Last updated: 07:00 AM ET, Tue March 01 2016

6 Top Chefs Changing the Orlando Food Scene

Destination & Tourism | Michael Schottey | March 01, 2016

6 Top Chefs Changing the Orlando Food Scene

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Orlando is an interesting food town, and interesting is perhaps the most positive word I could have used in the beginning of this sentence.

It is a city that is culturally distinct only by its lack of distinction, and the tourists who frequent are usually those who would gladly eat a PB&J for the third meal in a row while they wait in line for a handshake with a mouse. Because of that, for decades, “interesting” would have been a tremendous upgrade, as overpriced and disappointing were far more par for the course.

The times, they are a changin’.

Thanks to the overall foodie revolution over the past few years and a decade-long quest by Disney, Universal and others to expand and appeal to older audiences, Orlando has been forced to offer so much more than plates of French fries and paper cups of ketchup.

Kathleen Blake, The Rusty Spoon

PHOTO: Kathleen Blake (right) with celebrity chef Rick Bayless. (photo via Twitter/The_Rusty_Spoon)

Relatively young for such a successful restaurateur, Blake has only been cooking in top kitchens for a couple of decades — almost always focusing on simple, quality, organic ingredients.

READ MORE: Top 10 Things to Do in Orlando When You're All Disney'd Out

Now, those have become buzzwords as of late, but Blake has been living that life and cooking that food (and masterfully so) long before the hype. Her work is what so many others have been aspiring to, reaching a level of excellence that doesn’t morph into pretentiousness. And she really does love food for the sake of food, and isn’t just paying lip service to that idea.

Must Trys: Slow-Braised Lamb Sandwich with Sweet Onion & Golden Raisin Jam, House Made Ricotta Salata on Toasted Moroccan Bread/ "Dirty South" — Canaveral Shrimp, Local Catch & Little Neck Clams in a Rich Shrimp-Peanut Broth, Garlicky Greens & Creamy Grits.

Hari Pulapaka, Cress (Deland)

Photo via Facebook/Cress Restaurant

I covered Cress briefly in a recent column, but it deserves some due diligence here. A 2015 James Beard semifinalist, Pulapaka is a Ph.D, and a math professor at nearby Stetson University by day. Still, he might not be even the most impressive member of his family. His wife, Jenneffer, is both General Manager and wine expert of the restaurant and a podiatric surgeon with her own practice!

Deland can feel like a trek from Orlando proper (and especially from the resort area), but Pulapaka’s masterfully-spiced food is well worth the trip.

Must Try: House Biscuits with Duck Confit Gravy, Sunflower Sprouts and House Pickles/Darling Downs Wagyu Hanging Tenderloin with Blue Stilton Cream, Sunny Egg, Roasted Vegetables.

Scott Hunnell, Victoria and Albert’s (Lake Buena Vista)

Victoria and Albert’s is located in the Disney Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, which means you’re paying a premium for the delicious food as well as the location and the ambiance. Make no mistake, though, these are not the corndogs or turkey legs of the Magic Kingdom.

Hunnell started as a dishwasher when he was 11 in Joliet, Ill. but has since been recognized so many times by the Beard Foundation that they’ve likely got his number on speed dial. His cuisine fits the setting perfectly, as he’s traveled the world and found a way to bring together upscale versions of everything he’s found at the “happiest place on Earth.”

Must Try: Berkshire Porchetta with Sherry Vinaigrette/House-made Gnocchi with Chanterelle Mushrooms (Yes, get the suggested wine pairings.)

James and Julie Petrakis, The Ravenous Pig (Winter Park)

PHOTO: James Petrakis. (photo via Facebook/The Ravenous Pig)

Three words: Bacon Old Fashioned…

The idea of my favorite drink infused with salty, porky, smoky flavors (as well as vanilla and maple) drew me to The Ravenous Pig in the first place, but if you come for the drinks, make sure you stay for the food. Then, come back again and again because it is just that amazing.

The best part about the menu is that it’s the best possible version of the national pork craze that seems to be on the wane. It’s not shtick, and it’s also very possible to get amazing food sourced from non-porcine animals. Also, coming from a guy who would almost rather have seconds than a dessert course, you’ll want to order dessert here. Come ravenous, leave a pig.

Must Try: House-made Charcuterie Starter with Grilled Bread, Pickled Vegetables and Grain Mustard/Pork Porterhouse with buckwheat polenta, waterlist tomatoes and pearl onions

John Rivers, 4 Rivers (Multiple Locations)

PHOTO: John Rivers (right) with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (photo via Twitter/4RSmokehouse)

Does a pitmaster with a chain restaurant belong on a list with chefs? This one does.

Rivers is new to the restaurant game after a successful career in business that seemed less fulfilling when he discovered his true passion while barbecuing for charity events. He never thought that his dream would lead to him cooking not only at the James Beard House, but also for the South Beach and Atlanta Food Festivals.

READ MORE: How to Earn Free Food, Drinks at Universal Orlando's Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Easily, Rivers’ restaurants — he has five in the Orlando area with many more around the state —are the best barbecue in Florida and he’s single-handedly helping to bring pit culture south of the state border, which had long been a hurdle too high to hit.

Must Try: Slider Trio (go Burnt Ends, Brisket and Pulled Pork) with Mac and Cheese and Fried Pickles/”Six Shooter”— Cheese Grits with Pulled Pork, Slaw, Jalapenos and 4R sauce — with a side of Smoked Jalapeno Poppers and Bread Pudding for Dessert.

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