Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cress Restaurant (Deland, FL) Charity Dinner: The Back Story

In a stunning coup for the benefitting charities, the city of Deland, and Cress Restaurant, Executive Chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress has gained the commitment of four of Orlando's leading chefs to prepare dishes for a charity dinner to be held at Cress Restaurant on August 29th.  The participating chefs are: Scott Hunnell, Chef de Cuisine, Victoria and Albert's, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa; James and Julie Petrakas, Chef/Owners, The Ravenous Pig, Kevin Fonzo, Chef and Owner, K Restaurant and Wine Bar; and, of course, Hari Pulapaka, Executive Chef and Co-Owner (along with wife Jenneffer) , Cress Restaurant.  All proceeds from the event will benefit Taste of the Nation - Orlando, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, and Central Florida Second Harvest Food Bank.  Having eaten at all of these restaurants, and considering the chefs among the best in Orlando, I perceive this to be a huge deal.  Wanting to get a better understanding of the genesis and objectives of the event, I interviewed Chef Hari on August 6th.  First, a little background on Chef Hari and Cress Restaurant.

Scott Hunnell, Chef de Cuisine, V&A
James and Julie Petrakas, Ravenous Pig
Kevin Fonzo, K Restaurant
Chef Hari Pulupaka, Cress Restaurant

Hari Pulapaka was born in present-day Mumbai and, after graduating from the University of Mumbai, came to the US to pursue graduate studies in Mathematics.  Hari was very successful in this pursuit with a Masters degree awarded by George Mason University in 1989 and a Doctorate by the University of Florida in 1995.  After teaching stints at Bethune-Cookman, Valdosta State University, and Gorgia Tech, Dr. Pulapaka arrived at Stetson University in Deland in 2000 and remains there to this day as a tenured Associate Professor in that institution's Mathematics department.

While teaching at Stetson, Dr. Pulapaka was afflicted with a self-described "midlife crisis" the upshot of which was attendance at Orlando Culinary Institute and, post-graduation, a Culinary Internship at Canoe (a high-end restaurant in Toronto, Canada) and a job as a Line Cook at Princess Cruise's Wilderness Lodge in Alaska.

According to Chef Hari, his stint at Canoe taught him about finesse and pizazz while his sojourn at the lodge taught him boldness in cuisine.  When the opportunity arose, he combined those characteristics with his affinity for spices into the locally grown, globally inspired entity that is Cress Restaurant.  The goal of the restaurant is to provide a charming atmosphere with great value for the customer using an upscale, refined approach within the context of the location.  The mission of the venture is to be responsible to the community and its needs and the sources of the products that make their way onto the Cress tables.  It was this understanding of the needs of the community, combined with Chef Hari's passion for philanthropy, that were the sources of inspiration for the upcoming event.

Cress Restaurant was going to be three-years-old on August 29th.  The restaurant had celebrated previous anniversaries with customer-appreciation events but Chef Hari wanted to do something larger and more meaningful for the third anniversary.  Chef Hari had been named a 2011 James Beard Nominee for Best Chef South, as had the chefs who will be cooking at the event.  Chef Hari felt that if he could get his fellow nominees to come to Deland and cook at his restaurant, it could be huge money-raiser for a worthy charity and fulfill his goal of doing something "larger and more meaningful" for Cress' third anniversary.  Once he got this idea in his head, he pursued it doggedly and, after a two-month effort, was successful in gaining their agreement to participate.  This was a tall order because: these are very important chefs in Orlando; they are very busy all of the time; they would be donating their time; and, finally, getting the calendars synchronized would require a herculean effort.  But he pulled it off.

The event will revolve around a 7-course meal, each course being paired with an appropriate wine.  Each chef decided what he/she was going to prepare and Chef Hari (i) placed them in the appropriate order and (ii) filled in perceived blanks with his courses.  Cress can seat 35 people and to date 28 attendees have been confirmed.  Ticket prices are $275 per attendee but the funds go to a good cause and it provides the attendee with an opportunity to taste all five of these high-end chefs in one place and at one time.

The critical succes factors of the event, as seen by Chef Hari, are: (i) that the event raises money (a foregone conclusion given the number of seats sold to date); (ii) flawless execution of the dishes; (iii) the attendees perceive an authentic experience; and (iv) the chefs feel, at the end of the day, that it was worth their time.  There are a number of challenges that will have to be overcome.  The Cress kitchen is small and hot, not the kind of environment these chefs are accustomed to working in.  He hopes that the feeling of being able to do what they want to do will far outweigh the frustration of working in cramped, hot surroundings.

In Chef's estimation, Deland, as a city, is happy and proud to be the venue for such a monumental meeting of culinary artists.  He is also proud of putting the event together and sees it as an opportunity for the Orlando culinary glitterati to taste some of his creations and provide  a "seal of approval."

There is no doubt that this event will be a feather in the cap for Cress Restaurant.  It will raise a lot of money for charity but, following closely on the heels of the James Beard nomination, this gathering of stars on the banks of the Deland River (well, not quite) serves to further cement Cress Restaurant as one of the "foodie-destination" restaurants in metro-Orlando.


  1. Thanks Mr. Edwards for a delightful Blog in general, and an appreciated post about our event. Thank you.