currently own three Thoroughbreds trained by their son, James Tsirigotis, Jr.
One of the couple’s most successful runners was Zoomed, a Florida-bred mare who won 11 of 57 starts from 1989-93 and was stakes-placed.
Stepping in to fill a need has been a way of life for Jim Tsirigotis, a native of the Greek island of Samos who first emigrated with his family at age 7 in 1951 to Canada before moving to the Chicago area. At 13, he went to work at his uncle’s restaurant in Maywood, Ill., washing dishes and mopping floors while taking time to study the cooks as they kept pace with their orders.
Three years later, with the family living in New York, Tsirigotis was forced to work full-time when his father injured his back. The teen took a job washing dishes at the Neptune Diner in Astoria, but volunteered to step in when the regular short-order cook got sick.
“The boss was sitting in a booth behind the counter stools watching me, and when the kitchen rush hour ended he said ‘If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it,’ ” Tsirigotis recalled. After negotiating a substantial raise, Tsirigotis spent the next two years working around-the-clock at the Neptune to help support his family while acquiring the necessary skills to become a full-fledged restaurant owner.
In the Tampa Bay area, Tsirigotis gained acclaim owning and operating Plaka Restaurant – “I had a gyro machine sent from Greece, and we were the first ones to serve them here” – and Paul’s Shrimp House, both in Tarpon Springs. When the couple moved to New York in 1980, they opened Bonnie & Clyde’s Steakhouse/Seafood.
His vocation of serving delicious, nutritious food intersected with racing when he bought a Quarter Horse to compete at Parr Meadows on Long Island in the 1970s. Tsirigotis ran the jockeys’-room kitchen both there and at ThistleDown in Ohio, learning to satisfy the sports world’s pickiest eaters.
“To be a good cook, it’s all a matter of taste and how the food comes out of the oven,” Tsirigotis said. “I always use fresh ingredients, and 95 percent of the time I like cooking from scratch. I make my own beef gravy, my own soups, my meatloaf and my spaghetti and meatballs. It’s all about being creative with your spices – a dab of this, a dab of that – and don’t be afraid to try new things.”
With help from Jim’s cousin, John Rizos, and employee Ruth Barrett, the Tsirigotises have transformed Papa Jim’s Kitchen into a pleasant, comfortable gathering place for horsemen from all corners of the U.S. racing scene. Tablecloths lend an air of refinement and several televisions permit customers to keep up with the action from different tracks. The outdoor patio area and entranceway have been spruced up with hanging plants.
“We’re both very fussy when it comes to cleanliness,” Terry said.
But the main attractions are the food and the prices. For $3.50, race-trackers can fill up with Papa Jim’s Breakfast, which includes two eggs, home fries, toast and a choice of bacon, ham or sausage. Omelets range from $3.75-$4.15. For lunch, a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and pickle is $2.75; a Thursday special features two slices of pizza, chips and soda for $3.59.
“I believe in working on volume,” Tsirigotis said. “To a guy who is hot-walking horses for $2 a horse, how much could he have at the end of a week? So why charge more for a hamburger, when I can have him come in every day and at the end of the week, he has something left from his paycheck.”
Tsirigotis plans different specials each day to fuel the heartiest appetites. “We will cater to everybody,” he said.
Papa Jim’s will also feature a roving food truck when the 2013-14 season resumes next month.
“I don’t believe in shortcuts,” Tsirigotis said. “It’s the same as working with horses. I told my son if you want to have your horses running good, don’t short-cut them, because you are only short-changing yourself.
“I want to be part of the family for Tampa Bay Downs. When people ship their horses into the receiving barn, whether it is (trainer) Bill Mott or (trainer) D. Wayne Lukas, I want them to say ‘We ate at the Tampa Bay Downs kitchen and we loved their food, and every time we go there, that’s where we are going to eat.’ I want to make Tampa Bay proud of us.”
The Tsirigotises have long taken pride in their knack for pleasing their customers. So when the chance came to reopen the track kitchen, they decided to devote all their energies to the task.
“I’m 70, but I don’t feel like I’m 70,” Tsirigotis said. “I feel like I’m around 50 right now. I like to move and I like to do things.
“How much TV can a person watch? That’s how you get old. The more you are around young people, the younger you feel.”
And rest assured, Jim Tsirigotis will never be too tired to fix you a home-cooked meal.