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Orlando Ready for its Close up

Written By Scott Joseph On February 18, 2014

Beard Medallion

Orlando will be the focus of the country’s culinary elite in the next 24 hours as the James Beard Foundation comes to town to announce the semifinalists for its prestigious restaurant and chef awards. Officials from the Manhattan based organization will make the nominees known at a ceremony Wednesday morning at East End Market. This is the first time that JBF has made the announcement outside of New York.

In a post on the official JBF blog, the organization said, “When planning this inaugural event, we wanted to spotlight a city with an on-the-rise culinary profile, and Orlando fits that bill beautifully.” The Beard post also gave due recognition to the folks at Visit Orlando. The visitors and conventions bureau has toiled over the past five years to bring recognition of the quality of Central Florida’s culinary scene to the rest of the world. The reasons are not entirely altruistic: Visit Orlando knows that the quality of the restaurants in a city is very high on the list for planners when deciding where to hold a convention. Bringing the focus of the Beard Awards ceremony to the area makes great business sense.

But it would be a futile act if there weren’t actual substance for the world to see. That will be on display Tuesday evening at the Alfond Inn at a dinner that will be a collaboration of the area’s previous Beard Award semifinalists. The sold-out, $200-a-plate dinner, a fundraiser for Beard scholarships, will be cooked by Scott Hunnel, Victoria & Albert’s; Kevin Fonzo, K restaurant; James and Julie Petrakis, Ravenous Pig; Hari Pulapaka, Cress; Kathleen Blake, Rusty Spoon; Brandon McGlamery, Luma on Park; and Henry Salgado, Spanish River Seafood Grill. Special host of the dinner is Norman Van Aken, Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Orlando, who won Best Chef for the South Region several years ago, although for his now-closed Norman’s restaurant in South Florida’s Coral Gables. 

Preparing dinner for the area’s most fervent restaurant fans will be a high-pressure task for even these seasoned chefs. But one has to imagine their thoughts will be on Wednesday’s announcement. Will any of them have a place on the list of semifinalists? And could this be the year that one of them makes it to the finals, or brings the award home to Central Florida?

We’ll know soon, and so will the rest of the world.

I’ll be sending updates from tonight’s dinner, and I’ll have a full list of the nominees tomorrow morning following the 10 a.m. ceremony. You can also watch the live stream of the press conference at this link.

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