ORLANDO — Mention this city's name, and a few brand names immediately come to mind.
Mickey Mouse. Shamu. Shrek.
Tourism officials paid to flavor Orlando's image want to add another name to the list: James Beard, the godfather of modern American cuisine.
This morning, James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro is scheduled to announce the national semifinalists for her organization’s prestigious annual food awards. Restaurateurs, chefs, sommeliers and brewers from across the country will watch the ceremony unfold online from the trendy East End Market in northeast Orlando.
This will be the first time the foundation has announced semifinalists away from its New York City home. Last year, Beard finalists were named in Charleston, S.C., during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.
Today's announcement is part of a two-day extravaganza orchestrated by Visit Orlando and local chefs to transform the image of the food scene into one of innovation and farm-to-table excellence instead of the chain-restaurant and resort buffet bonanza most of the city's 57 million annual visitors find.
“A lot of suspicious people out there think we don't eat anything but turkey legs,” said Scott Joseph, a restaurant critic in Orlando for 26 years.
“With Orlando being the Rodney Dangerfield of the culinary world, I'm hoping we're finally getting respect,” Joseph said. “This is huge.”
Orlando's push to re-brand restaurants and chefs in the city and suburbs began early in 2013, after Zagat published the first standalone survey of the area's restaurants. Previously, the restaurant ratings publisher included about 40 of the city's spots in its listing of America's top restaurants, as well as in books that combined Tampa and Orlando.
Later in 2013, six Orlando-area chefs — the most ever — were named James Beard semifinalists in the South category. They were Kathleen Blake of The Rusty Spoon of Orlando; Scott Hunnell of Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort; Brandon McGlamery of Luma on Park in Winter Park; James and Julie Petrakis of The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park; and Hari Pulapaka of Cress in DeLand.
Also on that list were Tampa chefs Chad Johnson of SideBern's and Greg Baker of The Refinery.
The list of 20 semifinalists eventually was narrowed to four New Orleans chefs and one from Miami. Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace in New Orleans won the 2013 title of Best Chef: South. No Orlando- or a Tampa-area chef has ever won a Best Chef title.
Visit Orlando executives and local chefs met in mid-2013 to plot a strategy for bringing Beard and its culinary spotlight to Orlando. That strategy included the chefs harnessing their collective power on Jan. 20 to host a Central Florida Food Policy Salon in partnership with the Beard Foundation at Lake Meadow Naturals farm in Ocoee. The workshop included chefs, journalists and food activists addressing obstacles that keep restaurants from having closer ties to nearby farmers.
To brand the area's food, the group coined the hashtag #SunshinePlate and voted to write a chefs' manifesto outlining its goals.
“Manifesto is a great word, a powerful word,” said Pam Brandon, a workshop participant and managing editor of Edible Orlando magazine.
Joseph said Orlando has long had a culinary community that collaborates well and pulls off big events. Several have cooked at the James Beard House in New York City. Chefs from Disney restaurants also have featured their food in recent years.
“These chefs know that if someone down the street is getting recognition, eventually it will come to them as well,” Joseph said.
Mark Jaronski, Visit Orlando's global communications vice president, says his organization wants to push an Orlando chef to the top of the Beard awards.
Luring the foundation to Orlando included agreeing to raise $50,000 for Beard's scholarship program. Proceeds from a $200-per-person dinner Tuesday night, where previous Orlando semifinalists cooked at a multi-course meal and VIP after-party, raised money for that cause.
Jaronski said Visit Orlando would cover whatever amount was not generated by the dinner.
“We were trying to make a big, bold move,” he said. “Just hosting will allow us for the remainder of this year to describe the destination as host of the James Beard awards announcement for 2014.”
Beyond the prestige factor associated with a Beard win, there is an economic factor at stake. Orlando competes with Chicago and Las Vegas for convention business. Beard awards would go a long way in luring big groups to the city, Jaronski said.
“There is a significant upside to the leisure business, but we know that meetings and conventions want to know what the dining scene is like when choosing a city,” Jaronski said. “More so than with leisure travel, the dining experiences you offer are very important to convention travelers. Dining is huge.”
Brandon said the series of events are giving the Orlando food scene a more powerful identity after years of grass-roots organizing.
“It's brought our culinary community together, not just chefs, but farmers and artisans,” she said. “Everyone is feeling this new energy.”