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Orlando is becoming a major dining destination

The Orlando area is the number one travel destination in the world. As such, it is starting to attract a wider variety of food options, from the incredibly themed Rainforest Cafe to the high end dining experience of Victoria & Albert's, with anything and everything in between, the city recently played host to the James Beard Foundation.

Foodies gather to sample the nominees dishes.
Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images

"Orlando has emerged as a distinct dining destination with a passionate community of chefs leading a flourishing farm-to-table movement, creating a growing independent restaurant scene and sourcing local and organic ingredients that showcase the benefits of Florida's four growing seasons and proximity to Florida's abundant fresh fish and seafood sources," said Visit Orlando President & CEO George Aguel. "Award-winning restaurants and James Beard nominated chefs across our destination are attracting foodies in increasing numbers."

Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields and further the Foundation's mission to celebrate, nurture, and honor America's diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. Each award category has an individual committee made up of industry professionals who volunteer their time to oversee the policies, procedures, and selection of judges for their respective Awards program. All JBF Award winners receive a certificate and a medallion engraved with the James Beard Foundation Awards insignia. There are no cash prizes.

The nominees are for the Awards are:

  • Hari Pulapaka, Cress Restaurant
  • Henry Salgado, Txokos Basque Kitchen and Spanish River Grill
  • James and Julie Petrakis, The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder

"I'm so impressed with the growth of Orlando's dining scene," said president of the James Beard Foundation Susan Ungaro during the Feb. 19 press conference. "I expect Orlando, which has been a prime tourist destination for so many years, can now add culinary destination to its long list of reasons to visit."

Chef Hari Pulapaka and wife Jenneffer are modern day Superheroes. By day, Hari is a mathematics professor at Stetson University. By night, he turns out award-winning fare at Cress Restaurant. Hari first came to the U.S. from Mumbai to earn his graduate degree in mathematics and later got his culinary degree. Restaurant co-owner Jenneffer Pulapaka is a podiatric surgeon and restaurant manager.

Chef Henry cooks up creative specialties using a blend of regional ingredients strongly influenced by the bustling barrios of Latino neighborhoods and the traditional Spanish countryside. In addition to Spanish River Grill, Chef Salgado's new restaurant Txokos Basque Kitchen will open in March 2014 at East End Market. While Spanish River Grill features Latin-influenced recipes, Txokos will be an entirely different concept focusing on food and wine specific to the Basque region of Spain.

Graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, Julie and James Petrakis opened their American gastropub The Ravenous Pig in 2007 and have been receiving accolades ever since. The Pig has been so successful that the couple opened a sister restaurant, Cask & Larder in September of 2012. The restaurant is a micro pub with Southern artisanal food and hand-crafted beer.

This is the fourth year that James and Julie Petrakis have been named a semifinalist, the third year for Hari Pulapaka and the second year for Henry Salgado.

As an emerging dining destination and recent host for the James Beard Foundation Semifinalist announcement, Orlando hosts several food and wine festivals throughout the fall.

Visit Orlando's Magical Dining Month is a culinary celebration offering the ultimate jaw-dropping combo - impressive cuisine and big savings. During the entire month of September, top Orlando-area restaurants offer three-course, prix-fixe dinners for $33. This year, Visit Orlando has added a Magical Dining preview week Aug. 25-31 for eager eaters looking to get a jump start on the month-long celebration.

Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World Resort features global cuisine from nearly 30 international marketplaces throughout the park, culinary demonstrations and a concert series Sept. 19 - Nov. 10.

Visitors can indulge in tantalizing tastings and wine pairings at the Fifth Annual Food & Wine Classic held Oct. 31 - Nov. 1 at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort and Food and Wine Weekends at Waldorf Astoria Orlando, held late September through early November.

So, the next time your friends scoff at you for planning yet another Central Florida vacation, just tell them you're going for the food!

If you have a favorite local restaurant you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about elections, HOAs, motorsports, and local getaways.

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