//BY LINDA SHRIEVES BEATY
A trio of Valencia grads are spicing
up Orlando’s dining scene
Once known as the chain restaurant capital of the United States, Orlando’s profile is rising among serious foodies. Part of that attention comes from the growing number of Central Florida chefs nominated for James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the culinary world. And part of the hoopla stems from the growing number of celebrity chefs—from Emeril Lagasse to former Oprah chef Art Smith to Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto—who have set up outposts in Orlando.
But save some of the attention for Valencia College’s culinary team, which has quietly been producing its own home-grown superstars.
Among the students who learned their craft at Valencia are Chef Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites, Chef Camilo Velasco of Norman Van Aken’s 1921 restaurant in Mount Dora, and Chef Bruno Zacchini of the hot and trendy Pizza Bruno.
Meet these up-and-coming chefs here and brace yourself for more because Valencia’s culinary program will expand when Valencia’s Walt Disney World School of Culinary and Hospitality Arts moves to the new UCF-Valencia Downtown Campus in 2019.
Se7en Bites owner Trina Gregory-Propst may be the toast of the town today, but seven years ago she was a beginning culinary student trying to jump-start a new career.
Once a nail technician, she was ready for a career move. So she thought about two fields: nursing and culinary.
“The practical person inside me said, ‘People will always get sick and they will always eat. What would you rather do?’ Well, I don’t want to wipe people’s butts, but I could feed people,” she says. And, with a list of well-heeled clientele from the spa industry, she figured she could become a personal chef or cater holiday parties.
So Trina checked out culinary schools in Central Florida thoroughly; interviewing students and faculty. Determined to succeed, she immediately jumped into every class and every opportunity at Valencia.
“I knew I needed to immerse myself in it, so I joined the Culinary Arts Student Association on my first day, and became the secretary!” She later became the treasurer and then president of the organization. In classes, she asked professors to taste her food and give her recommendations. She picked their brains for tips and advice. She even joined the culinary competition team.
“I went to every class I could, volunteered for every single thing I could,” she adds. “I think that’s what kids miss today. They don’t immerse themselves in the experience of school. Gregory-Propst also felt she was racing the clock. “I was 40 and I would graduate at 44—so I needed to cram as much experience as I could.”
At one point, she took a part-time job as Chef Pierre Pilloud’s kitchen assistant—and discovered he was a great storyteller and an incredible taskmaster. But she learned volumes, including how to inventory and clean the stockrooms, rotating items in the walk-in fridge so that the oldest items are used first, and what to order and why. In the summer, she had the unenviable task of taking every oven apart, replacing the worn parts and rebuilding them.
Over the course of three years, Gregory-Propst earned three degrees and had an incredible 3.95 GPA. After nearly completing her culinary degree, she took a mandatory baking and pastry class— and fell madly in love with baking.
“I realized that was what I loved doing with my grandmother. It was the pies and cakes and cookies that I enjoyed the most,” she says. So she signed on for another seven classes.
As she wrapped up her baking and pastry classes, she discovered that she was only five classes shy of a degree in restaurant management, so she hit the books again.
“Those classes taught me about contracts, how to read a lease, how to know what kind of insurance coverage I’d need,” she says. “I don’t think people realize the kind of knowledge and instructors that Valencia offers. But I’ll tell you this: I fully attribute my success to the education I received at Valencia.”
At that point, she’d already begun thinking about opening a bakery and café—thanks to a remark that Chef Pierre made one day in class. “He said one of the best jobs he ever had was working in a breakfast and lunch place because he was out by 2 p.m.,” recalls Gregory-Propst.
“And I thought, ‘I have a little boy and that’s great advice.’ Bakeries keep day hours. They open early in the morning and close early. You can serve breakfast and lunch—and you don’t have the same kind of food costs that an evening restaurant has.”
Her plans in place, Gregory-Propst hit the restaurant scene at full sprint. She graduated from Valencia on May 2, 2013 and signed the lease on her first building, the first home to Se7en Bites, the next day.
And she has never looked back with regret. Not once did she wish she’d taken off for another city in one of the culinary capitals of the world.
“I never considered going anywhere else,” says Gregory-Propst. “I have lived here since I was seven. I am an O-town girl. I love this city and the customer loyalty in this city. They have embraced me as Orlando’s girl and I could not ask for a better place to grow my brand. The warmth and the love has been really amazing. What I make is Southern food with a nostalgic twist—and they get it.”
See what’s baking at se7enbites.com
When Camilo Velasco was 14, his world turned upside down. Violence in his native Colombia escalated and his family, desperate to escape, moved to Miami—and then Kissimmee.
In Florida, the teenage Camilo discovered an international culture—with neighbors and friends from all over Latin America, Europe and Asia. “I had grown up in a small town in Colombia. When I came here, I met people from everywhere,” he says. “I thought that was so exciting.”
Working at Publix in high school, he earned spending money and begged his mom to drive him around Kissimmee, so he could sample foods from bodegas and take-out joints. “That’s where my interest started in food—as a diner,” he says.
The real turning point came, however, when he returned to Colombia at age 18 to visit childhood friends. There, they gathered in restaurants and reconnected over food and wine. And that magical feeling of communing together sealed Camilo’s passion for food. “I love the way I feel around food,” he says with a smile.
When he came home to Kissimmee, he enrolled in culinary classes at Valencia College. He’d already been reading books about chefs, and at Valencia, he found a mentor in Chef Ken Bourgoin.
“Chef Ken’s passion is very contagious,” says Camilo. “He gets the students really pumped.”
Excited to try something different, Camilo made eggs and Hollandaise sauce for one of his first assignments—and garnished the dish with little pearls he’d carved from strawberries. “It didn’t really work, but I think Chef Ken saw that I was captivated by cooking and wanted to experiment,” he says.
So Bourgoin helped the young culinary student land a job at one of Orlando’s most exclusive restaurants—the five-diamond Victoria & Albert’s.
The job wasn’t glamorous: Camilo started out peeling carrots and tomatoes, chopping garlic and shallots. Each time he mastered one skill, he was given another challenge—carving quenelles from gelato, carving cheese and handling caviar. After a while, he was handed another duty: Peeling flats and flats of eggs so that the chef could create a custard inside the egg shell. Many broken eggs later, he learned the technique.
“It was all just super exciting for me,” recalls Camilo, who was taking culinary classes by day and working at the restaurant at night. “I got yelled at every day for the first three months, but you realize that the way you continue to be a five-diamond restaurant is to understand the urgency and the fact that there’s a certain standard that has to be maintained.”
For a year, Velasco worked at Victoria & Albert’s—and spent his money eating out at Orlando’s other fine restaurants, including Luma, Ravenous Pig and Norman’s, the restaurant that famed Miami chef Norman Van Aken opened in the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes.
Velasco was intrigued by Norman’s and, when a sous chef position opened up, he applied.
“I was just learning how to cook and I was given this crazy opportunity—but he really believed in me,” he says. For five months, he served as the sous chef at Norman’s. Soon, Van Aken asked Velasco to join him at Tuyo, a restaurant that he created at Miami Dade College’s culinary institute. The experience was invaluable, says Velasco. “I got to work with him every day.”
But after a year away from his family, Velasco was ready to return to Central Florida. So in 2013, he took a job with Barnie’s Coffee Kitchen in Winter Park and there he helped create a café that served more than just bagels and coffee. “We were making oxtail terrines in a coffee shop. Rabbit roulades with madeira,” he says. “You’d never expect that kind of food from a Starbucks.”
But in 2015, Norman Van Aken called again with plans to open a Mount Dora restaurant that would celebrate Florida cuisine. Today, Velasco is executive chef at 1921 in Mount Dora. He is also grateful to Chef Ken, who opened doors for a kid who shared his passion for cooking.
“He,” says Velasco, “started it all for me.”
Fresh from Florida takes on new meaning at 1921nva.com/
As a kid, Bruno Zacchini grew up in Sarasota, eating Italian food (not the kind served at Olive Garden) and feasting on life as a descendant of the Flying Zacchinis, a family of human cannonballs who performed for circuses around the world.
By the time he was 10, his parents began sending him to the New Jersey shore for the summers, where he whiled away the time with his cousins. At 13, he went to work at one of his cousin’s husband’s restaurant, where the menu included cheesesteak subs, fries, and pizza by the slice.
“My first job was selling pizza slices on the counter,” says Bruno. “There was not much cooking, but I really liked it. I had a blast. I think I worked a 70-hr week during Fourth of July that summer. And they were family: They had no shame in putting me to work.”
Thus began Bruno Zacchini’s introduction to the world of restaurants: an annual stint on the Jersey Shore, where he learned how to operate a French fry machine, shuck oysters and handle throngs of people with aplomb.
After high school, Bruno spent a year at a small college in West Virginia, playing Division II football, before transferring to Santa Fe College in Gainesville. He was still searching for a foothold when several New Jersey friends said they were planning to go to Full Sail University in Orlando—and mentioned that Valencia offered a culinary program.
So Bruno packed his bags.
“It was totally different for me,” he recalls. “I’d worked in this mom and pop restaurant. I knew how to handle customers, I knew how to handle volume; that was no sweat. But the Valencia thing was cool because it showed me all these different aspects, chef stuff… for instance, I didn’t hold a knife correctly.”
Still, Bruno brought with him a collection of food memories that would serve him well—and serve as inspiration for his future.
“I happened to grow up in a very food-centric family. My grandparents were born in Italy and came over here with the circus in the ‘30s. What I knew as Italian food had nothing to do with that chicken parm, Americanized thing,” he says. “Fresh pasta was really normal. For me, growing up eating octopus and cow’s tongue and tripe was just normal stuff… I have all these flavor memories, all this food my grandparents would cook for me. These things are now so on-trend and, for me, that’s hilarious. For me, that was Tuesday-night food.”
At Valencia, he learned the techniques and the basic fundamentals of cooking. “And once you understand those basic techniques, cooking’s a breeze,” he says.
After he left Valencia, Zacchini started a food cart—a souped-up hot-dog cart where he cooked street food.
“We had a standard list of menu items—like cheesesteaks—and specials, which were essentially just what I felt like cooking.”
Before long, with a family on the way, he began searching for a more permanent home—so he worked stints at Cask & Larder and Oblivion Tap Room. When a friend offered the chance to create a restaurant from scratch in New Smyrna Beach, he leaped at the opportunity and created the very successful Third Wave Café.
But the daily commute from Orlando to New Smyrna was grueling, so Zacchini began looking for a spot to call his own. He finally found one (ironically, on Craigslist), but the property owners seemed suspicious of the tattooed guy who claimed he wanted to open an amazing pizzeria in their space.
One night, while working in the kitchen at Third Wave Café, someone came back to the kitchen and said, “Your new landlords are here.”
“I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t signed a lease with anyone. But it turns out they wanted to see what I meant, what I was talking about. So they came out and they sat down and had dinner. And after dinner, they told me, come sign the lease whenever you want.’
Now one year after opening, Pizza Bruno is making a name for Bruno Zacchini—and Orlando foodies are taking notice.
“We build new regulars every day,” he says. “People come in for the first time and they’re just blown away,” he says. “Yeah, we’re a neighborhood pizzeria, but I always want to take something that’s really good and improve and take it to the next level. And word is getting out.”
As for Bruno, “I just want to make some great pizzas, play some music and have people have fun.”
It’s all about the pies at pizzabrunofl.com
Just as Valencia’s culinary grads are attracting attention, the new downtown campus will shine a spotlight on the college’s culinary program.
We’re moving on up—to bigger quarters and newer facilities—and that’s cause for celebration.
Valencia College’s culinary and hospitality program will expand and move into spacious, new kitchens in 2019 when the program relocates from Valencia’s West Campus to UCF Downtown and Valencia College Downtown.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” says Valencia College President Sandy Shugart. “The quality of our culinary program is already outstanding, largely because of the chefs and professors on our staff and largely because we draw on the best hospitality community in the world. But we now have an opportunity to build a facility that’s world-class and put a program that’s almost world class and put it in there and watch it grow.”
When Valencia’s Walt Disney World School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts moves into this new 15-story building, it will house a ground-floor restaurant, plus several floors devoted to culinary teaching kitchens and classrooms. Features will include state-of-the-art equipment, the chance for students and instructors to produce videos, and a pastry lab with a “chocolate room,” complete with an area to air-brush chocolate. Valencia is also considering adding a four-week certificate program in bread baking.
Enrollment in Valencia’s culinary program has grown more than 16 percent over the past five years and demand for the college’s graduates also continues to grow. “Right now, classes fill up very fast and students get frustrated,” says Chef Ken Bourgoin, program chair. “The new facility will make it easier for us to meet demand for these classes.”
But best of all, the new facility will put a spotlight on Valencia’s culinary program. “Orlando, from a culinary standpoint, is becoming so much more than just Disney,” says Trina Gregory-Propst, owner/chef at Se7en Bites. “I think that by bringing the culinary program downtown and increasing the visibility, we have this world stage to put Valencia in the forefront. Not only do we have James Beard-nominated chefs in Orlando, but students can start at an array of amazing restaurants opened up here by chefs from around the world—and start there and go to work for them in another city. The world is just opening up for them.”