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How does a town become a food city?


Tonyy13
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Ok, so I have lived in Orlando for about three years now. Since moving down here, I have been appalled at the lack of a food scene in and around Orlando. Now, my poor reviews of places have been well documented, and had my hand slapped on more than one occasion by other EG'ers who seem to love the mediocrity of the food in our town, but I am not gonna stop singing my song. The lack of serious chefs who are determined to make a name for themselves, lack of artisinal ingredients, the lack of honest and educated food writing, and a myriad of people who don't know a great meal from a satisfactory meal are astounding. Even some of my colleagues, I fear, don't know a great restaurant that is going to provide a great meal instead of an ok restaurant that is going to suffice for just nutritional sustenance. I blame the Mouse for this, as Disney has taught every O-Towner that "Whatever you want, you can get, no matter what, at all cost", and let's face it, while Trotter and Boloud will try their very best to do what you want, they will not exit from their vision. Chef's and line cooks call out at an astounding rate down here, due to the fact that they have all worked for the Mouse, and that is accepted. Never have I worked anywhere where you can call out on the line for a lunch shift, let alone three or four a week, and I have my students tell me all the time that is what happens. Is it just that the Chefs themselves don't respect the business or the industry or the time or effort that goes into making each experience be incredible? I would rather travel to Athens, GA to get a great meal (Five and Ten) than try to slodge to another restaurant in Orlando. I just don't think it will ever get better here.

You would think that Orlando could sustain a food industry, with all the celebrities that live here, with all the business that goes on in our city. But instead, when I did a quick stint at Season's 52 (a new Darden concept, healthy cooking, but still, turn and burn 500 covers a night of mindless food), Jordan, Tiger, celebrities galore were there.

So, my question is, was your food city a culinary wasteland like Orlando? Full of chains and people who think that "all you can eat" is a great choice? What did you see? What age group was the increase of foodies concentrated in? What kind of stores did you noticed open, and were able to stay open through constant business?

Tonyy13

Owner, Big Wheel Provisions

tony_adams@mac.com

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Tony

Its hopeless you just have the wrong mix of tourists. Most visitors looking for food outside of a park are just looking for anything not Disney or are cheaping out in the first place by not staying in a park.

I have eaten dinner in the Orlando area twice, once in a generic random pub, it was fine....and once on 9/11 at a Sizzler...it wasnt fine, and the only reason we werent in the park was that they were closed.

I dont think there is any hope, your fair city has been turned into the Walmart of vacationland

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This is the kind of question I often ask myself regarding the city where I now reside: Ottawa.

In North America, it seems, it is not the amount of people with a decent budget that makes a city culinary attractive. My own little theory can be sumarized through this simple equation:

Great culinary city = f(Immigrantation) + f(large income differential) + f(urban neighborhoods)

This means that a city with a lot of immigrants, large income differential between the rich and the poors (as opposed to simply have rich people; here the smaller the middle class the better) and the more urban neighborhoods (as opposed to business districts and suburbs) will generally have a lot to offer in terms of food quality and culinary diversity. Immigrants often brings new products or a taste for non-industrial food, poor people will be willing to spend hours behind a stove if a rich person pays them and urban neighborhoods will simply bring immigrants, poor people and richer ones together.

You will notice that I left out the availability of quality local products but I am in the impression that the availability of product is generally the outcome of a local food culture. There are exception to this of course since some regions have a long established food production tradition.

Here, in Ottawa, we have few immigrants compared to other North American cities, we have a very healthy middle class thanks to government jobs and very few urban neighborhoods. In Canada, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto are much more exciting and all receive a lot of immigrants, have great income differential (perhaps with the exception of Montreal) and a lot of urban neighborhoods.

Quebec City, where I grew up, is somewhat of an exception: it has tons of restaurants which is explained by the large amount of tourists going there and a lot of cool local producers which is mostly explained by history (the agricultural lots in many surrounding areas are small which forced many producers to specialize and acces niche markets over the last decades).

I might be totaly wrong here but this was my humble theory on North American culinary destination. :wink:

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I was recently in Ottawa, and had a great meal at Beckta, but to be honest, it was the culinary highlight, other than Signatures, which is the restaurant at the Le Cordon Bleu school there, which is where I was getting some corporate training. Both meals were far superior and much more contemporary than just about anything you would find in Orlando. Much more exciting though, was the open market and shops near the open market selling produce and goods locally grown and produced. There were cheese and charcuterie shops, and high quality vendors everywhere.

Here in Orlando, we have "farmer's" markets, but if you get there early enough, you will see the same produce trucks we have our Argentinian tomatoes delivered from at work dropping off their goods to several vendors. At the Winter Park Farmer's Market, there is one real farmer who sells his grown produce, which is usually only a few types of lettuces and some herbs, supplimented by some flowers. The only other thing that comes close is a couple that have a stand selling their hydroponic produce (which could be produced in Antarctica if you had enough space heaters). The appreciation of ingredients is not there, and I don't think that it will improve until the public demands new and better (read: not iceburg or mesclin mix and not from Chile) ingredients. Fact: Organic is not always better, but local almost always is. Fact: repackage anything into blueish strawberry quart boxes, and people will think that it is locally grown. Fact: That is a problem.

I don't think that the public is even aware of this, and to some extent, I think that this falls on the shoulders of our local food writer, Scott Joseph. He and the one other lady who write in the weekly food column (Anything and everything to do with Food is handled by Mr. Joseph), recently had such a hard time coming up with stuff to fill both (yes, 2) pages of what we weakly call the food section, that there were articles lifted from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. The articles that they DID write, reviewed a 24 hour Mexican restaurant ("Great! Portions are big enough to eat for days!"), and I believe a review of how to reheat food effectively (these may not be the actual article subjects, it has been a while since I have picked up the Sentinel food section, but you get the point).

So, to clarify, #1) what effect does the local food media have on the level of cuisine? When we had a local food magazine into the school to do an article on us, I almost refused to let them shoot my food because of how bad of a job they do on a regular basis. My boss forced me to make food for the shoot, and of course, they somehow made a homemade warm lemon tart with toasted homemade marshmallows look like it came from Little Debbie, even though it was plated beautifully.

#2) What role does proximity to a prestigious culinary school play? Ottawa has LCB. LCB here in Orlando (where I work), churns out 200 grads every three months, but Disney, I am sure, trains so many more, and has a grip on the local food attitude in general I believe. But Providence, such great restaurants (Johnson and Wales), Charleston (now closed JWU), Chicago (too many to list), New York (FCI, CIA upstate), due to the high amount of cheap labor (a dime a dozen as they say), does that allow chefs to be creative, and maybe have their food cost a little higher due to a little lower labor cost? Does it inoculate the local food scene with educated and passionate foodies?

Tonyy13

Owner, Big Wheel Provisions

tony_adams@mac.com

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I am sorry to read that Orlando is that bad. I do think that good food writters have a positive influence in places where there is already a healthy dose of competitivity among restaurants (although in small places where you can only find one or two writters I guess they can also impose their taste).

I don't think however that they contribute greatly to the development of a great food culture. I might be wrong again since it seems that there is a growing media driven interest in food these days.

As for culinary schools I am a bit skeptical about their true role in forming restaurateurs and cooks. I always thought that this business was carried forward through traditional apprentiship where young cooks learn from established chefs by working with them.

I have a question for you... how is Orlando physically built? Mostly suburbs or does it has a few of what I called urban neighborhoods in my previous message? What is the socio-economic make up of Orlando?

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Orlando is quite spread out. I can drive for 40 minutes on a set of interstates, and still be within Orlando mailing addresses. A bunch of it is urban though, however, our downtown is dispicable. It is all clubs and bars for the kiddies on Friday and Saturday nights. We have some plusses: one of the largest population of Vietnamese in America and local honey is widely available. Socio economic makeup of Orlando? You can't use big words like that with a slow chef like myself :)

LOTS of disposable income. Lets just say that.

Tonyy13

Owner, Big Wheel Provisions

tony_adams@mac.com

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This strikes home with me: a Tale of Two Cities whose names begin with O.

I'm in Ottawa right now, and it's mayor is decrying its lack of "Swagger." I'm noticing its lack of restaurants. There are pseudo pubs galore, shcwarma joints are a dime a dozen, and there are a couple of places, like The Urban Pear, who Try. But it's the same old story: when my foodie cousin came to visit my mother in Hospice and wanted to take me out for a nice lunch we headed across the river to Quebec.

In Orlando The Mouse dumbs things down now and forever. In Ottawa the Civil Service mentality and the PC lifestyle may be to blame. But: I am not dissing Ottawa as a great place to cook. There are fabulous butchers, cheese and charcuterie stores, and Byward Market, where I scored local fiddleheads and ramps last week.

It occurs to me that what the two Os have in common is kid friendliness. In Orlando it's all about tired overstimulated kids and chain restaurants. In Ottawa it's about Montessori schools every other corner, earnest home cook Moms and Dads and Stanley Cup playoffs. (Go Sens!)

Las Vegas is deliberately setting out to be a food Mecca and (try as it may) it's not a Kiddie Town. If you've got the bucks, the bling and no one who needs a high chair there are outposts of Haute Cuisine. I know these are blanket statements as big as Utah, but it's the best theory I can offer right now to link the dismal restaurant cultures of the two Os.

Margaret McArthur

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