The Orlando magazine Dining Awards event was an assemblage of familiar faces and new friends.
This past Sunday marked the occasion of our Orlando magazine Dining Awards celebration. I always enjoy the ceremony, where we get to hand out plaques honoring the best of our Readers' Choices and my Critic’s Picks winners for the past year (our host, DoveCote, was my pick for Best Newcomer). As I’ve said before, I am first and foremost a fan of our local culinary heroes, and since my job takes me to a dizzying number of restaurants a year (I think I counted 50 visits in 2016), it’s almost impossible to go back to any particular one, even ones I truly love. So to see dozens of hard-working, talented and often underappreciated chefs and restaurant owners in one place is a joy.
I’ve done my time in professional kitchens, and I admire chefs, in particular those who have a personal viewpoint and a love of style. Like John Calloway, chef/owner of Black Rooster Taqueria, my choice for Best Chef this year, who fell in love with the real cuisine of Mexico and wanted to bring it to Orlando. His wife, Juliana, told me he’s never gotten any kind of recognition for his cooking before, and I was pleased to correct that omission.
It’s so rare for chefs to get away from their kitchens that having a gang in one room is like a prom for kitchen geeks. Chef Wendy Lopez of Readers’ Choice for Best Spanish, Tapa Toro, was practically dancing through the room, encountering fellow cook-fans she had never met before. The great Kathleen Blake, who has garnered four James Beard Award nominations and a place in our Hall of Fame for The Rusty Spoon, stood close to me and whispered, “I don’t think I know anybody here.” I was delighted to point out Kevin Tarter of Chef's Table at the Edgewater, Readers’ Choice winner in four categories); Stacey and Ed Tomljenovich, my winners for Best Bakery at P Is For Pie; and Beth Steele of Beth’s Burger Bar. “She’s fun,” I told Kathleen of the Readers’ Choice winner for Best Burger. “You need to meet her.” And local icons like Shannon and Janice Talty (Hall of Fame inductee Olde Hearth Bread Company and Trina Gregory-Propst (my pick for Best Breakfast, Se7en Bites) got to shine in the admiration of their peers and get some well-deserved hugs.
Twenty years ago when I started writing about the Orlando dining scene, the use of locally sourced products was an uncommon and bewildering thing; now there are so many great chefs championing our unique harvest that the rest of the country is taking notice. The talent level in Central Florida is extraordinary and getting better all the time, and I’m delighted to watch it grow.