Orlando Caters to Foodies

From celebrity chefs to farm-to-table fare, this meetings mecca is becoming even more vibrant and delicious.

Disney's Executive Catering Chef Robert Gilbert is Ready for Groups
By Leo Jakobson

Part of Walt Disney World’s magic is being able to provide small and intimate experiences in the giant theme park and resorts around it. One of the cast members who makes this happen is Robert Gilbert, the executive catering chef, who oversees the food and beverage at more than 35,000 special events a year. “We are storytellers,” says Gilbert, and there are plenty of ways he can incorporate that into culinary experiences, ranging from a lesson in pickling to a Feast of the Senses in which up to 500 blindfolded attendees work together to figure out what they are being served.

Despite the size of a kitchen suitable for a property like the 655-room Disney’s Contemporary Resort, meals at a chef’s table for up to 56 are possible — a chandelier can even be brought in for atmosphere. And for smaller groups, a (very) hidden gem is the kitchen’s private dining room, reached by going through two walk-in freezer doors. A dark and elegant space for up to two dozen with a long, boardroom-style table, Gilbert and his chefs can serve up really excellent, high-end meals here featuring local produce.

There was a time when Orlando wasn’t associated with fine dining, but that certainly isn’t the case today. The most visited destination in the United States is home to a flourishing locavore movement and a vibrant independent restaurant scene.

Farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and artisanal purveyors work harmoniously with chefs to create the city’s rich farm-to-table offerings. New restaurants such as Prato and Cask & Larder have opened, joining other top spots including Luma on Park, The Rusty Spoon, and The Ravenous Pig, with their seasonally focused menus.

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) hosted a press conference in Orlando at the end of February, the first time the restaurant and chef semifinalists were announced at a live event. Fittingly, four chefs from around Orlando were named semifinalists. “Orlando is the perfect destination to host the James Beard Foundation’s first live semifinalist announcement,” says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “Our diverse collection of high-quality restaurants and chefs has created a vibrant culinary scene that is receiving national recognition.” In 2013, Orlando led Florida as the city with the most JBF Award semifinalists; during the same year, Zagat also published its first Orlando City Guide.

The press conference was held at East End Market, a former church that is now a community food hub for entrepreneurs, tradespeople, artists, and chefs, and the first of its kind in the Southeast. The second floor of East End Market contains attractive event space with a demonstration kitchen as well as an onsite caterer.

The night before the press conference, an impressive dinner was held at the Alfond Inn at Rollins College in Winter Park, and featured a prestigious group of Orlando’s past James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists including: Kathleen Blake of The Rusty Spoon; Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert’s; Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park and Prato; James and Julie Petrakis of The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder; Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant; Henry Salgado of Txokos Basque Kitchen and Spanish River Grill; and Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant.

The Alfond Inn, a boutique hotel with an impressive art collection, opened in 2013 and is owned by Rollins College. The 100-plus pieces of contemporary art in the 112-room hotel are themed around the importance of literacy in our world. There are 10,000 square feet of divisible meeting space, including a 1,000-square-foot boardroom and 5,000-square-foot ballroom. What adds to the hotel’s uniqueness is that net operating income endows The Alfond Scholars program, the college’s premier scholarship fund. The Inn’s Hamilton’s Kitchen, which features Floridian-inspired farm-to-table cuisine, is also noteworthy.

Winter Park features design-centric shops and pedestrian-friendly tree-lined streets, giving it the feel of a European-style village. Developed in the 19th century, Winter Park is known for its bountiful Saturday farmers market and for The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which has the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

There is a focus not only on fine dining in Orlando but fine wine as well. Quantum Leap Winery, Orlando’s first and only winery, opened its doors two years ago. Quantum Leap’s practice of shipping wine in larger bladders and using lightweight wine bottles has enabled it to significantly reduce its carbon footprint.

This venue is a popular site for events of all sizes. The Barrel Room can accommodate up to 35, the Tasting Room up to 175, and the entire winery is also available for larger groups.

Orlando will always be known for its famed theme parks. But in the future, the destination is on its way to being just as famous for its culinary delights.