Dining Hall of Fame
Orlando magazine honors three individuals, a team and a singular restaurant as Dining Hall of Fame inductees. The Hall of Famers have made lasting contributions to the area’s dining scene.
At The Venetian Room, chef Khalid Benghallem strives to be original.
Khalid Benghallem sees himself as an artist. “I come up with ideas just like that, to be honest with you,” he says. To create new recipes, Benghallem works alone and doesn’t consult cookbooks. “It’s just like when an artist starts painting. He doesn’t go and talk to an assistant. He starts creating one thing and it leads to another. In the end, I come up with this beautiful dish.”
The 37-year-old chef has headed up The Venetian Room’s kitchen since the gourmet restaurant opened six years ago in the Caribe Royale Hotel. Continental cuisine in a traditional fine-dining setting is the establishment’s draw. The Venetian Room is the kind of ultraformal restaurant where each course arrives at the table topped by silver domes, which are removed, in sync, by a team of waiters.
Only, Benghallem, who was born in Morocco, the same country as fellow inductee and former boss Rashid Choufani (see profile, page 41), takes liberties with classic Continental fare. As he talks about his menu, terms like the Japanese-inspired “miso glaze” pop up. “We try to provide flavors for everybody,” he explains. “The menu is Continental–global.”
Benghallem’s international culinary outlook is natural given his background. The Gotha resident grew up in a five-star hotel in Morocco; his father was the general manager. Benghallem’s dad put him to work in the hotel’s kitchen despite protests that his son “wanted to wear a suit.” The young Benghallem assisted the garde manger (cold foods) team, the butcher and the bakers. “I learned to make mayonnaise from scratch, to break down an animal, to make puff pastry,” he recalls.
After high school, he spent three years in a Moroccan culinary school, then trained in Madrid and Manresa, both in Spain, as well as Paris and Corsica, France, before coming to the United States in 1993. Here he worked in restaurants as diverse as Shula’s Steak House, Choufani’s Restaurant Marrakesh in Epcot and Emeril’s Orlando. Benghallem was cooking at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort when he jumped ship to the new Caribe Royale a few miles east of Disney. “This kind of job is a dream come true for any chef,” he says. “We have only 94 seats and I can do my own thing. In season, I can buy beautiful truffles from Alba [in Italy] or Kobe beef straight from Japan.”
Having the freedom to create original dishes gives Benghallem a tremendous amount of job satisfaction. “I don’t get bored because of the creativity,” he says.
As owner of Truffles & Trifles, Marci Arthur has taught home cooks for 25 years.
During a recent cooking class, instructor Marci Arthur raced across the kitchen in her wheelchair and reprimanded three men who were about to put a hunk of perfectly cooked pork back on the grill. “I took off at 90 miles an hour, screaming bloody murder at them,” she laughs today. “I was so frustrated. I grabbed the meat from them and said, ‘I told you not to cook it that way!’”
You’d think a bit of contentiousness would be bad for business, but it doesn’t seem to hurt Arthur at all. Her Truffles & Trifles cooking school in College Park recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. In addition to hosting cooking classes, Truffles & Trifles has a small gourmet shop, does light catering and sells cookware.
Arthur especially enjoys teaching children the culinary arts; she proclaims that cooking knowledge gives them math skills and a sense of self-worth. But her passion extends to sharing her knowledge with everybody. “It’s like a ministry to me. I say that using salt and pepper and herbs on food is like blooming your food. . . That’s what I think of my cooking classes: we’re blooming people.”
Arthur’s road to owning a culinary enterprise is unusual, indeed. The 67-year-old had an earlier career as an ecologist in the 1960s. To compensate for a small budget when lobbying Florida politicians, she brought them cookies and even hot meals. “I’d be a little sly and find out what kind of food they liked to eat,” she reveals. “I did it not only as a way to get myself into that office but also as a way to develop relationships.”
Arthur learned to cook from her grandmother and great aunt who, as children, traveled to Europe every other year to learn homemaking skills. “Their father would hire French chefs to train them how to cook, seamstresses to teach them how to sew, people from each element that he felt was important to becoming more of a complete woman,” Arthur says. “He also had them learn sciences and math, and made them have business acumen.”
Spending kitchen time with these women “wasn’t just cooking,” Arthur says. “We would study the interactions of food together. We wouldn’t just stir flour with yeast. We’d learn how the yeast would bloom and what significance that had in science.”
In the early 1980s, Arthur grew weary of “having to fight every day for what should have been as right as rain,” she says. “Everyone should be for clean air and clean water.” She chucked her ecologist career and 30 days later opened her cooking school. Ever since, she says, she has been “living at the core of my being.”
|Steve Gunter and Pat Casey |
They’ve Got Game
Pat Casey and Steve Gunter play well together as they run the Tap Room and Sam Snead’s, two golf-themed restaurants.
Steve Gunter and Pat Casey keep it simple with their restaurants, the Tap Room at Dubsdread Golf Course in Orlando and Sam Snead’s Tavern in Maitland. The partners focus on familiar food prepared well and served without fussiness. By all indications, their formula has worked: both restaurants are known as neighborhood watering holes with great burgers.
Gunter and Casey have specific duties to perform in their partnership. Regulars at the Tap Room know Gunter by name. Outgoing and upbeat, the 47-year-old is a front-of-the-house fixture at the College Park restaurant, which is known for serving fresh, straightforward fare such as burgers, steaks and seafood cooked over an oak grill. “We offer basic stuff, but everything is from scratch and nothing is frozen,” Gunter boasts.
Casey, meanwhile, stays busy running the Sam Snead’s chain, which includes a company- owned location in Port St. Lucie and licensing agreements with operators of 15 units in North America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. The 58-year-old Casey is often on the road consulting at licensed Sam Snead’s restaurants, which are decorated with memorabilia of the late “Slammin’” Sam Snead. The legendary professional golfer played competitively over more than four decades, beginning in 1936.
Running a high-stress business such as a restaurant ownership group can turn even the most compatible partners into enemies. But Casey and Gunter’s partnership, which began in 1997, appears to work well. “I’m the management and marketing person,” says Gunter. “Pat is the traditional back-of-the-house operations guy. Pat’s a short-term results guy and I’m a long-term planning guy.”
Their different focuses are complementary, he says. “Most ideas we discuss have an upside and a downside. We generally follow the rule that whoever is the most passionate about an issue wins.”
After meeting with the Snead family and touring the original restaurant in Hot Springs, Virginia, Casey opened a Sam Snead’s in MetroWest, in 1992 (it closed in 2006). Gunter worked for a beer company at the time and ran staff training programs in Casey’s restaurant. The two became friends and golfing buddies. Soon Gunter became Casey’s operational partner and together they began running the foodservice at Orange County National Golf Center, which led to an offer to take over the dining room at Dubsdread, Orlando’s only municipal golf course.
Since the previous five operators had failed, the Tap Room location wasn’t all that tempting at first, but Casey saw potential. “I realized it couldn’t be a bad location because the restaurant there had been hopping back in the ’70s,” Casey recalls. “It seemed the others were trying to make it something that it just wasn’t meant to be.” He and Gunter reworked the space so it features a small restaurant and bar, plus two catering rooms. They opened the Tap Room in 2000. The dining area, which extends out onto a veranda, affords views of live oak trees and the golf course. The location is a popular spot for outdoor weddings.
The following year they opened a Sam Snead’s next to the RDV Sportsplex in Maitland.
The southwest Orlando residents don’t have any plans for expansion in Orlando. For the time being, growing the Snead’s concept through licensing agreements and running their local establishments keep them plenty busy. “We have a lot going on,” Gunter says. “And we’re wrapped up in two [local] legends.”
In other words, they’ll keep it simple.
The Best of All Worlds
Rashid Choufani first brought Moroccan food to Orlando, then branched out to serve diners with different tastes.
When Rashid Choufani mentions “Moroccan hospitality” as the bedrock of his success as a restaurant owner, you don’t need further explanation. Choufani is exceedingly polite, exuding a charming, worldly manner. He is dapper in dress and savvy in business, parlaying his onetime niche into a multicultural restaurant brand that, he says, provides “fine dining to the middle class.” But the soft-spoken entrepreneur tries to appear humble, often saying, “What I do is sell soup and coffee.” He doesn’t mention that he sells those items to thousands of people every day.
Choufani made his mark in Central Florida 25 years ago as the eager-to-please proprietor of Restaurant Marrakesh and Tangierine Café in Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion. In 2002, he expanded his global-dining repertoire by taking over E Brands, now the owner of eight dining concepts and 17 restaurants in seven states. In Orlando, the company’s portfolio includes Timpano Chophouse & Martini Bar, a steakhouse with Italian dishes; Samba Room, which serves Nuevo Latino cuisine; Salsa Taqueria & Tequila Bar, a Mexican restaurant; and Paradiso 37, a Latin American “street foods” concept under construction at Downtown Disney.
“I give good food, service, entertainment and value,” says Choufani, 64.
As an ambitious young man in his homeland of Morocco, Choufani owned several restaurants and also had investments in hotels and real estate. While he served as the president of the Morocco Restaurant Association, the country’s government approached him about operating the restaurants at Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion, which was in development at the time. Soon he and his wife, Marianne, who is Swiss, and their young children resettled in Central Florida.
Moroccan food was barely known in America at the time. Beef flavored with cinnamon, a rolled semolina pasta-like starch called couscous, and spices such as turmeric and saffron—all staples of North African fare—were virtually unheard of here in 1984. The restaurants started out “very, very authentic,” Choufani says, and then “we had a learning curve.
“Our guests were not prepared in those days for the kind of authenticity we offered,” he recalls. “We cooked with a lot of flavors and spices at first. Then we had to soften the taste a little. We also let guests know that Moroccan foods are flavorful but not spicy.” To make sampling foreign flavors less intimidating, he started selling combination platters with several items on one plate. He found that customers were more apt to order a dish if they were given the chance to try more than one food.
Choufani credits his longevity in the restaurant business to finding out the needs of customers and being in the right places to serve them. All E Brand restaurants in Orlando are located near both residential areas and convention-business corridors.
He also touts his restaurants’ quality offerings, such as homemade pasta at Timpano. Creative problem-solving gets high billing too. For example, to increase value for his restaurant customers during these financially difficult times, he’s testing prix fixe three-course menus, a rewards program for repeat diners and, at Timpano, complimentary second helpings of pasta entrees.
But mostly Choufani maintains that his success is rooted in his heritage. “Moroccan hospitality is legend,” he insists.
|Clockwise from far left: Shannon and James Woodrow with Roland and Sandee Smith|
The Brand That Time Forgot
Staying true to its traditions has kept Beefy King in business after more than 40 years in the same Colonialtown location.
From the outside, Beefy King looks like a fast-food place from a bygone era. Its sign, topped by a three-pointed crown containing an image of a longhorn steer’s head, proclaims, “Real Roast Beef Cooked Fresh Daily.” The slogan is spelled out in plastic letters, a low-tech come-on in today’s much glitzier market.
Once you walk inside, your impression of Beefy King is confirmed: It is not of the modern, corporate-sanitized era. Beefy King is one of a kind, right down to the dining area’s pre-’70s décor and the menu’s Tater Tot-like “Beefy Spuds.”
Owner James “Woody” Woodrow calls the decor “retro,” which doesn’t quite do justice to the restaurant’s iconic status in Orlando. Situated on North Bumby Avenue just a few blocks south of Colonial Drive in Colonialtown, Beefy King has been selling the same type of roast beef sandwich since the mid-1960s. The original owners built it as the first of what they hoped would be a national chain, much like Arby’s and Roy Rogers, both new concepts at that time. And in fact, Beefy King had more than one outlet for a while.
Freeman and Margaret Smith moved to Orlando from Detroit in 1968 and arranged to take over the original Beefy King as franchisees, running it with their two sons. Over time, the fledgling chain faltered and the Smith family got legal rights to the name. The Orlando location is the only remaining vestige of the onetime chain.
The elder Smiths retired and son Roland took over as proprietor with his wife, Sandee. Twenty-three years later, in 2001, Roland and Sandee’s daughter, Shannon, and her husband, James Woodrow, now 36, assumed daily operations of the restaurant. Still, the Smiths remain involved in the business.
Beefy King’s customers are mainly loyalists and not much for change. “When customers first started seeing less of Roland and more of me,” says Woodrow, “they said, ‘Well, you’re not gonna change anything, are you?’ A lot of our customers are here three, four, five times a week. We didn’t want to tamper with anything.”
In fact, on the rare occasions when Woodrow has to use a roast beef brand other than Smithfield, “our die-hard customers will notice the difference,” he says.
Of course, roast beef is the basis of Beefy King’s identity. “It’s just a 15- to 18-pound round of beef, not processed at all,” Woodrow says. “You could cut it into 2-inch steaks and cook it on the grill if you wanted to.” Woodrow roasts the beef fresh on the premises every morning. It’s sliced to order, and the meat and bun are steamed to “keep meat moist and hot, the bun nice and soft and warm,” Smith says. In the early days, Beefy King sold only roast beef and ham sandwiches; today, it offers more than 20 sandwiches.
“Once the chain wasn’t a franchise anymore, no one told us what we could and couldn’t do,” Roland Smith explains.
The most popular side dish, by the way, is those Beefy Spuds. Beefy King is an anachronism, a vestige of an era when fast food wasn’t all burgers, fries and drive-thrus with squawk boxes. Time may have forgotten Beefy King but many locals haven’t. Generation after generation frequents it, each new crop of customers ordering from a menu that has changed little over four decades.
Beefy King’s staying power is rooted in familiarity. From the outside in, it’s the way it always was, and likely the way it always will be.