Florida Chefs Ready to Take on Manhattan

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beard dinner tchoupThe team of Central Florida chefs who will cook at the prestigious Beard House in New York next month had a practice run-through on Monday at Emeril’s Tchoup Chop in Orlando. From where I was sitting, and from what I tasted, they’re going to take Manhattan by storm.

Kevin Fonzo of K restaurant in College Park, Hari Pulapaka of Cress in DeLand, and Greg Richie of Tchoup Chop will collaborate on the dinner at the Greenwich Village headquarters of the James Beard Foundation on Tuesday, October 10, 2012. They will be joined by Diana Zimmerman, owner of the soon-to-open The Courtesy cocktail lounge in downtown Orlando, and Gene Zimmerman, director of sales for Halter Ranch, which will provide the wines. 

The dinner Monday was served as it will be at the Beard House, in five courses, each with a wine pairing. The chefs each take one of the first three courses as his own.

Beard dinner soupKevin Fonzo's butternut squash bisque.Fonzo was first up with a roast butternut squash bisque “home-grown for this dinner” with spiced pumpkin beignets with bits of duck leg confit. The soup was perfect, and as I sipped it I thought to myself that fall is finally here. (Actually, it was a bit warm for butternut squash soup Monday, but on October 10, in Manhattan, this bisque is going to be killer.)

Richie’s course was next, a spiny lobster crusted Florida Lane snapper, a beautiful fillet served with pork belly hash and a broth tinged with Korean chili herbs. The fish was delicious, but I could have made a full meal out of the hash alone.

Pulapaka served a bisteeya, a Middle Eastern phyllo pastry  filled with Palmetto Pigeon Plant squab, with minted heirloom grains and “ras el hanout” cream. It was an absolute delight, and it had everyone at my table swooning.

The fourth course was a collaborative effort, with each of the chefs presenting a study of pork from Palmetto Creek Farms Beard dinner fishGreg Richie's Florida Lane snapper.(besides highlighting the talents of the chefs, the dinner is meant to showcase the abundant provisions the area has to offer). Pulapaka and Richie prepared roast shoulder with jerk spice and braised shank with cranberry bean ragout, respectively, and both were terrific. I think the nod goes to Fonzo’s housed-cured guanciale-wrapped bbq pork belly, which was served atop a cube of watermelon. you can’t go wrong with guanciale, a sort of bacon from pig jowls, and it only gets better when wrapped around pork belly. But the watermelon added a wonderfully crisp and fresh surprise.

The end course was a sampler of cheeses from Winter Park Dairy, served with an assortment of condiments and crisps.

Beard dinner bisteeyaHari Pulapak's bisteeya.

Cooking at the Beard House, the townhouse of the late cookbook author and culinary teacher, is considered one of the greatest honors among chefs. Central Florida chefs have been making inroads into the coveted kitchen in the last few years, and several of our finest have cooked recently or soon will cook there, including chefs from Grande Lakes resort in August and, later this month, a team of chefs from Talk of the Town Restaurant Group (Moonfish, Johnnie’s Hideaway, Charley’s Steakhouse). John Rivers of 4Rivers Smokehouse is on the schedule for 2013.

Besides the prestige it brings to the chefs, cooking at the Beard House is an important step in reeducating the culinary elite that Orlando has come into its own as a community of fine restaurants. When I first heard that these chefs would be cooking Beard dinner trioThe pork trio.there in October, I started to check flight info so I could be there. But then I thought it would be better if my seat was taken by someone else, someone who doesn’t already know what fine cooks they are. The more people who get to taste this food -- especially people who happen to be judges for the annual Beard Awards -- the sooner we will bring a Best Chef title to the area.

By the way, it shouldn't go without mentioning that the team at Emeril's Tchoup Chop did a terrific job serving the dinner Monday. If you haven't filled your Magical Dining Month card yet, head on over to the Royal Pacific for a great dinner at a bargain price.

For information about the dinner in October, visit jamesbeard.org.{jcomments on}