2010 Dining Hall of Fame
Orlando magazine honors two chef-owners, a waiter and an oyster bar as Dining Hall of Fame inductees. The Dining Hall of Fame recognizes individuals and establishments with lasting ties to the local dining scene.
Photos By Norma Lopez Molina
Lee & Rick’s Oyster Bar - Lifetime Achievement
It has been serving first-rate shellfish since 1950.
The sound hits you upon entering Lee & Rick’s: There’s a jukebox blaring classic rock, and the constant roar of conversation. The place is a throwback to 1950, the year it opened: no frills or ferns, just some booths and a long concrete bar. Customers perch on stools while servers with muscular forearms and quick fingers shuck buckets of Apalachicola Bay oysters so sweet that not eating them would be criminal.
“People get really upset if we try to change anything,” says Gene Richter. “Like paint.” He and his sister, Trish Blunt, are the third generation at Lee & Rick’s.
When ex-Navy man Rick Richter and his wife, Lee, started selling oysters from the front porch of their house, the now-bustling Kirkman Road was nothing but dirt. “There was a nine-seat counter,” Gene says. “They served oysters and shrimp—you brought your own drinks—and they lived in the back. Our kitchen is where they had the bedroom.”
Gene started doing dishes and shucking when he was 11. His pre-teen son and nephew are already practicing their skills. At least one of them will probably become the fourth generation behind the bar.
“This whole business is family,” says Richter, who takes delivery on 36,000 oysters in an average week. “My dad used to drive up to the Panhandle to get oysters when he was a teenager. Now I’m buying from the kids of the people he used to buy from.”
John Ramer, sporting a white ponytail and “Lee & Ricks’ 50th Anniversary” T-shirt (this October will be the 60th), sits at the bar with two friends. “I’ve been coming here 40 years,” he says. He orders a pitcher of beer and two buckets of oysters. The server asks, “You want these raw?”
His enthusiastic reply: “You bet!”
• Opened in October 1950
• The current owners, since 1999, are the third generation of the founding family
• Lee & Rick’s is one of Orlando’s oldest restaurants
He is one waiter who isn’t waiting for a different job.
People love to post their opinions about restaurants online, but it isn’t often that you find raves about waiters.
“Vaughn was our wooooooonderful waiter,” gushes one entry on a foodie Web site. The restaurant in question, Le Coq au Vin, opened in 1976 and has maintained a reputation as a bastion of classical French cooking. The waiter, Vaughn Romine, has spent the past 15 years at this petite establishment as that rarest of Orlando commodities: a professional serveur.
“I worked at Steak and Ale as a cook when I was 20,” says Romine, 48. Spotting an opportunity to make money out on the serving floor, he gave up the kitchen to work at local landmarks Villa Nova, Park Plaza Gardens and Charlie’s Lobster House. A newspaper ad brought him to an interview at Le Coq au Vin. He was hired the next day.
“It changed my life,” says Romine, who has the attention to detail of a career waiter, casually smoothing the tablecloth as he talks.
Chef and owner Reimund Pitz has a Continental view of Romine’s talents. “It’s very difficult to find a professional server,” he says. “You find this only in Europe. He possesses the knowledge and wisdom of what it takes to watch out for customers and the business.”
Romine likes getting to know the “generations of families” who dine at Le Coq au Vin. And he believes that waiting is something you do, not something you’re doing for the moment. He looks around the small, house-like restaurant on South Orange Avenue. “I feel like I’m taking care of people in my home.”
“I remember saying when I was 16 that I was going to be a waiter when I got older,” he says with a grin, showing a disarming gap in his front teeth. “I always said I would give this up when I turned 50. But it doesn’t look that way. This is my life.”
• Waiter at Le Coq au Vin for 15 years
• The first waiter to be inducted into the Dining Hall of Fame
Chef-owner of Chez Vincent stays true to classic French cuisine.
The life of a chef doesn’t begin with the glamour and romance of white jackets and aromatic sauces.
“I started by doing dishes and peeling potatoes,” Vincent Gagliano says. Sitting at the bar of Hannibal’s, one of the two adjoining restaurants he literally built by hand in Winter Park, Gagliano thinks about his childhood in rural France and shakes his shaved and gleaming head.
“When I quit school at 15, my father told me, ‘You’ll work long hours for little pay, you won’t see your family, and when everyone else is partying, you’ll be working.’ And everything he told me was absolutely true,” he says.
After several years of apprenticeship (a regular practice in French kitchens), Gagliano worked for Club Med resorts in Côte d’Ivoire, Africa, and Sonora, Mexico, where he met his American wife. They moved to Florida in 1993, where he took a job at SeaWorld’s Stouffer Resort.
After four years as executive chef at Café de France, Gagliano knew he wanted his own kitchen. He found it in a spot that was very unlikely in 1997: the pre-gentrification Hannibal Square.
“This was all I could afford in Winter Park. There were four walls and no roof over there,” he says, pointing to Chez Vincent, “and a piece of grass here,” the site of Hannibal’s. “I laid the floors and stacked the bricks.”
While the fare at Hannibal’s includes casual items such as burgers and pasta, Vincent’s acclaimed namesake restaurant is strictly traditional French. “It’s how I was trained,” he says. “I love it the most.”
• Opened Chez Vincent in 1997; Hannibal’s in 2007
• A pioneer in the transformation of Winter Park’s Hannibal Square
His influence can be seen and tasted in some of Orlando’s top restaurants
Most nights, Tom Hughes can be found manning the grill at Graffiti Junktion, his table-service burger bar in Thornton Park.
“I’m almost 50 and slinging burgers,” the jovial chef-owner says, “and I’m having a blast doing it.”
Hughes could be called a culinary gunslinger. From his early days as chef for Enzo’s on the Lake in Longwood, Hughes began influencing the menus of some of our most admired restaurants.
“Enzo Perlini traded me to [Planet Hollywood co-founder] Robert Earl for, I think, a good bottle of wine,” says Hughes, who was Earl’s personal chef for 10 years. While with Earl, he helped develop the Planet Hollywood menu, then moved on to create the unique offerings at Cafe Tu Tu Tango.
“I think his best work was at Tu Tu Tango,” says Craig Ustler, president of Urban Life Management Restaurant Group. “In 2003, Tom was the executive chef for us at Kres Chophouse & Lounge on Church Street, where he defined what the menu would be.” Hughes is still a partner at Kres, and also served as consulting chef for Urban Life’s upscale Citrus and Cityfish restaurants. He developed the original menu for the popular downtown patio bar Ember before opening his homage to the Great American Hamburger, Graffiti Junktion, in 2008.
The influences reflected in his history of menus, from tapas to tortellini, reveal a taste for the basics. “I’m interested in people who cook simple, farm-like food,” says Chef Tom, whose mother, a pastry chef from France, made a lasting impression on him.
“I’ve been a chef for 30 years,” says Hughes. “I’ve never had any other job. What else could I do?”