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Cooking Up Success

Four Central Florida chefs represented Orlando’s culinary scene as semifinalists for the 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards.

Cooking Up Success

Colloquially known as the Oscars of the food world and the envy of culinary professionals, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) Awards recognize renowned chefs for their achievements.

This year, four Orlando chefs were chosen to be part of a group of 20 semifinalists in the Best Chef in the South category: Scott Hunnel, Kathleen Blake, and Julie and James Petrakis. Each of these chefs has been nominated for this prestigious competition in past years as well.

Scott Hunnel, the chef de cuisine for Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, began cooking at the age of 15 in Lum’s Restaurant in Chicago. Now, his culinary reputation allows him to travel and cook in other countries where he draws ideas and inspiration for his recipes and signature dishes, such as the Berkshire Porchetta, which he derived inspiration for during a trip to Italy.

While this is his eighth nomination, Hunnel says, “It is just as exciting for me as the first time. Winning would be an incredible honor knowing that the nomination process is conducted by fellow chefs, culinarians, food critics and writers.”

Third-time nominee, Blake has certainly progressed since she first started cooking in her grandmother’s kitchen. Blake is now the chef and owner of The Rusty Spoon, a gastropub in downtown Orlando that uses a farm-to-table approach in creating a seasonal, rustic cuisine.

Her patrons are usually intrigued by the fact that she can name the origin of every single ingredient she uses, as it demonstrates her strong commitment to only using locally sourced food in her dishes. She says it still feels incredible to be nominated because, to her, the recognition is essentially “affirmation that all the hard work that you’ve put into something that’s your passion is recognized by your peers.”

Julie and James Petrakis have been together since meeting at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Since then, they have gone on to become owners of several local restaurants, including The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park.

“The most interesting thing about our dishes is that they are, for the most part, dishes that we grew up eating,” James says. “We took dishes from our homes and added twists to make them restaurant quality.”

The couple has been nominated for the JBF awards year after year for their dishes, which are influenced by James’ Mediterranean background and include ingredients native to Orlando. “It is a real honor to be nominated year after year,” James says. “It truly validates the food our team produces. Winning would be amazing, but the recognition is more than enough.”

On March 15, an announcement from San Francisco narrowed the field of nominees to five in advance of the May 2 award ceremony to be held in Chicago. With such stiff competition, including a handful of talented chefs from New Orleans, the Orlando semifinalists did not make it to the final round of this year’s competition.

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