Their names may not be familiar, but given these chefs’ glorious creations that could soon change.
Kouzzina by Cat Cora
As if you couldn’t guess from her boisterous laugh, Mediterranean good looks or the way she immediately treats you like family, Dee Foundoukis will tell you at some point during a conversation that she is Greek. It’s as much who she is as her Bronx upbringing or her knives.
After 19 years at a very long list of Disney restaurants, and 2-1/2 years as head chef for celebrity chef Cat Cora, Foundoukis, 49, is the daily guiding force in the Kouzzina kitchen. But the menu and marquee loudly proclaim Cat Cora’s name and image. It could make a lesser chef envious of the limelight.
Not so with Chef Dee. “Behind every great chef is a great chef,” Foundoukis says. “My job is to maintain the integrity of her recipes and the ones we develop together. I’m perfectly content to wear her name on my jacket,” she says, pointing to her lapel, “and represent our heritage.”
And represent she does, with her own touches. Foundoukis takes classic Greek dishes and adds a little twist: perking up a traditional olive oil and lemon-basted whole fish by adding licorice-scented fennel, and serving a roasted fig with goat cheese marshmallows.
“I’m a Greek chef in a Greek restaurant at Disney,” she says. “How cool is that?”
Kouzzina by Cat Cora | Disney’s Boardwalk | 2101 Epcot Resorts Blvd. | Lake Buena Vista | 407-939-3463 | DISNEYWORLD.DISNEY.GO.COM/DINING
“I’ve been an academic most of my life,” says Hari Pulapaka, but there’s nothing staid and scholarly coming out of his kitchen at Cress.
Time is a precious commodity for this 45-year-old chef. A full-time mathematics professor at Stetson University, the exotically handsome Pulapaka devotes enough time and passion in his remarkably tiny kitchen to have been named a semifinalist for this year’s prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef, South.
A late-night infomercial led him to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. “My goal was to get educated, then travel and cook and have cool experiences,” he says. After graduation he cooked at Le Jardin Café, a French-Vietnamese restaurant, and experimented with the menu. When the owners wanted to sell, Pulapaka leapt at the chance, and the space became Cress in 2008.
Born in Bombay, Pulapaka melds his background in Indian and ethnic cuisine with an appreciation of fresh ingredients and Southern cooking, spicing local shrimp with cumin and coriander, creating “my own version” of grits with wine and butter.
Pulapaka’s wife, Jenneffer, a podiatric surgeon, co-owns the restaurant and makes sure things operate smoothly in the intimate dining room, but the kitchen is all Hari’s. “He’s the only one neurotic enough to keep track of everything,” she says. “It’s only him in there.”
Cress Restaurant | 103 W. Indiana Ave. | DeLand | 386-734-3740 | cressrestaurant.com
Eleven at Reunion Resort
As chef de cuisine at Eleven, Richard Smith turns normal foodstuffs into art. That is, if you consider fennel pollen, Wagyu beef and organic Cornish hen normal.
The Jamaican-born Smith grew up learning from his parents in the family kitchen (“And if you can cook, it’s a bonus with the girls,” he says) and, inspired by The Food Network, studied at Johnson and Wales culinary school in Miami. His path led from Miami’s South Beach to Seasons 52 to Disney’s Victoria & Albert’s.
The relaxed 11th-floor aerie of Eleven gives Smith a scenic canvas for his contemporary American creations. His V&A experience and Caribbean influences impart a dramatic flair to his plates. Perfectly cooked scallops nestle in a creamy goat cheese polenta and artistically arranged wild mushrooms, and freshly caught sweet shrimp blaze with jerk spices. He’ll braise short ribs for 48 hours
and devise three different ways of serving onions in the same dish.
“I studied business,” the 33-year-old Smith says. “I’d rather do something I’m passionate about.”
Eleven at Reunion Resort | 7593 Gathering Drive | Reunion | 866-880-8563 | reunionresort.com/dining/eleven
Boathouse of Winter Park
At 38, Robert Walker has found a home that suits him.
Walker worked at the short-lived American Culinary School and cooked at Doc’s Restaurant—“I learned how to cook high-end food for masses of people,” he says of the experience—then moved on to a role as executive chef for both Harmoni locations. But it’s his reign in the kitchen at Boathouse that has allowed him to bloom into one extraordinary chef.
“I started out catering private parties,” Walker says. “I like entertaining people.’’ He calls his cuisine from-scratch Southern-inspired cooking, but occasionally gets an argument.
“People say, ‘This isn’t Southern food’ because we’re not a Paula Deen butter-filled buffet. Our version of pork chops and applesauce is a baked stuffed apple and an apple cider-brined chop.”
Walker’s wife, Lindsay, is his sous chef, and between her gargantuan desserts and his soul-satisfying plates, they put on quite a show. Walker’s black pepper and cheese grits alone are worth the trip—and then he adds perfectly blackened shrimp on top. Deep cedar-plank grilled salmon goes even deeper with a rich whiskey glaze, and blackened flatiron steak certainly sounds Southern, even with kafir lime rice.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “This is me.”
Boathouse of Winter Park | 565 W. Fairbanks Ave. | Winter Park | 407-513-4815 | boathouseofwinterpark.com
The sign over the door says “fin·esse (n: the restaurant)” in a stylish font. And it’s the touch of subtlety, the demonstration of skill defined in that word that defines Alex Brugger.
Brugger’s history is that of a culinary gunslinger on a corporate track. Concept chef at Samba Room, Timpano and Citrus; consulting chef for the Cat Cay Yacht Club in the Bahamas; executive chef for a major restaurant group in the Keys. And now overseeing a 23-table, modern eclectic bistro in Lake Mary.
“I started as a dishwasher for Norman Van Aken when I was 16,” Brugger says, “and even then all I wanted was my own restaurant.” At 37, Brugger has taken the plunge in uncertain times, and is succeeding.
Latin, French and American influences show up in Brugger’s ever-changing menu: beef
carpaccio, pomegranate-glazed salmon, saffron mussels with chorizo—and that’s just lunch. The paella at Finesse, inspired by Brugger’s Cuban grandmother, rivals the best of what’s produced in Spain.
Alex’s partner in all things, Autumn McCoy, a charming, pixieish ex-tattoo artist who holds firm control over staff, bar and menu, has been known to check on diners while holding their daughter Bella. According to Alex, it’s because of Autumn that he can be the chef he is.
“It’s all about the food,” he says. “Honesty on the plate.”
Finesse | 7025 CR-46A | Lake Mary | 407-805-9220 | finesse-therestaurant.com