Monday night is always date night for Cress Restaurant chef Hari Pulapaka and his wife Jenneffer. Shutting the doors to their intimate DeLand boîte once a week allows the charming culinarians an opportunity to spice up their love life, while doing the same for their tastebuds. So where does the personable pair seek retreat, and on what exactly do they nibble? A little pâté de foie gras, or grenouilles à la Niçoise, perhaps? Maybe a tower of bluefin otoro? The perception, or presumption, many of us have is that Central Florida's top chefs regularly sup on haute cuisine. In actuality their dining habits, like ours, run the gamut. But there's an innate curiosity to be satisfied: Like wanting to know what's on the iPod of your favorite musician or which books enrapture the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, so delving into the dining habits of our best chefs would, naturally, spark a similar interest. What do they cook at home? Which restaurants do they frequent, and why?
For the Pulapakas, Machon's "well-thought-out" menu of seasonal fare is a can't-miss option. It's run by student chefs at the Orlando Culinary Academy, but the motivated apprentices whip up contemporary French and American dishes that aren't pedestrian in the least. Says chef Pulapaka, a former student at the OCA, "it's one of the best values in all of Orlando." A popular steakhouse chain is also a regular stop for the Pulapakas but, surprisingly, not for slabs of red meat. "Ruth's Chris gives Jenneffer a cornucopia of options to create vegetarian meals," says Pulapaka, "and they have an extensive wine list and the service is one of the best in all of Central Florida." Back at the Pulapaka residence, nothing beats breakfast in bed, and when the weekend rolls around, a fiery frittata accompanied by a spiced and herbed potato hash is the meal of choice. Then it's off to the ultra-cool Om Bar and Chill Lounge in New Smyrna Beach to sample a few "eclectic libations."
Pom Moongauklang, proprietress of Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria, has a contrasting approach to dining in — and out. Junior's Diner, the greasy spoon on Corrine Drive, provides Pom with pre-noon satisfaction: straightforward breakfasts. "I like Junior's for the comfort of it," she says, though when she feels peckish at home, comfort also comes in the form of Hungry-Man or Kashi frozen dinners. That's probably why she spends a lot of her time at the home of Jephanie Foster, one of the most respected chefs in the city and a close friend of Pom's. Foster's restaurant, Graze, is a go-to choice for Eddie Nickell, chef-owner of the Funky Monkey Wine Company and a gastronome prone to indulging his discerning palate. "She's an amazing chef," Nickell says about Foster.
He has a lot of respect for buddies Jim and Julie Petrakis of the Ravenous Pig as well. The talented tandem helming that kitchen has made an impression with many area chefs. "They use fresh, local ingredients," says Nickell, "and you can tell they have passion in the kitchen." Kevin Fonzo, chef-owner at K Wine Bar, echoes the sentiment: "If I had more than just Sunday off, which is not a good restaurant day, I would love to go back to the Pig." But given his hectic schedule, Fonzo often cooks at home for friends — a simple barbecue, grilled steak or, his favorite, PB&J sandwiches. "The meal is much more about conversation, good company and wine," notes Fonzo.
So what about Foster and the Petrakises? Like the others, the popular top chefs are pressed for time. Foster laments that after a long day, "I'm lucky to put ice in a glass for my bourbon and a Lean Cuisine in the microwave," though on her days off, she tries to eat "at least two meals." But Foster often forgoes the haute to find inspiration in the offbeat; like her pal Moongauklang, she looks for comfort as well as familiar faces when dining out. No surprise, then, that she can be found often in a quiet corner of Pom Pom's Teahouse, downing a Big Daddy triple-decker sandwich with German potato salad and a Thai iced tea. You'll also find her enjoying the spicy tofu at Tasty Wok, the steak sub and cold Dogfish Ale at Sportstown Billiards, or the smothered pork chops, collards, rice, gravy and sweet tea at Johnson's Diner. "At home," says Foster, "I love a good curry, beef stew, any pasta in red sauce with garlic bread and an occasional rustic coq au vin."
With the exception of traditional holiday dinners for her family, Julie Petrakis never cooks at home. Instead, you may find her digits on the graceful rolls at Shin Japanese Cuisine: "The ingredients are the absolute freshest I've come across in a long time." Otherwise, she'll make her way north to trendy Luma on Park to sample Brandon McGlamery's progressive fare. "He's talented, creative and offers exciting food," gushes Petrakis, and it's no wonder given his stellar résumé: McGlamery has held positions at the French Laundry and Chez Panisse in Northern California, and namesake restaurants Gordon Ramsay in London and Guy Savoy in Paris.
If you've been to Winter Garden's Chef's Table, you won't argue with chef-owner Kevin Tarter's boast of being well-versed in many cuisines. But one indulgence he finds hard to replicate is sushi, so a trip to Amura on Sand Lake Road or Disney's California Grill (his and his wife Laurie's alma mater) is a treat. JB Boondocks, on the shores of Little Lake Harris in Howey-in-the-Hills, is where the pair goes to unwind and where Kevin can get his fill of "well-executed" soft-shell crab po'boys and muffulettas. Being from the Big Easy, Kevin would know, though when he craves red beans and rice, he'll just whip up a batch at home.
Dining out clearly plays a role in educating and inspiring the palate of any food-lover, chef or not. We learn to appreciate technique, and the daring among us may even attempt to re-create a chef's masterpiece at home. For Foster, sharing a meal should be about reconnecting with friends, family or quite possibly just yourself. Somewhere along the line, she observes, people have turned meals into a convenience. But for all of us, food is fuel and a necessary re-energizer — "after great tiring sex," says chef Hari somewhat boldly, "one of us makes spicy pasta and we feed each other in bed."
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