Thursday, September 1, 2011

Central Florida James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner at Cress Restaurant

The patrons of Deland's Cress Restaurant were tickled pink that their hometown restaurant was hosting the inaugural Central Florida James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner and this delight was manifested in the turnout and their enthusiastic embrace of all aspects of the evening's event. 

The event featured a 7-course meal prepared by an all-star cast of Orlando chefs to include Scott Hunnell of Victoria and Albert's, James and Julie Petrakas of The Ravenous Pig, Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Chef Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant.  All proceeds from the event benefitted The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

The event was slated to begin at 6:30 pm and most people arrived on time.  The doors were closed, however, as management and staff continued with their last minute preparations.  When the door was finally opened, it was only long enough to allow one couple through.  Once that couple was placed in pre-assigned seats, another couple was let in, and so on until all seats were filled.  The table settings were gorgeous and menu presentation impeccable.  Once you arrived at your seat, a member of the wait staff came over and introduced him/herself and offered a flute of Heidsick Monopole Blue Top Brut champagne.

Once everyone was seated, the chefs came out of the kitchen to be introduced to the attendees.  Chef Hari opened the proceedings by thanking his fellow chefs and remarking on how impresesed he was with them.  They had shown up two to three hours earlier and had immediately gone about setting up their material.  Things had run so smoothly that they were now helping him in his set up.  Each chef then introduced him/herself and acknowledged the underlying purpose of the evening and how happy they were to be able to participate in this worthy cause.  Chef Hunnell talked about these chefs being at the vanguard of a food and dining movement in Orlando which is aimed at providing residents and guests with an attractive culinary scene.  Chef Petrakis also referenced this culianry movement but expanded its reach all across Florida.  At the conclusion of their comments, the chefs exited stage left and the serious examination of their handiwork commenced.

The first course was an Amuse Bouche composition with contributions from a majority of the chefs: Applewood Smoked Bison with an Apple-Walnut Salad from Chef Hunnell; Blue Fin Tuna and Scallop Tartare with Caviar and Hazelnut from Chef Petrakis; Pickled Deep Creek Ranch Pickled Beef Tongue Reuben with House Kraut, Caraway Gribiche, and Toasted Pumpernickel from Chef Fonzo; and Pasture Prime Farm Milk Fed Ranger Chicken Bisteya with Tikka Masala Ice Cream and Preserved Lemon from Chef Pulapaka.  This was paired with the Heidsick champagne referenced earlier.  

The second course was a Chef Hunnel creation and featured Spanish Octopus, Summer Tomatoes, Arbequina Olive Oil.  It was paired with a 2010 Legado del Condo Albarino Rias Baixas, a Spanish white wine.

The third course, offered by Chef Pulapaka, was a Roasted Local Snowy Grouper, Local Shellfish "Cioppino", and Summer Truffles.  It was paired with a 2006 Domaine GuffensHeynen Macon Pierreclos.

The Intermezzo was Blackberry Blood Orange with an Habanero gel.

Course 4: Oxtail Tortellini, Butter-Poached Maine Lobster, Sunchokes, Lobster Mushrooms.  A Chef James Petrakis offering paired with 2007 Jose Maria da Fonseca Domini Plus Douro, Portugal.

Course 5: From Chef Fonzo, a Braised Lake Meadow Naturals Goat Rib, Goat Belly Confit, House-Made Goat Cheese Pudding, Succotash of Sweet Corn and Summer Beans.  Paired with 2004 E&E "Black Pepper" Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia

The sixth course was a cheese composition: Artisanal Cheeses and Accoutrements.  Paired with 2008 Benton Lane First Class Pinot Noir, Oregon

Course seven was a dessert course from Chef Julie Petrakas.  It was a Fig Duo: Creme Caramel, Black Mission Fig Compote, Dark Choclate-Brown Turkey Fig Tartlet, Fig-Cardamon Sorbet.  Paired with Taylor Fladgate Tawny Port 40-Year Old, Portugal

By this time I was truly tuckered out (To be truthful, I had blown my wad long before this.).  This had been a truly formidable array of dishes offered up by chefs at the top of their game.  Two of the dishes/pairings which stood out for me were courses four and five.  Course four was special because I did not initially get the rationale of the pairing given the white sauce-red wine combo.  Hidden under all the white, though, was the oxtail tortellini and the lobster mushrooms and they were more than adequate to support the Portuguese red.  On course five, I have eaten goat in the past but in more of a comfort-food style (Curried goat, for example).  This was my first encounter with this gourmet-style presentation of goat and ... I liked it.  All of the pairings worked well in my estimation with the exception of the Black Pepper Shiraz which had a brackish taste and added nothing to the dish.

Midway during the meal, Bill Budzinski of the Elusive Grape announced an upcoming live auction of seats  at their restaurants donated by the participating chefs.  This announcement lent a further dash of excitement and anticipation to the evening's proceedings.  After the meal was completed, Bill proceeded with the auction.  The first offering seemed to take everyone by surprise because, before you knew what was happening, my table mates had "won" at the opening price.  This did not happen again as people warmed to the proceedings.  The most hotly contested offering of the evening was two seats at Cress Restaurant.  The author's wife became involved in a bidding war with two other tables which was only terminated by having all six of us agree to a joint dinner which would also be attended by Chef and his wife and Bill and his wife.  A welcome relief.

Post the auction, all of the chefs and the kitchen staff were brought out to take a bow.  Chef Pulapaka thanked them for their support and thanked the attendees for thier participation.  The chefs were all very gracious in their concluding remarks.

All-in-all a very successful evening: the event raised $13,500 for charity; the guests had an enervating evening where they went away satisfied and with a feeling of having done something good; the participating chefs seemed to have had a good time; Chef Pulapaka represented his abode and his constituents admirably; and the small kitchen did not in any way restrain the artistry and creative forces of these dynamic chefs.


  1. Dear Mr. Edwards,

    Thank you for your informative and engaging summary of the event. Jenneffer and I sincerely appreciate your professionalism and genuine interest in the finer aspects of gastronomy and of course wine.


  2. Thank you guys for organizing and delivering such a meaningful and memorable experience.