By Gary McKechnie
In July 2014, celebrated chef Norman Van Aken, founder of New World cuisine and featured chef at Norman’s at Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, convened a special gathering at the city’s East End Market, known by locals as the area’s “neighborhood market and culinary food hub.”
From across Central Florida came some of the most recognizable names in Florida’s food circles: Hari Pulapaka from DeLand’s Cress restaurant, Brandon McGlamery of Winter Park’s Prato, Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant, and Kathleen Blake of Orlando’s Rusty Spoon -- all James Beard Foundation ‘Best Chef’ semi-finalists.
They and other Orlando area chefs, farmers, seafood purveyors, and artisans were there to affix their signatures to the Greater Orlando Food Leaders Alliance (goFLA) Manifesto, an eight-point, 350-word pledge that aimed to put the brakes on fast food. They agreed their meals would be created from locally sourced ingredients and dining would be designed to bring together friends, families, and the community.
"We pledge to promote the bounty of Central Florida's farmlands, oceans and producers, and to develop inventive ways to use regional ingredients.”
The return to locally inspired cuisine can be traced back to 1986 and the launch of the International Slow Food movement, which focused on the cultivation and preparation of regional cuisine through locally raised plants, seeds, and livestock. Orlando’s chefs, food critics, and diners felt their region embodied the finest aspects of the farm-to-table philosophy. In a sense, they were declaring Orlando as the epicenter of the state’s slow food movement.
“Orlando is just a stone’s throw from fresh fish in the Gulf and Atlantic,” said Kathleen Blake, who opened The Rusty Spoon here in 2011.
“We’re surrounded by dozens of family farms where I can get organic produce, and all I have to do is look around to source fresh beef and poultry.”
To appreciate the lengths Blake goes takes to prepare meals the old-fashioned way, consider the amazing journey of just one item on her menu: the Scotch egg.
Before it lands on your plate, the main ingredient lands in a nest at Ocoee’s Lake Meadow Naturals, a farm where chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, and goats are grain-fed and enjoy clean, fresh country air. “They are all cage-free and have plenty of space to roam,” owner Dale Volkert said. “Plus, they’re a heritage breed, which means they’ve not been genetically altered so you can taste the natural flavor in their eggs as well."
"That’s the same with all our livestock. Chickens taste like chickens, pigs taste like pigs, and beef taste like beef.”
Visitors are invited to the farm where, on Saturdays, they’re allowed to literally pick their own eggs from roosting hens.
Another option is visiting the farmer’s market where shelves and coolers are stocked with newly-packaged chicken and beef, canned preserves, fresh jams, jellies, produce, butter and sour cream. Plus carton upon carton of farm-fresh eggs.
That’s the jumping-off point for the Rusty Spoon’s Scotch egg. Each week, 360-500 of those eggs are gathered, packaged, and delivered to Blake’s kitchen. The top-selling appetizer is soft-boiled and then wrapped within a thin layer of handmade Italian pork sausage before being rolled atop breadcrumbs. After a brief dip into a fryer (to ensure a crispy exterior and re-heated creamy interior), the Scotch egg is ready for the table.
“…we pledge to share our incredibly diverse culinary culture and identity within our community…”
So why go to all of this effort for one egg? Or one entrée? Having grown up on an Iowa farm where she’d watch her grandmother spend three full days just to plan, prepare, and then serve a Sunday feast, Blake said food is more than merely a means to satisfy an appetite.
“What I learned from my grandma is that I can add love and labor in everything I serve,” Blake said. “So for me this isn’t a trend or a concept. It’s the way I cook.”
Pam Brandon, managing editor of the food magazine Edible Orlando and author of several Florida-focused cookbooks and guides, agreed.
“You feed your soul with good food,” Brandon said. “You eat and you’re a little bit changed. Farm-to-table restaurants are all about feeding people and showing love through food.”
Scott Joseph, former food critic for the Orlando Sentinel and creator of the impressively detailed Scott Joseph’s Orlando Restaurant Guide, has long championed the region’s farm to table Orlando movement. While he’s aware that many diners will settle for mass-produced meals, he sees the dining experience differently.
“Food is not just filling the void,” Joseph said. “It’s communal.”
“…we will work to generate sustainable local abundance, and to financially strengthen our communities and everyone who works in the fields, farms and kitchens of Central Florida.”
Whether you’re a food aficionado or a fast food addict who would love to taste-test farm-to-table dining, here are several restaurants that consistently earn high marks from diners and critics. Most rely on the same growers, purveyors, and wholesalers (see list following) for ingredients such as seafood, meat, poultry, game, cheese, herbs, and produce.
Cress has consistently been named among the best restaurants in Central Florida, with applause coming from Zagat, the Orlando Sentinel, the James Beard Foundation, Florida Trend and others. By sourcing its main ingredients, it became one of Florida’s first farm-to-table restaurants when it opened in 2004.
Located at the JW Marriott Orlando/Grande Lakes, dishes are inspired by the coastal regions of Italy, France, and Spain. Each dish is prepared in part with ingredients cultivated from the resort’s organic garden and the larger Whisper Creek Farm where chickens, citrus trees, fruits, and vegetables are raised in a 7,000-square-foot garden adjoining an 11,000-square-foot outdoor event space.
Brandon McGlamery’s Prato celebrates American cuisine and adds an Italian accent. Profiled in numerous magazines and newspapers,
K Restaurant, Orlando
Located in the retro-style village of College Park, K’s has no walk-in coolers, an absence that ensures fresh product daily. After converting an old home into a popular restaurant, K’s converted the backyard into an attractive herb and vegetable garden.
Since opening the Ravenous Pig in 2007, this and James and Julie Petrakis’s two subsequent restaurants have earned national acclaim, including an Esquire feature naming Cask & Larder one of the nation’s best new restaurants. Their wide-ranging menus are complemented by specialty desserts and craft beers.
Artisan’s Table, Orlando
One of the few farm-to-table restaurants that runs from morning to night, the day begins with breakfast (sample item: steel-cut oatmeal with sundried fruit, mixed nuts, agave syrup) and moves along to lunch and dinner (with a happy hour in between). It’s not just the food that’s locally sourced – so is the furniture and art.
Most Farm to Table Orlando-area restaurants work in close alliance with these local farms and growers:
• Culinary Classics, Orlando
• Growing Synergy, Orlando
• Rabbit Run Farm, Fort Myers
• Deep Creek Ranch, DeLand
• Long and Scott Farms, Mount Dora
• Waterkist Farm, Sanford
• Wild Ocean Seafood Market, Titusville