Hungry for Recognition

Orlando has come a long way as a destination for fine cuisine. So why is it still viewed as a restaurant wasteland? It’s time for some respect.


When New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant visited Walt Disney World last year, she brought along her young grandchildren and more than a little trepidation.

She was worried that she and her brood would have to survive the visit on only fried chicken nuggets and the occasional turkey drumstick, because, it seemed, those were the only food items that could be found in Orlando’s theme parks. Maybe a funnel cake.

But when Fabricant wrote about her visit for the Times—not in the food section but rather as a travel piece, the sort of article we journalists attach to our tax returns to justify claiming the trip as a deduction—she somewhat begrudgingly related that she not only found other things to eat but that some of the food was actually edible, maybe even—how could this be?—good.

At least that’s how the article read to me.

Fabricant told of the fine meals she had at California Grill and at Victoria & Albert’s, where she was made to sit at the chef’s table in the kitchen—perhaps the finest seat in all of Florida and the most difficult one to book —because her granddaughters weren’t old enough for the dining room’s 10-years-or-older rule. Despite the length and cost of the meal, she had to admit that her misgivings about the restaurants here were unfounded.
And she didn’t even leave Disney property.

Fabricant isn’t the only one with a preconceived notion that Orlando has a dearth of good restaurants. A few years ago another article, again in the Times, told readers how to spend “36 Hours in Orlando.” Among the sage insider advice the column offered was to visit a restaurant on Orange Blossom Trail called Steak n Shake. A day and a half in town and you’re going to waste an hour of it in a chain restaurant located on a crime-ridden thoroughfare?

And on the Web site, where foodies post questions to one another about what restaurants to try and what they should order, a poster put out a plea to locals to help him locate a place to have dinner on his upcoming trip to Orlando because he had “yet to find anything better than Pizzeria Uno.”

Seriously? Did he even try? You’d think we were Branson, Missouri, for crying out loud.

‘Someone Happened’ to Orlando

The infuriating fact is that Orlando has a lousy reputation when the topic turns to restaurants and fine dining. And what makes this even more annoying is that some of it is deserved.

Of course, when having a discussion with someone about whether Central Florida has any good restaurants, the proverbial elephant in the room is actually a mouse.

To many outsiders, Orlando is Walt Disney World and little else, and theme parks simply cannot have good restaurants. That may have been true at one time, certainly when Disney first opened its gates.

 Fabricant related in her piece for the Times that her only previous experience with Disney World was when she brought her young children for a visit “a few decades” ago. She noted that she can’t remember anything about the food back then. I’m having difficulty remembering anything about anything from three decades ago.

Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there probably wasn’t much to recall about the food when Disney World first opened. But along the way, something happened. Or, rather, someone happened.

Dieter Hannig was put in charge of the restaurants at Walt Disney World in 1992, and he did something that was unusual in a company the size of Disney. He called together the chefs and the general managers working at what were considered the top-tier, full-service restaurants and told them to start operating the restaurants as if they themselves were the owners.

Before that, a chef’s request for even a simple menu change had to go up for committee approval. That procedure pretty much killed any impromptu “specials of the day” if a cook happened to get a good piece of tuna or some fresh produce.  It calls to mind the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. In a way, diners at Disney restaurants were being served camel. (Though, to be literal about this, horse wouldn’t have been much better.)

But when Hannig gave the chefs the freedom to make changes, they were able to be creative and to offer dishes that were driven by market-fresh availability. That’s when the Disney restaurants—and Orlando restaurants in general—began to improve.

Of course, it helped that in those early years Hannig had among his stable of chefs such talents as Scott Hunnel at Victoria & Albert’s, Clifford Pleau at California Grill and John State at Flying Fish Café. Those restaurants became favorites for locals who started going to Disney restaurants for special occasions. And those Disney restaurants raised the bar for other restaurants in the area. It soon became clear to owners of smaller independent restaurants that if they were going to compete against Disney’s they would have to aim higher.

They did. And they’ve improved. So why haven’t any of them been able to shake the reputation from the early-Disney days?

Recognition Remains Elusive

Hunnel still presides over the kitchen of Victoria & Albert’s, one of Central Florida’s finest restaurants. Hunnel has a sense of creativity and a flair for stylish presentation, all rooted in the basic principles of proper culinary techniques. In 2006, I snagged a reservation at New York’s Per Se, Thomas Keller’s über expensive restaurant in the Time Warner Center overlooking Columbus Circle. New Yorkers were—and still are—falling all over each other to get one of the coveted seats in the intimate dining room to taste Keller’s creations. But the whole time I was there I kept thinking I’ve had food just as good at Victoria & Albert’s. (You don’t have a killer view of Columbus Circle and Central Park, but that’s another topic.)

Take Victoria & Albert’s and relocate it to New York or Chicago or Boston or Los Angeles or even Atlanta and it would win a James Beard Award within two years. So would Hunnel.

The James Beard Foundation Awards are often referred to as the Oscars of the culinary world. They’re presented at a black-tie ceremony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall with all the appropriate pomp. Winning a Beard Award is a major professional achievement. The nomination process starts with regional panelists who recommend worthy contenders from their cities. Some of those names are put onto a first, long ballot and sent to the judges. The top five vote-getters from that list are placed on the final ballot.

I’ve been a judge for the James Beard Awards since their inception. Every year I plead with the regional representative to include some of Central Florida’s culinary stars. In the last few years I’ve succeeded in getting a name or two on the long list, but they never make it to the final ballot.
That’s not to say Orlando doesn’t have a James Beard Award-winning chef. Norman Van Aken, whose Norman’s is the top of the line restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, is a past winner of the Southeast Region’s Outstanding Chef honor. But Van Aken won the award for his Coral Gables restaurant, also called Norman’s, which has since closed.

(OK, another anecdote about  The New York Times. In recent years, Van Aken has served on the board of the James Beard Foundation, but last year he resigned his position. When he did, the Times reported on it and referred to Van Aken as the owner of Norman’s in Coral Gables but made no mention of his Orlando restaurant. Knowing that his South Florida restaurant had closed, I started watching the Corrections listings in the Times. Sure enough, a correction was posted. It said Van Aken’s Coral Gables restaurant had closed. It still made no mention of the Orlando Norman’s.)
What’s keeping Orlando from getting its due recognition today? “I think the obvious answer is that Orlando became known as a chain restaurant place,” says Van Aken.

True, we do have more than our share of chains. And we are, after all, the headquarters of such chains as Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, e-Brands (Timpano and Samba Room) and the granddaddy mass-feeder of them all, Darden, whose Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters dot the American landscape from Los Angeles to, it must be noted, Manhattan.

Chains proliferate in the tourist corridors and are often the only restaurants visitors staying on International Drive see. Sadly, many conventioneers and theme parkers staying in the vicinity of I-Drive think they’re in downtown Orlando.

Chain restaurants generally have bigger advertising budgets than small, independently owned restaurants, so they have greater visibility when visitors are looking for a place to eat.

I’m not a chain basher. They serve a purpose, and some of them do a very nice job. They also offer a sense of the familiar: Visitors gravitate to restaurants they know to dine away homesickness pangs. Then, when they get back home and are asked about the trip, they say they ate at Pizzeria Uno because they couldn’t find anything better.

A Matter of Pride
Why should any of this matter? Civically, it has an impact on Orlando’s image. When local leaders are touting the benefits of our community to industry honchos looking to relocate, they highlight features that make us a vibrant, well-rounded community. They point them to the symphony and the ballet and the professional theater companies. They take them to our many fine museums. They remind them that we have an NBA franchise. All those things are meant to demonstrate that Central Florida would be a terrific place for their workers to live.

But do they tell them about all the fine places there are to eat?

Do they mention that Hunnel was named 2008 Culinary Professional of the Year by Sante, a national magazine for restaurant and hospitality professionals? Or that Laurent Branlard, pastry chef at the Swan and Dolphin hotels, was nominated as one of the top 10 best pastry chefs in America by Pastry Art & Design and Chocolatier magazines? In September, Branlard led Team USA in the World Pastry Team Championship to a gold medal and became the first person to win that award twice. That should be on a Chamber of Commerce brochure. And David Ramirez of Rosen Shingle Creek was named captain of the 2009 team from the United States in another international pastry competition.

I’d also list Erich Herbitschek, executive pastry chef at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. He creates miniature works of edible art that are listed on the hotel’s menus merely as desserts—a classification that is much too mundane for such masterpieces.

And what about John Blazon, master sommelier and overseer of Walt Disney World’s wine program? Each year, he shepherds dozens of young servers through a rigorous wine education program so they can make knowledgeable recommendations about wine to their guests. Blazon was instrumental in assembling the wine cellar at Jiko, which boasts the largest collection of South African wines in North America.

Then there’s Louis Perrotte, whose Le Coq Au Vin is a venerable favorite among locals. One winter I ate duck cassoulet at Le Coq Au Vin and the very next night ordered the same dish in a well-known restaurant in French Montreal—Perrotte’s was the clear winner.

And that Chamber of Commerce brochure should also list our up-and-coming young stars, such as Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant and Nonna; James and Julie Petrakis of the excitingly good Ravenous Pig; and Jephanie Foster at Graze.

We also have Terramia, Enzo’s on the Lake, Manuel’s on the 28th, the Boheme, Antonio’s La Fiamma, Chatham’s Place, Park Plaza Gardens, Chez Vincent, FishBones Lake Mary and Citricos. And that guy couldn’t find anything better than Pizzeria Uno?

It’s going to take time, and a lot of good marketing—a coalition of Orlando restaurant professionals is forming for the sole purpose of promoting Orlando as a dining destination—but I believe we’ll eventually get the recognition we deserve.

So come back, Florence, and tell the world about our other good restaurants.

Categories: Features