Local Heroes

Chefs Kathleen Blake and Kevin Fonzo celebrate anniversaries with a continuing focus on seasonal and sustainable.

A recent cool morning finds chefs Kathleen Blake and Kevin Fonzo conferring over a large paper calendar, an old-school planning session to coordinate events surrounding their concurrent anniversaries. While the SunRail train rumbles by the windows of Blake’s Rusty Spoon restaurant, Fonzo confirms a dinner at his K Restaurant and Wine Bar, and they both check off the date.

Blake and Fonzo are at the vanguard of Orlando’s local and sustainable movement. Their restaurants epitomize the idea that if it’s not growing in Central Florida, it isn’t on the menu—no blueberries in January, no flounder in June. If you ask for salmon, Blake will politely tell you they don’t live here.

When Fonzo opened K in 2001, College Park neighborhood restaurants were scarce, and the now-familiar “seasonal” buzzword was foreign to most Orlando kitchens. “I came here from Atlanta and was hired by Café Allegre while I was waiting for a chef position at Universal’s Portofino Bay Hotel. Allegre gave me everything I wanted, and then the owner wanted to sell.” 

A handful of chefs across the country were embracing local sourcing, including Melissa Kelly, who opened Primo at the JW Marriott in 2003 and hired Blake as chef de cuisine. One of the well-wishers was Fonzo.

“Kevin was the first local chef to come when we opened Primo,” Blake says. “He welcomed us and saw that we had common goals.” 

Fonzo says, “I had no idea 15 years ago that the huge culinary scene that Orlando is now would blossom. I just wanted to cook in the style I believe in: farm-to-table, menu changing with the seasons.”

Blake practices those precepts every day. “It’s how I was raised,” she says. “Seasonal ingredients available right where I was. Nowadays, guests want to know where things are coming from and trust the source. Just like me.”

Blake took a risk in 2011 by opening The Rusty Spoon in the center of long-neglected Church Street, printing daily menus that reflected the best of what was available that morning. Now that downtown is hot again, the bet has paid off. “With the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center opening, Mad Cow [Theatre] getting their sign up, it has helped us tremendously.” 

Both chefs have weathered the roller coaster of expansion. K begat K2, and then Nonna; Blake partnered in Urban Flats and Pine Twenty2. Now both are pared down to their core restaurants. When asked about expansion plans, Fonzo smiles and says to Blake: “You can go first.”

“I always think about it,” Blake says, “because you want to continue to grow. I have some opportunities I’m working on.” 

Fonzo nods, then grins. “I am done! I am very content with one restaurant. It gives me the freedom to concentrate on my future with the foundation.” The Kevin Fonzo Foundation educates students about the basics of healthy food. Construction has begun on its Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House & Culinary Garden, with an “edible garden” and kitchen classroom across the street from Orlando Junior Academy in College Park, aided by a $250,000 gift from Lagasse’s nonprofit.

Blake and Fonzo will host celebratory special events and guests throughout the month, while they continue to impress new diners with local bounty.

In the words of Kathleen Blake: “Stay tuned. There’s more to come.” 

Nonstop Celebrations

An anniversary Garden Party at K on April 24 will feature guest chefs from The Ravenous Pig, Hamilton’s Kitchen, Spanish River Grill and surprises from New Orleans and New York. Blake plans similar high-octane events, with her mentor from Primo, Melissa Kelly, in The Rusty Spoon’s kitchen on April 22. In a totally typical exchange, Blake will cook at K sometime during its monthlong celebration, while Fonzo will guest-chef at The Rusty Spoon on April 2. krestaurant.net; therustyspoon.com

Categories: Culinary Spotlight