Last updated: 04:30 PM ET, Fri August 12 2016

One Chef Couple Is Redefining Orlando’s Food Culture

Destination & Tourism | Michael Schottey | August 12, 2016

One Chef Couple Is Redefining Orlando’s Food Culture

 James Petrakis at The Ravenous Pig (photo courtesy of The Ravenous Pig). 

James and Julie Petrakis are not your stereotypical superstar chefs.

James is laid back, cool, calm, collected. When I spoke with him at his Orlando restaurant, The Ravenous Pig, he didn’t fret about food coming out of the kitchen right behind him. He’s been out of that kitchen for years, handing over the reins to the very capable Chef Nick Sierputowski. It’s clear that one of James’ greatest strengths is his ability to manage without micromanaging — something that creative types like chefs often struggle with.

As for Julie Petrakis? Though she is integral to the planning and creative side of the business, she’s been at home and out of the kitchen for a number of years, being a mom to the couple’s two young children (3 and 5). She’s eager to get back into the kitchen sooner rather than later, but she’ll be walking back into an empire that has grown up seemingly overnight in the Winter Park area of Orlando, without Guy Fieri-like faux flair or Gordon Ramsey-esque screaming fits.

And what an empire it is!

In addition to The Ravenous Pig, the Petrakis’ restaurant group, “The Swine Family,” operates Cask and Larder and Swine and Sons — the former being a “Southern Public House” with a fantastic brewing operation and the latter a “Provisions Shop” where one can bring home some of their deliciousness.

The restaurants are quintessentially Orlando, which is a statement that is easy to make as the couple are helping redefine what Orlando cuisine truly is. It’s not as deep south as Jacksonville’s and certainly not as Latin or Island-inspired as Miami or even Tampa. For years, Orlando was child-friendly fare and the best meal a parent might hope for was finishing off a toddler’s chicken strips.

 READ MORE: 6 Top Chefs Changing the Orlando Food Scene 

“Orlando cuisine is a weird melting pot. It was a meld of South Florida and lost people, and that was almost more inspiring to Julie and I because we could cook the way we wanted to. A lot of my Mediterranean background, a lot of my Greek background but we both grew up in the South with southern cooks. Orlando is really just a lot of young chefs who have gone out and come back saying, ‘This is what I like to cook, here it is.”

“We were the land of chains for years,” Petrakis said of his city, “and (Ravenous Pig) was the first sign that, yeah, there is some soul here. There is some creativity, and that was given by these guys,” as he motioned to the chefs back in the kitchen.

Ravenous Pig should be on any Orlando traveler’s bucket list as it has been on mine for years. In addition to sitting down with James, I was privileged to eat one of the best meals of my life at the signature restaurant — starting with a Ravenous Pig Old Fashioned which is made with bacon-infused bourbon, homemade orange bitters and topped with a piece of candied bacon.

Photo by Michael Schottey on Instagram

If for no other reason, that drink alone is worth the drive from wherever you are in Orlando to  The Ravenous Pig. The food, however, might be worth buying a plane ticket for.

The menu is not as porcine-centric as the various names of the restaurants and company might make it seem. The kitchen does seafood as well as anyone, and the duck breast was a favorite of numerous tables around me.

Starting with an expertly prepared charcuterie platter, I made my way to a lamb belly and corncake starter and then to the Porcini Tagliatelle, which is made with a Bolognese sauce prepared with the bits of the aforementioned charcuterie platter, which is an inspired take on the traditional meat sauce I’m not sure any restaurant could match.

Photo by Michael Schottey on Instagram

The menu changes frequently, and the standbys are becoming classics, but there is something at The Ravenous Pig for everyone. If not, Cask and Larder is only a ten-minute walk away with a similarly eclectic and entertaining menu that is somehow altogether different. James actually suggests starting at Cask and Larder for drinks and bar bites before heading to the Ravenous Pig for dinner — a new bucket list culinary item for this author.

A spinoff itself, Cask is opening an outlet at Orlando International Airport’s Southwest Terminal. Fans of the restaurant need not worry that it’s going to be “airport food” with the Cask and Larder name slapped on it. “They wanted the locally-sourced, locally owned chef concept.” Petrakis said. “The airport wanted to be able to promote that.”

The Swine Family’s newest endeavor is a group effort in DoveCote, a French Brasserie that has moved the group from Winter Park into downtown’s Bank of America building. With DoveCote, they are partnering with Chef Clayton Miller who helped open Norman’s in Orlando before moving on to (among other places) The French Laundry. Gene Zimmerman of Courtesy Bar is also working with the team to provide some cocktail expertise.

 READ MORE: Hunt Down These Orlando Food Trucks With Gusto 

Perhaps most exciting for Petrakis and what is taking up most of his time is a new partnership with his brother and the Disney company at Disney Springs.

The Polite Pig will be a fast casual restaurant focusing on the lighter side of barbecue and doubling down on Petrakis’ incredible reputation for sourcing the best ingredients.

“Two-hundred seats, 26 taps,” Petrakis said of the new restaurant, “and we have tailored that menu toward A) speed and B) a little bit friendlier to the every-day customer. We’re not trying to get so chef-y or creative. It’s, ‘hey, let’s give ‘em solid, California barbecue — salmon, tri-tip, tuna along with some of the traditional options — alongside seasonal vegetables as some of the sides.”

The Disney Springs location places he, Julie and his brother Brian alongside culinary luminaries like Art Smith, Rick Bayless and Masaharu Morimoto — “500 yards away,” Petrakis noted — in a place where millions and millions of feet will walk by The Polite Pig and millions of noses will smell the slow roasted barbecue.

“We’re going to be seen with a lot more people against a lot stiffer competition,” Petrakis said.

“The one thing we have going for us is that we’re local operators. A lot of those people aren’t local. They’re not in their restaurants day-to-day. This is something my brother and I are putting our livelihoods on the line for. We’re going to be there every day. That’s what we’re banking on.”

Petrakis also pointed to working with the Disney team as a unique experience and honor, and said that the Disney Imagineering team has provided them with a lot of good ideas that he didn’t necessarily think would come from a bunch of non-chefs. He had been scared of the entire process but said it’s been a true partnership.

Moving forward, Ravenous Pig will move from its current location to the same property of Cask and Larder which “The Swine Family” owns. The two (vastly different) restaurants will co-exist alongside the shop as a bit of a hub of the Winter Park area and the Orlando food scene — an idea cribbed from James and Julie’s time at Atlanta’s Bacchanalia.

“Julie’s going to head that project up,” James said. “We have our provision shop that we want to expand into a little bit more of a grocery. We’ll have Ravenous. We’ll have Cask. We’re brewing our beer. We’re inputting wood-burning grills in there. We’re re-doing our dining room. That corner is our big focus right now. We can't wait to see what that corner is going to look like in five years.”

When I say that the Petrakis restaurant and brand is quintessentially Orlando, it’s not just in the type of food, but more importantly in the people who work there and the people who eat there. Even as the company expands and gains more and more national attention, the Petrakis restaurants feel far more like Orlando than other top area eateries, because that’s what they’ve always been meant to be.

“We definitely started as a local place. With some of the national attention, it’s probably about a 65/35 split with travelers and convention business. It’s a little lower down at Cask where it’s maybe 70/30 just because it hasn’t been around as long. We still have our same regulars ... we’ve had from Day 1.”

It’s easy to see that not much is going to change. Petrakis also noted how a new generation — his generation — of the city has taken greater ownership with an attitude of “Hey, I’m from here and let me show you what that’s all about.” These are no longer the “lost people” of Orlando’s past, but a generation that is truly Orlando and has people like James and Julie Petrakis helping them figure out what that means.

“Julie and I grew up in this neighborhood. Our families are here. Our kids are going to be raised here. It’s an exciting time to be here, because there are a lot of great things that are going to be happening here.”

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