Food & Drink Table Talk: Chef Keith Bombaugh
Formerly of Mirabelle in Washington, D.C., Chef Keith Bombaugh joined Winter Park’s Greek-inspired AVA MediterrAegean in February.
When did you first become interested in cooking?
The first time I was cooking for myself and others, I was 21 years old, had been in the industry as a prep cook, dishwasher, busser—but not behind the stove, and it was not pretty! After that disastrous experience I decided, “OK, I’m going to learn how to cook.” I started reading books, watching videos on YouTube. This quest to be able to cook a meal for other people so that we could have an enjoyable experience together led me to rediscovering my passion. I became obsessed with it in the most positive way possible.
What’s your favorite food memory?
Hands down, my favorite food memory would be staying with my grandfather, father, brother, grandmother, and my mother at their [grandparents’] river cottage just outside of Austin [Texas]. My grandfather and father were fly fishing. Me and my brother were running around like young children do. As the evening progressed, the fly fishing for river trout came together. The trout ended up over an open flame. The bread came out—my grandmother was a phenomenal baker. We were sitting outside on dead tree stumps around the fire laughing and having a good time. That’s one of those memories I will never forget.
What inspired you to pursue a career in culinary?
Hospitality is an experience about people. That’s one of the things that I love about AVA. We’re focused not just on food, wine, service or cocktails—it’s the experience of coming together. It’s the contagious, vibrating energy of positivity and joy. That’s what hospitality and dining is about and, for me, one of the things that’s beautiful is being able to tie into your memories.
What’s the most creative dish you’ve ever made?
For me it’s the fish baked in salt crust. It’s a classical dish, but there’s nothing to hide behind. The crust is either sealed and beautiful, or it’s not. At AVA, we’ve done things that are different. Pouring the Mastika [a Greek herbal sweet liqueur] over the flambé tableside to bring out the aroma…and bringing those Greek flavors in. The branzino’s marinated in a fish fumet, and we reinforce it with fennel aromatics. We then add Ouzo and Mastika. It gets that flavor of the Mastika and there’s a depth underneath the flavors of the fish itself.
What three things are always in your fridge?
There’s not much in my refrigerator. Sparkling water, regular water and lemons.
What do you cook on your day off?
I don’t cook much at home. On my days off, I like to go out. It’s important to make sure you’re supporting others in the industry. The challenges our industry has faced in recent years come probably once in a millennium. And I don’t think we could have done it without each other.
How do you like Orlando and Winter Park so far?
I love it. it reminds me so much of New England. I feel at home here.
Why do you think communal dining experiences like those at AVA MediterrAegean are the wave of future cuisine?
I see an immense level of joy and happiness. The ambiance and environment that I’ve felt with the restaurant being open to guests is beautiful; it’s contagious in the most positive way. That buzz of energy is amazing. We’re focused on creating that experience. It’s not just communal—it can be shared by two people or by one person at the bar. It’s whatever you want it to be.
What’s the one thing that you want Orlandoans to know about dining there?
AVA’s a little bubble of an experience where you’re able to remove yourself from the world. We want you to have fun. That’s what it’s all about. Enjoying the moment is what matters.
Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate
Coffee or tea? Espresso
Beer or wine? Depends on the company I’m with.
Pizza or pasta? Pasta
Roasted or sous vide? Roasted
Beef or fish? Fish
Bagel or biscuit? Bagel
Top Chef or Chopped? Neither. I don’t watch much TV. I prefer to read.
Street eats or sit-down? Street eats
More time or more money? More time making memories
Winter or summer? Summer