Table Talk “Behind The Line: Heard Chef” Event proves Orlando is a Culinary Destination
If you love food, Orlando has a lot to offer yet I’m often asked by family and friends living in the culinary meccas of New York, San Francisco and Portland if there are any good restaurants in Orlando. This is usually said as a statement rather than a question. It bothers me and also fuels me. “Yes, there is good food in Orlando!” is my enthusiastic answer. I’m on a mission to find it, taste it and talk about it as much as I can. I hope one day the statement “Orlando is a Culinary Destination” is no longer met with raised eyebrows but instead with excitement and curiosity to explore all the culinary talent in The City Beautiful.
Although our amazing attractions have put Orlando on the map, magic isn’t just found with Mickey at Walt Disney World and Harry Potter at Universal. Magic can also be found with Hari Pulapaka, Kathleen Blake, Brandon McGlamery, Scott Hunnel, John Rivers and many other talented chefs around town. They prove Orlando is a culinary destination.”
I was thrilled to be invited by Rockaway PR to their “Table Talk” event, a quarterly gathering for the culinary who’s who in Orlando to discuss the latest industry issues and trends. “Behind the Line: Heard, Chef!” took place at the spectacular offices and test kitchen of 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park. John Rivers was the envy of everyone there who wished they had such a beautiful playground to test and perfect their dishes.
The informal discussion was moderated by culinary genius, founding father of New World Cuisine and award-winning chef Norman Van Aken. He put Florida cuisine on the map and it should speak volumes that he chose to open his namesake restaurant in Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes. On the panel were the talented James Beard Award nominated (The Oscars of the culinary world) chefs Kathleen Blake of The Rusty Spoon, Scott Hunnel of Victoria and Albert’s, Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park and Prato, Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant, and John Rivers of 4 Rivers Smokehouse and The Coop. These chefs are definitely making their mark in the culinary world and you can only find them here in Orlando.
The event started off the way all events should start, with a delicious array of dishes prepared by the 4 Rivers team. I was thankful they took time out of their hectic schedule to tease us with comfort foods from their newest concept, The Coop: A Southern Affair, opening in Winter Park later this month. They are also in the midst of opening the sixth location of 4 Rivers Smokehouse on the east side of Orlando near UCF. We sampled Poached Eggs with a spicy tomato sauce over grits served in mini skillets, bite-size Chicken & Biscuits which are perfect hors d’oeuvres for a party, Buttermilk Biscuits & Southern Sausage Gravy with a variety of fresh made jams and jellies, Grapefruit Brulee, and an incredible Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding that was more dessert than breakfast, and perfectly ok with me! This spread definitely made me want to go stand in line and await the opening of The Coop. After all, standing in line is a common practice foodies happily engage in at all of John Rivers restaurants.
With full bellies, we were ready to listen to the chefs. They answered a variety of questions about the growing culinary scene in Orlando, how they react to trends, the Farm to Table movement and what they look for when hiring staff. This type of event and dialogue shows Orlando chefs take their craft seriously and it solidifies why Orlando is a culinary destination.
The Top 9 Things Heard at “Behind The Line: Heard, Chef”
1. Farm to Table is no longer buzz
The term “Farm to Table” is tossed around repeatedly. It seems every restaurant wants to be innovative and make such claim but the practice is nothing new. Chef Norman Van Aken says “Farm to Table has been going on for a long time and now there is a term for it”. Chef Hari Pulapaka added that it simply helps restaurants like his differentiate themselves from commercial kitchens. The consensus across the panel was that although the term is overused, the practice is definitely still very relevant. There is fresh local product available here in Central Florida year round which is one of the reasons why Orlando is a Culinary Destination.
2. Culinary style trumps trends
Many chefs hang their (chef) hat on the latest trends to satisfy, as Van Aken stated “the food media always looking for the latest eyebrow raiser”. However, the chefs on the panel all agreed that being true to their unique style and “cooking their passion” is the only way to succeed. Chef Kathleen Blake was passionate explaining that “Farm to Table is not a concept, it is a path.” Her rustic style drives her menu. Chef Brandon McGlamery echoed that sentiment and said he keeps his restaurants true to their identity and respects the product he uses. Chef Scott Hunnel shared his guests are well-traveled and have dined at some of the finest restaurants around the world however you can’t compare one with another because they each have their own style. Having that unique personality allows chefs the ability to focus on evolving within their own personal style to surprise their guests. Visit each of the restaurants from the chefs on the panel and you will see that they are not cookie-cutter experiences following a trend and thus worthy of a visit. This makes Orlando a culinary destination.
3. Respect the consumer’s trust
Hari Pulapaka made a comment that in all my years in the hospitality industry I have never heard a chef say. “As a chef we are being trusted with something so personal as what you put in your body. I don’t take that trust lightly which is why we have to be thoughtful and creative with what we do”. He pays close attention to the product he sources for Cress Restaurant and his menu reflects that. It’s no surprise he was getting on a plane that afternoon to prepare a special dinner at the acclaimed James Beard House in New York. I wonder if we, as consumers, put as much thought into what foods we consume as these chefs put into what they choose to prepare for us. If you are not one to think much about where your food comes from then you must find a chef that has this level of commitment and happily let them feed you. Being able to trust your chef is another reason why Orlando has a lot to offer as a culinary destination.
4. Collaboration with Farmers is a must
The comment that drew the most laughter from the crowd was “farmers don’t really like people” from Brandon McGlamery. If I printed this out of context you would miss the point. The chefs on the panel spoke of the importance of collaborating with farmers to teach them about what products they need in their restaurants. Years ago they would ask a farmer for a particular type of product or a particular quantity and they didn’t have it. Farmers can be solely focused on their product and working the land and not on the business side of organizing and marketing themselves to meet the needs of the market. These chefs have worked with local farmers to help them grow in true collaboration, something Chef Kathleen Blake says has been “a labor of love”. A farmer that can only provide a few dozen eggs or 10 pounds of onions isn’t going to be successful. It is at times still a challenge to source product in large scale, as John Rivers has found when sourcing the millions of pounds of brisket needed for his BBQ restaurants. They continue to collaborate with farmers to find the best solutions.
5. Passion vs. book knowledge
If you want to work in Scott Hunnel’s kitchen, you need “eagerness, passion and desire”. All chefs agreed culinary education is good but getting hands-on experience learning proper technique in the kitchen is best. Van Aken’s memoir “No Experience Necessary” suggests it is preferred to have someone with passion you can teach instead of someone with experience that isn’t open to learn. Blake mentioned each kitchen has a way of doing things and shared her experiences learning to handle lobster at one restaurant and then working in another and finding out she needed to start from the bottom and learn different techniques. It takes long hours to deliver creative and high quality food. Anyone starting their career in the culinary field must be willing to put in the time to learn and hone their skills. That’s great advice no matter what career you choose.
6. Neighborhood Food Markets fuel the Good Food Movement
When asked what Orlando needs to do to be considered a culinary destination, Pulapaka said “we need more East End Markets” and I wholeheartedly agree! A visit to East End Market would make you a believer that Orlando is a Culinary Destination. Its opening signaled a new era for the food movement as it is a place where food entrepreneurs, tradespeople, farmers, chefs and artists have all come together to show us what great food can be found here. Visiting East End Market is one of my favorite field trips, full of fun things to explore and eat. John Rife (East End Market developer), please open one in my neighborhood in South Orlando.
7. Behind the Line vs. In Front of the Camera
When the panel was asked their thoughts on reality TV cooking shows and being in front of the camera, Scott Hunnel said that doing so would take him away from what he loves most, being behind the line and in the restaurant interacting with guests. My best birthday celebration was dining at the Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s (an incredible dining experience everyone should have at least once in their life). The food and service blew me away but what impressed me most was that Hunnel was in the kitchen all night until past 11pm. Many restaurants in culinary meccas around the world are powered by celebrity chefs who are not found in the kitchen and only seen on TV. It is a real treat to have an award-winning chef actually in the kitchen and that’s where you’ll find all of these talented chefs in Orlando. Another reason why I think Orlando is a culinary destination.
8. Orlando is more than theme parks
The panelists and those in the audience shared my frustration about Orlando not being recognized as a culinary destination. Media promotion of Orlando revolves around the attractions, the reason why most people visit Orlando. Events like Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival are combining attractions and food bringing food lovers from around the world. They are now starting to explore the local restaurant scene while in town and word of mouth is spreading. Hunnel shared he often hears from guests “I can’t believe this restaurant is on Disney property”. It is surprising to many that a AAA Three Diamond restaurant is found with the theme park lights at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. They then go back home and tell all their friends that Orlando is a Culinary Destination.
9. Orlando is not boring
When Kathleen Blake moved to the area she was asked “aren’t you going to be bored in Orlando? She mentioned at first all you see are chain restaurants especially when you are near the attractions. Once you venture out you find a variety of unique local restaurants. Personally, I think it’s great that we have such amazing attractions as well as a local food scene here. It gives us locals a lot to do. For visitors it means you can have the best of both worlds. There is no need to sacrifice good food in favor of theme parks.
At the conclusion of our chat, John Rivers, Norman Van Aken and Brandon McGlamery signed copies of their new cookbooks and I was excited to be able to add to my collection, I am a cookbook junkie! John Rivers “The Southern Cowboy” offers heart-warming stories of the 4R team and delicious BBQ recipes that have made 4 Rivers Smokehouse such a hit around Florida and soon outside of Florida. Norman Van Aken’s New World Kitchen has been in my collection for years so I’m looking forward to reading his memoir “No Experience Necessary”. Brandon McGlamery’s 9 Courses is a beautiful book which I can’t wait to crack open as I love both Luma on Park and Prato. His “be the roadrunner” motto is a great one to live by!
Yes, there is good food in Orlando”
If you still don’t believe me then visit Cress Restaurant, The Rusty Spoon, 4 Rivers Smokehouse, The Coop, Luma on Park, Prato, Victoria and Albert’s, and Norman’s and I am certain you will be convinced Orlando is a Culinary Destination.
I’m excited to keep exploring the Orlando food scene and sharing my findings with as many people as I can. It’s a delicious assignment and someone has to do it!
Please share in the comments below your favorite restaurants and chefs that are putting Orlando on the culinary map. Let’s spread the word about our culinary movement.
I hope you will join me and Go Epicurista