There was an extraordinary gathering of leaders from Central Florida’s culinary community this week. There were chefs, food producers, restaurateurs and media who cover food. The occasion was the Central Florida Food Policy Salon, spearheaded by Cress restaurant chef Hari Pulapaka and his wife and Cress co-owner, Jenneffer and operated in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation’s Chef Action Network.
Pulapaka attended the first Beard Foundation Boot Camp for Advocacy and Change in May of last year, one of only 15 chefs invited from around the country.
The Central Florida gathering was billed as a mini boot camp (so, a bootie camp?). It was held on the grounds of Lake Meadow Naturals farm and in the home of owners Dale Volkert and Robert Kramer. It began Monday evening with a dinner cooked by some of the chefs. Attending were, among others, Tim Keating (Flying Fish Cafe), Scott Hunnel (Victoria & Albert’s), Marianne Hunnel (Epcot International Food and Wine Festival), Kevin Fonzo (K), Kathleen Blake (The Rusty Spoon), James and Julie Petrakis (The Ravenous Pig; Cask & Larder), Reimund Pitz (Le Coq au Vin), Dawn Viola (Second Harvest Food Bank), Bram Fowler (Journeys Catering), John Rife (East End Market), Pam Brandon (Edible Orlando), Kendra Lott (Edible Orlando), Julie Norris (Dandelion Communitea Cafe), and Greg Richie (Cityfish).
The dinner was served family-style, if your family was comprised of insanely talented cooks. The ingredients were provided by Lake Meadow Naturals, Wild Ocean sEafood, Culinary Classics, and Tomazin Farms. The chefs grilled chicken, sauteed fish, roasted vegetables and deviled eggs.
Monday was more of an ice breaker; on Tuesday the group got down to chipping away at the glacier.
Serving as moderators for the salon were Katherine Miller, executive director of Chef Action Network, and Michel Nischan, owner of Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant in Westport, Conn.
The setup was similar to any other seminar or workshop you might have attended for your own profession. The whole group gathered at 9 a.m. to talk about the procedure and to get some pointers from Miller and Nischan on what to expect throughout the day.
Then the participants broke off into groups. It started with discussions about what is important to each of them as a chef or food advocate. By the end of the day they were discussing how to redefine, or more accurately, finally define what Central Florida cuisine is, how to make food taste better and how educate diners to appreciate it, and ending world hunger.
They left with a new Facebook group, Sunshine Plate, and ownership of the domain name SunshinePlate.org. There was a commitment to make something big happen in 2015 and the suggestion to meet monthly to figure out what that will be. Pitz, who is also an official with American Culinary Federation, promised to get the ACF involved in sponsoring a nationwide culinary competition featuring locally sourced ingredients, with the first to be held in Central Florida.
So what happens next? That’s up to the chefs. The visitors from the Beard Foundation and Chef Action Network expressed surprise that the chefs all worked so well together collaborating on the Monday night dinner and in the group discussions. But that’s not new to those of us who have been involved with these chefs over the years. There has always been a sense of community and a willingness to help each other out, even as they compete for the dollars of the dining public. They’ve known the challenges that they face, including the distorted view of their peers from across the country.
What’s been missing is a direction, a call to action. Leadership. There is a long way to go -- and they apparently recognize that with the goal of achieving something in 2015 instead of this year -- but this is an important first step.
Not that 2014 will be without its own significant events. In February the Beard Foundation will announce the semifinalists for the JBF Awards from East End Market. The eyes of the culinary world will be on Central Florida. Some of the brows over those eyes will be raised: Orlando? Really?
Yep, really. And maybe more people will be curious enough to find out why.