2011 Dining Hall of Fame

Orlando magazine honors two chefs, a master chef who teaches culinary arts, a longtime favorite menu item, and a family-owned restaurant as Dining Hall of Fame inductees. Our Hall of Fame recognizes individuals and establishments with lasting ties to the local dining scene.

David Ramirez

Chocolate as art—how sweet is that?

“When I was 8 years old,” David Ramirez says, “I told my mother I wanted to be a chef.”

What the 41-year-old Ramirez has built from that childhood decision is a career as one of the best pastry chefs in the country. His stock-in-trade is building amazing constructs from chocolate. From towering six-foot abstract flowers to hundreds of delicate multi-flavored truffles to scenes of Florida wildlife—complete with gators—Ramirez, the executive pastry chef at Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, sculpts centerpieces and flights of sugary fancy by hand, using vats of tempered chocolate and spray bottles of colored cocoa butter. And yes, they’re completely edible.

Ramirez proudly calls himself a pastry chef. “Pastry is a whole environment, a world, a lifestyle,” he says. His sweet path has taken him from the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., to being named captain of the 2009 American team at the International Coupe du Monde World de la Pâtisserie, an invitation-only competition of the best pastry chefs in the world.

He holds a unique position in the Rosen organization—literally. “Look around all the hotels,” he says, “and you’ll find 20 to 30 hot-food chefs. Only one pastry chef—me.”

When asked about the effects of the constant exposure to his edible art, he replies with a grin.

“No problem,” he says. “It’s not possible to get sick of chocolate.”

Orlando magazine asked pastry chef David Ramirez to make an edible statuette modeled after our Dining Awards icon on the cover. Instead, Ramirez made about a half-dozen statuettes out of chocolate and sugar. He had a mold made to re-create the icon, which had lived only in virtual form until now. Shown here with Ramirez are two chocolate statuettes covered with gold dust. Ramirez built the decorative trophy box out of chocolate, too.

• Joined Rosen Shingle Creek in 2006
• Gold medal, National Pastry Championships; silver medal, National Bread and Pastry Championships



‘Classic’ Curried Chicken Salad

For 30 years it’s been a regular on Park Plaza Gardens’ menu

Like the Waldorf salad and the Whopper, certain dishes become the signature of particular restaurants, and it would be hard to imagine Park Plaza Gardens without its classic curried chicken salad on the menu. It might even be dangerous.

“We’ve thought of retiring the salad,” says J. Michael, manager of the restaurant, “but the ladies who lunch [here] would revolt in the streets.”

The golden lunch item has been a staple since PPG opened in 1980, and, according to chef John Tan, there are thousands of ingredients in it.

Tan is the latest in a line of PPG chefs who have made the perennial favorite. The original recipe was never written down, so each chef has to re-create the Mystery of the Chicken Salad like a forensics expert on a CSI show.

Tan worked in kitchens in the Bahamas and can trace the lineage of spices and flavors that perk up what would ordinarily be simply a pile of chicken and fruit.

“This is a dish that came from India to the Caribbean,” he says. “It started out very spicy hot and became sweeter as it traveled. I know this salad very well.” The addition of black currants, coconut flakes, onion and celery (per the original) to white and dark chicken means the rich fruit chutney served on this plate is spicier than the salad, for those so inclined.  Tan adds some secret embellishments to a standard curry spice mix, with sweet cumin, mustardy turmeric and mildly hot pepper the main tastes.

Don McGowan, president of BankFIRST in Winter Park, has been a fan of the dish since he moved here eight years ago. “It’s a throwback to a bygone era,” he says wistfully. “The combination of taste and texture—it’s a comfort food.”

And after 30 years, it is as much a Winter Park fixture as the Amtrak train whistle that hoots every day at 2:14 p.m..

• Park Plaza Gardens serves about 2,000 dishes a year of its “classic” curried chicken salad.


Klaus Friedenreich

Teaching aspiring chefs the craft he has mastered

If you want to know where the next high-profile chefs will come from, you might find them in a kitchen run by Klaus Friedenreich. Young girls who look (and act) like they’re still in high school, mature career changers, chefs-to-be inspired by TV cooking shows and the odd hobbyist all sign up for the Foundations 1 class Friedenreich teaches at Le Cordon Bleu College as part of its culinary arts certificate program.

“Cooking is the technical school of this century,” the 68-year-old chef says. Dressed in a white jacket and high chef’s toque, he watches as his students pay slow, tortured attention to cutting a potato into 1/8th-inch cubes. “The Food Network has had a big impact,” he says, “but they still have to learn the difference between a show and working
in a kitchen.”

Friedenreich came to the United States in 1964 from his hometown of Kassel, Germany. He has cooked at Epcot and Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the Carlton House and Maison et Jardin. He had his own restaurant in Daytona Beach, Klaus’s Cuisine, 20 years ago, and became culinary chairman at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 1991, joining Le Cordon Bleu in 2009 as an adjunct instructor of culinary arts.

Friedenreich stirs, sautés, jokes and teases the fundamentals into his class, showing the techniques that have won him three gold medals in the International Culinary Olympics.

“Taste—that’s the profession,” he tells his class. “That’s how you cook.”

• One of only 70 certified master chefs in the country
• Led Le Cordon Bleu College student-competition team to 2010 gold medal in the Florida American Culinary Federation competition
• Captained 1980 International Culinary Olympics U.S. team



Columbia Restaurant in Celebration

Orlando area a natural fit for the Gonzmart family

Of the seven Columbia Restaurant locations, Celebration’s is unique. While the original Ybor City site has been annexed and appended until it spreads across 15 dining rooms and an entire city block, and the St. Augustine branch rises on multiple levels, the Columbia in Celebration is a place of proper size. It feels like an intimate, Spanish-Cuban fonda, or country inn, that caters more to local residents than to tourists. Its outdoor seating overlooks a green promenade, and regulars with memories of old Havana can be found at the bar, where they sit and argue whether cane syrup or sugar is the proper sweetener for an authentic mojito.

Richard Gonzmart (above) is the fourth generation of the family that started the restaurant, and his daughters are in the business. “I was working in the kitchen when I was 12,” he says. His great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., started a little café in 1905 to cater to local cigar-makers (although some documents indicate that it began as the Columbia Saloon in 1903), making Columbia the oldest restaurant in Florida and one of the 14 oldest in the United States.

Most items on the impressive menu, such as spicy ground beef empanadas, impeccable blue crab croquetas and the cool and creamy gazpacho Andaluz, are made fresh every day in the small kitchen.

Asked why the family would bring their tradition to Central Florida, Gonzmart grows nostalgic. “Dad and Mom held the area close to their hearts,” he says. “My middle name is Orlando.”

• Opened in Celebration in 1997
• Run by the same family that owns the original Columbia in Ybor City



Robert Mason

An enduring presence in Orlando fine dining

Even though he’s worked in a wide variety of kitchens, Robert Mason’s style is defined by his training in the cuisines of Tuscany, with some very personal touches. Mason can cook up a delightfully simple dish of scallops dusted with paprika, then present an imaginative combo of flaky bronzini fish wrapped in prosciutto
and sage.

Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Mason started his executive chef’s career at the legendary California steak house Vic Stewart’s, taking over that demanding kitchen when he was only 24. He came to Florida in 1999 to open the late, lamented California Café (where he worked with fellow HOF inductee David Ramirez), then was the first chef at The Boheme, The Grand Bohemian Hotel’s award-winning restaurant. Mason’s move to Fiorella’s Cucina Toscana in the Westin Imagine Hotel, in 2009, gave the new restaurant instant credibility as a fine-dining location.

Mason searches out local food (“indigenous,” he calls it) as often as possible, and uses fresh-made ingredients whenever he can. “If I can make something here, we make it here,” he says, referring to everything from hand-stretched mozzarella to chopping the basil he grew in the garden just outside the restaurant. His staff calls it “the Chef Robert thing.”

At 44, Mason is content in his job. “I’m in the kitchen, making food, every single day,” he says. “I know in my heart I do a good job.”

• Executive chef of Fiorella’s Cucina Toscana, Westin Imagine Hotel, since 2009
• Executive chef at The Boheme in The Grand Bohemian, corporate chef for Kessler Collection Hotels, 2001-2009
• Cooking professionally since 1983

Categories: Dining Awards, Features