This article has been updated to include quotes from Norman Van Aken and Ritz-Carlton’s general manager, Jon McGavin.
Yusuf Yildiz, longtime general manager of Norman’s, the upscale restaurant that was originally at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, is leaving the recently reopened version of the Norman Van Aken restaurant just months after it reopened in its new Restaurant Row location – and days before a grand opening benefit dinner.
In an ironic twist, Yildiz is returning to the Ritz and its Michelin-starred restaurant, Knife & Spoon, which occupies the space that was home to the original Orlando Norman’s. He will have the same role there that he did at Norman’s, as general manager, sommelier and maitre d’.
Anyone who has been to Norman’s, either the original or the new restaurant, would recognize Yildiz as the face of the front-of-the-house operations, an ever-present and hands-on manager overseeing a staff he expertly trained.
The timing of the move is curious because Yildiz remained with the Norman’s group following the closing at the Ritz – which came because the luxury hotel did not renew the lease – and stayed on during the extended process of reopening in a new location.
Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton opened in 2003 and closed in 2019. Marriott International, parent company of Ritz-Carlton, said at the time that it had a goal to revamp restaurants throughout its properties with an emphasis on company-owned concepts.
The owners of Norman’s quickly announced the acquisition of a space at Dellagio Town Center, a shuttered Bravo! Italian restaurant. A few months later, the Covid-19 pandemic would bring many construction and remodeling projects to a halt, including Norman’s.
The renovation of the old space into Knife & Spoon, the concept led by Dallas chef John Tesar, moved apace and that restaurant opened in October 2020. Norman’s finally reopened in February of this year.
When he was asked what he did between the Ritz closing and the recent reopening, Yildiz said that he was busy and involved in the renovations.
Yildiz confirmed in an email that he was returning to the Ritz-Carlton but did not immediately respond to a request to discuss his reasons. Van Aken said in a text message Tuesday afternoon: “One of the things in our business, that is a fundamental is that transitions are part of the landscape. You know this. As has been the case with many of the finest who have come, we wish them and their families the best. I’ve had fortune to work with extraordinary people. Yusuf has served us with commitment and energy for a very long time. We will always deeply appreciate his service. And now we welcome a new general manager who brings a wealth of experience to our company.” Van Aken was holding the release of the new manager’s name pending verification the new hire had alerted his current employer.
Jon McGavin, Ritz-Carlton area manager, said in a text: “I am thrilled to have Yusuf back home at Grande Lakes. He is one of the finest restaurant professionals I have had the pleasure to work with and look forward to watching him work with our Knife & Spoon team to continue creating amazing dining experiences.”
Yildiz was expected to meet with his new staff on Tuesday. He joins the restaurant one week after it retained its Michelin-star ranking at a ceremony in Miami, one of only four Orlando restaurants with a star. Norman’s had not reopened in time to be considered for this year’s Florida guide.
On Wednesday, Norman’s will host an event to mark the grand opening, with a benefit dinner featuring Van Aken and chefs Ming Tsai and Dean Fearing. The May 17 event is from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $250 per person with proceeds benefitting Kids Beating Cancer. Tickets are available through the restaurant.